Just weeks after the Pilgrims landed, their conditions were miserable. They were hungry and exhausted. Food and shelter were scarce. Winter arrived and frightened settlers were pressured to hurry and get settled so the Mayflower and it's impatient crew could leave. Then things became worse.
William Bradford, one of the leaders of this struggling Christian community, said they were "infected with the scurvy and other diseases, which this long voyage and their ill-suited condition had brought upon them, so as sometimes there died two or three a day." There were days only six or seven were strong enough to care for the sick and dying. Night and day they nursed the sick at the risk of their own lives.
Those healthy enough would fetch wood, make fires, prepare meals, make up beds, wash soiled clothing. All this they did, Bradford said, "willingly and cheerfully, without any grudging in the least, herein showing their true love unto their friends and brothers. A rare example and worthy to be remembered."
Calloused sailors considered abandoning the Pilgrims to their pitiful fate so they could sail home. But then the sailors themselves fell sick. Even Captain Christopher Jones became deathly ill, and before it was over, half their crew would die. The attitude among the sailors, however, was sadly different than the Pilgrims.
Sailors who were once drinking partners now deserted sick friends, letting one another die. These were the sailors who cursed the Pilgrims for their worship and faith. These were the sailors who wanted to leave the dying settlers behind in the dead of winter so they could soon return to England.
And how did the Pilgrims respond to the desperate illness striking the very sailors who hated them? They cared for the spiteful sailors with the same compassion they had for one another. As dying sailors cursed each other they saw in their religious passengers a different spirit. One particularly vulgar sailor who was especially cruel to the Pilgrims became one of the sick. His shame broke his heart. Feeling unworthy of their care, he confessed, "I now see that you show your love like Christians indeed to one another, while we let one another lie and die like dogs."
It's one thing to love those who love you, but it's quite another to care for those who curse you. The Pilgrims responded according to a conscience dictated by these ancient words:
"Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you" (Luke 6:27-28).
Read more of the Pilgrims' first winter in my book, A PLYMOUTH PILGRIM.