My Ancestor Fell Off the Mayflower

Note: A friend (who happens to be a historian) sent this to me this week. I thought it was a great pre-Thanksgiving post, and Come Follow Me-timely. He would rather I leave his name off, which is fine. I get the anonymity thing.

Isn’t it kind of funny, how in hindsight we can see the blessings of the Lord as they present themselves in history, but we often do not see them as they are happening; even though the Lord tells us that they are going to? 

A little over 400 years ago, about 300 men, women and children left England and settled in Leiden, Holland.   There they found relief from the religious persecution that they had endured from their fellow Englishmen.  In Leiden, they were respected for their hard work and industry.  They prospered. They were sought out for their honesty.  Some, such as William Bradford, became relatively wealthy, while others endured the same financial hardships they had been born into.  As a congregation, they helped take care of each other. One of their number, Edward Winslow, described their community as “Never people upon earth lived more lovingly together.”1  There is no way that he could have been aware of the city of Enoch, where “…the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.” (Moses 7:18)

These people were hardly the outcaste, poverty stricken, refugees that we often imagine.  Leiden offered prosperity, but they recognized that there was a down side.  As commercial enterprises grew and the city flourished, people tended to ignore the Sabbath, which was unacceptable in their eyes. As in nearly all urban areas, as prosperity grows, so does the moral decay.  They feared that the examples of the people around them could lead their children astray.  They sought out other places to live.  There were other places in Holland that actively offered them a place to establish themselves.  And yet, this group of people, that we call “the Pilgrims,” chose to leave this prosperous life, and move to a land where their lives were in danger, the land was untamed, the luxuries of life were unavailable, and they probably would never see their extended family again.  It does not make any fiscal or logical sense to leave.  So leave logic out of it.

Consider the eternal implications of God inspiring a covenant minded people to leave the land of their fathers and going to a new world where they could worship Him.  Consider God’s eternal plan of restoring the Gospel to the earth and needing a freedom loving people who could open the door to the Restoration.

All of 1st Nephi describes the decision and travails of Father Lehi and his family when they  abandoned their wealth and prosperity in order to save themselves from the impending, and as yet unknown, captivity and poverty that was about to descend on Jerusalem.  Even two of his sons had a hard time believing that it was even possible that Jerusalem could fall. It made no logical nor economic sense to leave. Nevertheless, Lehi took his family and that of Ishmael, and they left Jerusalem, never to return “…led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which (they) should do.” 1 Nephi 4:6

As they traveled, Nephi received a vision of things to come.  He saw the Promised Land that they would one day inhabit.  He also saw others who would follow the same path and receive the same inspiration as his family.  

“And it came to pass that I beheld the Spirit of God, that it wrought upon other Gentiles; and they went forth out of captivity, upon the many waters…And I beheld the Spirit of the Lord, that it was upon the Gentiles, and they did prosper and obtain the land for their inheritance; …And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld that the Gentiles who had gone forth out of captivity did humble themselves before the Lord; and the power of the Lord was with them.” (1 Nephi 13:13-16)

When the decision to go to America was reached by the Puritans, less than two thirds of the 300 member congregation decided to make the trip. They contracted two ships, the Speedwell and the Mayflower, to carry them to America.  Immediately the Speedwell started having problems.  They spent two weeks, at great expense, in port at Dartmouth, repairing the ship before beginning the trans-Atlantic journey.   About 300 miles out, both ships turned around and returned to South Hampton for more repairs.  Here, it was decided that the Speedwell would be abandoned.   Those that could, would cram into the Mayflower, and another ship would be contracted to make the journey the following year.  In the end, only 102 of the Pilgrims would embark on the journey across the Atlantic.  

Among this group of Pilgrims was a man named John Howland. He was young, in his early 20s.  His uncle had been named caretaker of his father’s estate until he reached an appropriate age, and had found ways to prevent young John from receiving his inheritance. For whatever reason, he found himself drawn to the teachings of this group, known at the time as Puritans, and with nothing for him at home, he joined them. He bound himself to John Carver, who would be the governor of the new colony, as an indentured servant.  

