A Tale of Two Men
Published on July 24, 2023
A Tale of Two Men pilgrim

On September 6, 1620, a small ship called The Mayflower departed Plymouth Harbor in England, headed for the new world.  The passengers of this humble vessel were the Pilgrims that would later form the colony at Plymouth, Massachusetts, and become seeds bearing Christian fruit in the new land that would become some of the greatest attributes of our American nation.

A Tale of Two Men

William Bradford’s, Of Plymouth Plantation tells us stories of things that happened on board that ship.  In Book I, Chapter IX, we read about two different young men on board.  One of them was a “Strong young man”, a Pilgrim named John Howland, and another was a member of the ship’s crew who is unnamed but who Bradford described as, “an insolent and very profane young man”.  As the crowded ship began to encounter “cross winds and many fierce storms by which the ship was much shaken”, the Pilgrims began to get seasick.  The two young subjects of today’s article were both on board the same ship – they both experienced the same rough seas, but they had two very different experiences.  To be accurate, I should point out these two stories did not play out at the same time.  The events with the crewman happened before the events with John Howland, but I am presenting them here together to show the contrast. 

The Crewman

Bradford tells us the young crewman was overbearing and harassed the sick passengers.  Undoubtedly, he had far more experience with sea travel than they did and he made sure to let them know it!  The crewman cursed them with “Grievous execrations”, and when one of the Pilgrims would offer a gentle reproof, the crewman would “curse and swear most bitterly.”  He even went so far as to tell the sick passengers that he “hoped to help throw half of them overboard” before the end of the journey. 

The Pilgrim

The ”Strong young man”, John Howland, was no sailor.  He was on board and also experienced the turbulent seas.  In a storm, after being stuck down in the hull of the ship for many days he made the decision to come up and out onto the deck.  Bradford doesn’t elaborate on Howland’s reasons for doing so, but can you imagine being tossed in the belly of this ship for weeks at a time in a crowded hull with a bunch of seasick fellow travelers?  I can only imagine how much he longed to get up on the deck and get some fresh air.  John Howland came out onto the deck and was quickly swept into the sea by the storm. 

They needed john!

Do you ever see a contrast like this in today’s life?  Does it ever appear that those who are most capable, strongest, and most likely to succeed are not the Godly ones but are instead those loud, mouthy, obnoxious ones who seem to hate God and everything good?  Here we see the vile crewman in such a position of strength and experience, while a strong and promising, young John Howland ends up swept into the ocean.  Understand, the Pilgrims were members of the same church family.  They had known each other for years and had learned the Scriptures together under their Pastor, John Robinson.  They were going to a place where, undoubtedly, every strong, young man would be invaluable for the support and survival of the colony, so the Pilgrims not only knew and loved John Howland, but they also needed him. 


Why does it sometimes feel like those who hate us are in positions of power, and our most promising young people are swept off to disaster?  I won’t speak for the Pilgrims, but if I was in this situation, I might find myself asking God why He allows this level of injustice.  In this case, however, God chose to complete both of these stories in ways we might not expect… 

The Fate of the Crewman

Bradford tells us God smote the crewman “with a grievous disease, of which he died in a desperate manner…”  The young crewman who had rudely jeered at the Pilgrims that he looked forward to throwing their dead bodies overboard, actually became the first to be thrown over.  Everyone on board, including the crew, saw this as the judgement of God upon the young crewman.  Bradford says, “Thus his curses fell upon his own head, which astonished all his mates for they saw it was the just hand of God upon him.”  In our society today, we might hesitate to assign the cause of a young man’s death to the “just hand of God”, but for the passengers and crew of the Mayflower, they appear to have no problem in doing so. 

