CHRISTIAN FAITHFULNESS IN THE POLITICAL ARENA

The religious groups that peopled this country in the 17th and eighteenth centuries generally had well developed theologies of political engagement.  But few evangelicals in America today have such historical resources to draw from.  The Christian traditions that have given evangelicalism its vitality in recent generations have been individualistic, pietistic, and theologically unreflective in their approach to politics.

This is why in a post from last summer I implored evangelical leaders to explain the scriptural precepts and theological principles that guided their course during the recent presidential campaign.  The Scripture calls us to “take every thought captive to obedience to Christ.”  When it comes to politics, we need to know how to think more than what to think.  What Scriptural principles should be shaping our thinking as we strive to live faithfully in the political arena?

bacote-political-discipleJust this morning I finished a wonderful introduction to this crucial question: The Political Disciple: A Theology of Public Life, by Vincent E. Bacote.  Vince Bacote is my colleague–an associate professor of theology and director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics here at Wheaton College.  He has written an invaluable little book for lay Christians who want to think and act faithfully with regard to politics.

Bacote writes clearly, simply, and conversationally about a series of related questions:

  • Should Christians even participate in the public sphere?
  • How might Christian beliefs influence our engagement in the public realm?
  • How should Christians understand their identity?
  • What kind of people should Christians be in public?
  • How might Christians retain hope, given the frustrations of public engagement?

Bacote’s reasoning throughout is judicious, scripturally based, and scrupulously non-partisan.  I highly recommend it.

 

TOCQUEVILLE ON FREEDOM OF THE PRESS

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

I’ve noted previously that I spent much of the past summer with Alexis de Tocqueville.  Tocqueville wrote about so many facets of American politics and culture that hardly a week has gone by this autumn without something in the news bring one or more passages to mind.

This was the case last week when reports began to come in of an off-the-record summit meeting at Trump Tower in New York between the president-elect and a host of media executives and news anchors.  Reports of the gathering diverge widely.  Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway described the meeting as “very cordial, very productive, very congenial,” but an unnamed source likened it to a “firing squad” in which Mr. Trump attacked his guests mercilessly, and Breitbart News exulted “Trump Eats Press.”

However things went down, there is no doubt that Mr. Trump’s relationship with the press has been more openly hostile than for any major presidential candidate in U. S. history.  He will assume the presidency having pledged to change federal libel laws (something he evidently believes the president can do unilaterally) so that when the “dishonest media” write “negative and horrible and false articles . . .  we can sue them and win lots of money.”

All of which brought to mind Tocqueville’s reflections on the value of a free press in his classic Democracy in America.  The Frenchman was no great fan of American journalists.  “In America,” Tocqueville wrote in 1835,

The spirit of the journalist is to appeal crudely, directly, and artlessly to the passions of the people he is addressing, forsaking principles in order to portray individuals, pursue them into their private lives, and lay bare their weaknesses and vices.  Such abuse of thought can only be deplored.

Sounds a lot like Breitbart News.

And yet, if Tocqueville could not bring himself to admire journalists, he valued journalism, believing that a free press was absolutely integral to the preservation of liberty.  In vol I, part II, chapter III of Democracy in America, Tocqueville argued that it was impossible to curb the excesses of the media without creating a threat to freedom.  “When it comes to the press,” he concluded, “there really is no middle ground between servitude [a press that is wholly subservient to the state] and license [a press that is wholly unrestricted].  In order to reap the priceless goods that derive from the freedom of the press,” he went on, “one must learn to accept the inevitable evils that it breeds.”

Acknowledging that the “destructive tastes” that journalists often indulged and promoted, Tocqueville’s final defense of a free press as unqualified:

The more I consider the chief effects of the independence of the press, the more convinced I am that, among the moderns, independence of the press is the most important, indeed the essential, ingredient of liberty.  A people that wants to remain free therefore has the right to insist that the independence of the press is the most important, indeed the essential, ingredient of liberty.

 

 

REMEMBERING THE GETTYSBURG ADDRESS

A week ago this morning I was seated on a folding chair on the grounds of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery adjacent to Gettysburg National Military Park.  I had come to Gettysburg thanks to an invitation from Gettysburg Presbyterian Church to deliver their annual “Gettysburg Addresses Lincoln” lecture, but I had most of the day to kill before my 4:00 p.m. talk, and I took advantage of the free time to join the audience of two thousand or so who attended a commemorative program observing the 153rd anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  It was an absolutely glorious morning—the sky was a bright clear blue, the thermometer registered sixty degrees, and a smattering of autumn color still decorated the cemetery.  I soaked up the sun and took notes on how Americans remember their past and draw hope for the future.  For a U. S. historian interested in popular memory, this was better than a day at the beach.