During a storm, he was nearly lost as he was swept overboard. He was only saved by a rope that was trailing in the water.  This gave the crew the minutes needed to save his life. In an ironic twist, this incident could have made him the firstMayflower pilgrim to perish on their journey.  In fact, he would be that last signer of the Mayflower compact to pass through the veil in 1673.

Elizabeth Tilley was a 14 year old girl on the Mayflower.   That first year in the new world, 51 of the 102 pilgrims would parish from exposure and starvation, including her parents.  When she was orphaned, she became a ward of Governor John Carver, along with her 1 year old cousin, Humility Cooper.   He then delegated their care to his servant, John Howland.  When Governor Carver, his wife and child perished later in the spring of 1621, John became a freeman and continued to care for Elizabeth.  A couple years later, John and Elizabeth would marry and begin a family.   By 1627 they had at least two children.  They eventually had ten children, all of whom grew to adulthood, married and had children of their own.

Plymouth Plantation, MA

At the visitor’s center at Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts, there is a collection of books that list the known descendants of each of the Pilgrim families for 5-8 generations after 1620.  There are a couple volumes that are very thin.   The descendants of John and Elizabeth Howland, fill THREE thick volumes.  It is estimated that there are over 35 million Mayflower descendants in the world today.  Over 10 million of them still reside in the United States.  It is estimated that John and Elizabeth have over 2 million living descendants.

One of those descendants was a man by the name of Joseph Smith Jr.   He was their 5th great-grandson.

Why the long narrative of history?  First, because it is the time of the year when we think of the Pilgrims.  Later this month we will celebrate their bravery and sacrifices with a huge meal, where I know I will probably overeat. And second, to demonstrate that the Lord has a plan, and always makes sure that His plan will be successful.

In Doctrine and Covenants section 107:56 we read “And Adam stood up in the midst of the congregation; and, notwithstanding he was bowed down with age, being full of the Holy Ghost, predicted whatsoever should befall his posterity unto the latest generation.” 

In 2 Nephi chapters 1-4 we read Lehi’s prophecies of his posterity in the new land.   

Lehi also rehearses the prophecies of Joseph in Egypt, most particularly in 2 Nephi 3: 7:  Yea, Joseph truly said: Thus saith the Lord unto me: A choice seer will I raise up out of the fruit of thy loins; and he shall be esteemed highly among the fruit of thy loins. And unto him will I give commandment that he shall do a work for the fruit of thy loins, his brethren, which shall be of great worth unto them, even to the bringing of them to the knowledge of the covenants which I have made with thy fathers.” (keep in mind, this is Joseph of Egypt, not Lehi, that is speaking)

Time and again, in the scriptures, the Lord tells us that He has a plan.  We are then told that the Lord choses people to accomplish certain tasks. And God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born.” (Abraham 3:23)

Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.“(Jeremiah 1:5)

For more than 1400 years, after the destruction of the Nephites in the early 5th century, the entire world lived in universal apostasy.  That is not to say that there were not righteous men and women.  That is not to say that there were not righteous men and women doing their best to do the right thing and preserve the gospel and its truths.  The Lord warned us that an apostasy would take place.   Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that the man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition;” (2 Thessalonians 2:3) A restoration would then follow in preparation for His second coming.

This left 1400 years of no prophetic guidance.  That is not to say that people did not receive inspiration.  (see 1 Ne 13)  There were those who accepted a calling to be born into a world without the whole Gospel of Jesus Christ.  They would be those who would lay a foundation for the Eternal Plan of Happiness to come to fruition.  They would face the fiery darts of the adversary without the benefit of the knowledge that we have today.  Trusting, in their pre-existent state, that the Lord would redeem them as well.