The fate of Pilgrim John Howland

So, what happened to John Howland?  Last we left him, he had been swept into the ocean.  In their wonderful book, The American Story, The Beginnings, authors David and Tim Barton tell remarkable stories of American history, including this story of John Howland being swept into the ocean.  They give us more detail of his perilous situation, “Few in that day knew how to swim; and making it worse, most did not know that Howland had been washed off the ship.  Furthermore, fierce winds made it virtually impossible to stop the ship and turn back to rescue him- and even if they could have done so, it would have taken the better part of an hour.  Howland would undoubtedly have drowned by then.  His accident sentenced him to death.” 

a way of escape

Certainly, most anyone would consider his situation hopeless.  However, God provided a way of escape.  No kidding, there was a rope trailing in the water behind the Mayflower…  Young John Howland grabbed it and held on tight.  Bradford tells us he “kept his hold, though he was several fathoms under water”.  (According to Webster’s 1828 dictionary online, a “fathom” is a measurement of 6 feet).  Eventually, Howland was pulled back up onto the Mayflower and his life was saved.  Bradford tells us “he lived many years and became a profitable member both of the church and commonwealth.”

A Tale of Two Men

the Pilgrim Legacy

Having the benefit of over 400 years of hindsight, (and a copy of The American Story), The Bartons give us a glimpse of the impact Mr Howland’s descendants have had in our nation’s history.  John Howland married fellow Mayflower passenger Elizabeth Tilley and they had 10 children.  Those 10 children have produced millions which have since populated the generations of Americans, including three U.S Presidents: Franklin Roosevelt, George H.W. and George W. Bush, a First Lady of the United States: Edith Roosevelt (wife of Teddy Roosevelt), a signer of the Constitution of the United States: Nathaniel Gorham, two state governors: Jeb Bush and Sarah Palin, two famous poets: Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and even Hollywood movie stars Humphrey Bogart, Christopher Lloyd, Chevy Chase, and the Baldwin brothers.  Understand that in a very real sense, all of these contributors to our society were once hanging on for dear life to a rope dangling behind the Mayflower. 

What scripture has to say

In the first part of 2 Chronicles 16:9, we read,

“For the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to shew himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward him…” 

2 Chronicles 16:9

In our world today, it is so easy to become discouraged as it appears those who hate God, hate our country, and hate what we are working toward, are the ones in all the positions of power and influence.  Let us not forget that God knows how to reverse that! 

Proverbs 3:34 tells us, “Surely he scorneth the scorners: but he giveth grace unto the lowly.” 

Action steps

Let’s not forget that our job is to be faithful.  Our job is to make sure we are doing our duty that God would have us to do, and that we trust Him to bring the results.  According to 2 Chronicles 16:9, if we keep our heart perfect toward Him, then He will show Himself strong on our behalf!  Wow, what a great promise. 

So, let’s not lose sight of this.  Remember God is all powerful.  He will do as He wishes with our nation.  Our job is to be faithful to Him in the meantime, and be good stewards of the freedom and citizenship in this great nation He has given us.  Sometimes, we gotta hold onto that rope behind the Mayflower, gasping for breath with John Howland, and trust God’s Word that tells us He will work mightily on our behalf! 


  • Bradford, William, of Plymouth Plantation, Bradford’s History of the Plymouth Settlement 1608-1650,  The Vision Forum, Inc., 1998

To learn more about the Pilgrims, visit:


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  1. Catherine (Cathy) Spencer

    We have “bullies” in high places these days. Many are unnamed and that is not okay. However, I do believe as stated in the account “Tale of Two Men” truth will prevail. I believe truth is coming to light in America now and I hearing that through Newsmax. I didn’t know about the account written by William Bradford so I’m glad to have read it. There is so much about our history as a nation that I have not known, and I was an American History minor with my first degree. I learned a number of years ago that when a student asked me a question, I had every right to present the facts, then leave it up to them to research and discover truth for themselves. Thanks for taking time to share this account.

    • Jason Southerland

      I, too, believe this nation is turning around as God’s people wake up, repent for the wickedness in our land, and then get involved to get us back on the path where God would have us to be. I pray He will give us victory, but that He won’t give it so quickly and easily that we miss the value of it. Yes, I love Bradford’s account of the Plymouth colony – it is good stuff and I recommend it. However, I highly, highly, highly recommend the Barton’s book, The American story. It is full of stories that demonstrate God’s powerful hand in our nation throughout our history. Thank you for your comment!


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