I am reminded of Wilford Woodruff’s experience in the St. George Temple, when the founders of our nation appeared to him and said “You have had the use of the Endowment House for a number of years, and yet nothing has ever been done for us. We laid the foundation of the government you now enjoy, and we never apostatized from it, but we remained true to it and were faithful to God.”2

We talk about Thanksgiving being a time to remember those who laid the foundation for what would eventually become our country.  They truly opened the door for the Restoration.  I like to think that like Adam and Eve, who were promised to be the parents of all humanity, initiating the Plan of Happiness, that John and Elizabeth Howland, somehow were made a promise that they would have a part in the Restoration of the gospel.   They never got to see that in their life time, in fact, in their mortal state, they had no idea that it was necessary. But what pleasure they can take from the other side of the veil as they watch their 2 million descendants first, restore the gospel of Jesus Christ on the earth, and then accept and spread it throughout the earth.

Later this month, we will commemorate these brave people who forsook the luxuries of the world in order to settle a new land, not knowing that they were setting the stage for the restoration of the gospel on the earth.  I think that it is appropriately ironic that this month we will study sections 125 and 137-138 of the Doctrine and Covenants and remember the promises that they provide as we turn our hearts to those who came before us.

 1Hutchinson, Ellen Mackay and Stedman, Edmund Clarence, A Library of American Literature from the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time Vol 1., Charles L Webster & Co, 1892, New York, New York, 130

2Wilford Woodruff, in a Conference Report, April 10, 1898; Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, pp. 160-61; Wilford Woodruff Journal, August 21, 1877.)

Thanks for sharing this! I appreciate it. I am always open to contributions to the blog – have at it!


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  1. It distresses me that few people today refer to “the Pilgrims” as Puritans. They were NOT Puritans. They were separatists. They desired to have a separation of church and state. That is one of the reasons they left England and went to Holland. Their leader had to be hidden away when he got on the Mayflower. My family IS a direct descendant of John Morton. Down the line of history, one of his descendants was in the Mormon Battalion. John Morton assisted Bradford writing the history of the Separatists, or Pilgrims. It was sometime later that the Puritans came on the scene, and they did not have the same religious beliefs as the Separatists–Remember Roger Williams being thrown out and settling Rhode Island. Be grateful, very grateful that the Lord inspired the Separatists. There were 4 ships that brought the Separatists, not just the Mayflower. BCN girl

  2. Good article. You use the terms Pilgrim and Puritan interchangeably. From what I understand, the two groups were not the same. Although they have common elements, they had different views on sin and agency.

    1. I did use both terms. The people referred to themselves as Puritans. It was William Bradford, when he wrote his history, “Of Plymouth Plantation”, who first called them “pilgrims” in about 1630.
      Thank you for pointing out a need for clarification.
      I used Puritans when describing the entire group as a sect as well as their religious philosophy. I used pilgrims to describe this particular group traveling to and in America. At least I tried to.

  3. Well I’m not descended from anyone on the Mayflower, in fact my ancestors didn’t come over until the last quarter of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th. But, having read their histories I’m eternally grateful for those obedient souls who braved the ocean and a raw, wild land. They are my heroes! Thanks for sharing your story.

  4. Thanks for sharing this cool history. Loved it! And the tie in to this week’s CFM lesson is sweet.

  5. Thanks, I like this a lot. I am also a descendant of John Howland. I noticed, as I found my English ancestors of the 1700s, that they were nearly all listed as Non-Conformists in the censuses. I told my family that showed that our ancestors were looking for the truth, and were no doubt waiting for us to get busy and provide their ordinances.
    I am not an historian, and am not going to look this up again, but I have read that there were many ships of Puritans that made the crossing. In my search for a particular John Robinson of New England, I read of a non-conformist minister named John Robinson who returned to England from Leiden, who could afford the passage, but stayed in England to help others make the trip. He never did make it across, but his son did. The John Robinson who stayed behind was highly educated and left many writings. Among them he expressed a belief in continuing revelation. It kind of gave me goosebumps!

  6. This was an especially sweet post to read, as I recently learned that I, also, am a descendant of John Howland. (There are a lot of us!) This new family history fact brought a lot of pleasure to my mother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s in her later years. She was a genealogy buff for many years, and this new revelation pierced her brain fog and made her smile each time we talked about it. I came up with a pedigree chart that showed all her ancestors that led to John Howland, and did some research for myself about him and Elizabeth and their extensive family and interesting lives. Thanks for posting, and for the beautiful thoughts linking this story with Book of Mormon stories.

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