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Soldiers’ National Cemetery, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, November 19, 2016

Gettysburg has been commemorating the anniversary of Lincoln’s most famous speech since 1938.  It would be interesting to research how the ritual has changed over time.  By definition, historical commemoration exists at the intersection of past and present.  We gather, in theory, to remember the past as it actually was, but because we look backward through contemporary lenses, what we see and how we respond to it says a lot about our own day. This was surely true of last Saturday’s ceremony, although the specific ways that it was true would be clearer if I could compare it with previous celebrations.

At any rate, I am doubtful that the crowd who gathered in 1938 was full of Civil-War reenactors—men and women, boys and girls decked out for the occasion in elaborate period costumes.  The whole town was crawling with them.  Gettysburg has become a mecca for reenactors, and thousands make the pilgrimage every November 19th.  They crowded the sidewalks, filled the restaurants, and added considerably to the waiting lines at the public restrooms.  As I found an empty folding chair near the back at the cemetery commemoration, I found myself next to a near eighty-year-old Union private.  He left halfway through the program and was replaced by two senior citizens in hoopskirts and bonnets.  (Note, one of the many ways in which Civil War reenactment is historically inaccurate is in the age distribution of participants.  One half of the American population was under twenty years old when the Civil War erupted, and half of Civil War soldiers were twenty-five or younger.  The audience in the cemetery was considerably more “experienced,” and the gathering had a bit of a 19th-century AARP feel to it.)

"Abraham Lincoln" working the crowd before the program began.

“Abraham Lincoln” working the crowd before the program began.

I also doubt that the 1938 celebration opened with a Buddhist prayer, as last Saturday’s did.  As our society becomes more and more religiously diverse, it becomes increasingly difficult to acknowledge our religious pluralism without trivializing our religious differences.  If you believe that all religious belief systems lead to God, then there is no problem.  But if you think that the substance of our faith convictions matters—as the adherents of most of the major world religions have always insisted—then it can be hard to make sense of a program framed by a Buddhist “invocation” and a Presbyterian benediction.  I’m not sure what I would have done had I been in the organizers’ shoes, but I think I would have recommending dropping the prayers altogether.  When the military cemetery was dedicated 153 years ago, the program opened with a prayer by the Reverend T. H. Stockton (four times longer than Lincoln’s remarks), but almost no one remembers that today.

Even in the absence of formal prayers, there would still have been a religious feel to the gathering.  One of the things that struck me most was the number of times that the various speakers on the platform used religious language in describing the final resting place of those who fell at Gettysburg.  “We are gathered together in a holy place,” observed the Buddhist sensei.  Welcome to “these hallowed grounds,” said the military park superintendent.  This is a “sacred place,” intoned the president of the Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania.  The language of civil religion—equal parts inspirational and blasphemous—was ubiquitous.

Then came the keynote speaker.  It is one of the hallmarks of contemporary America that we conflate celebrity with authority and expertise.  The featured speaker in 1863 had not been Abraham Lincoln but Harvard professor Edward Everett, one of the foremost scholars of his day.  The featured speaker 153 years later was actor Levar Burton, known for his roles in Roots, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and PBS’s Reading Rainbow.  In fairness to Burton, I thought his address was the highlight of the 90-minute program.  Burton began by warning the audience that his heart was heavy, and that he had come to Gettysburg “to share the discomfort of my soul.”  “The promise of America has yet to be delivered to too many” Americans, he lamented.  “We are indeed a house divided,” confronting a “crisis with the power to rend us asunder.”  The actor then went on to speak with great feeling about his mother’s heroic sacrifices on his behalf, and her tireless efforts to prepare him for life as a black male in America.  “What part of ‘all men are created equal’ have we failed to understand?” he asked the audience.

Burton was followed on the stage by George Buss, a.k.a. Abraham Lincoln, who gave a far too rapid rendition of Lincoln’s 272-word Gettysburg Address.  (“Speak very slowly” was Lincoln’s main advice to public speakers.)  Once “President Lincoln” had taken his seat, a bass soloist bellowed out “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and then, in one of the most impressive moments of the morning, fourteen candidates for U. S. citizenship took part in a naturalization ceremony.  After taped remarks from President Obama, the Gettysburg High School band played “God Bless America,” a Protestant pastor offered a closing prayer, and a lone bugler played “Taps.”

As is often the case with historical commemorations, the program was better at inspiring the audience than at making us think.  The exception to this rule was Levar Burton, although he still pulled his punches, and the loudest ovation he received came with his concluding “God bless America.”  Once the last strain of “Taps” had faded, the crowd rushed to grab lunch before a 1:00 parade featuring thousands of Civil-War reenactors.

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I have shared already my misgivings (here and here) about the whole reenactment phenomenon.  My day in Gettysburg mostly reinforced them.  For much of the morning, the audience had listened as Levar Burton talked about the persistence of racial injustice in America, heard again Abraham Lincoln’s call for a “new birth of freedom,” and listened to a popular anthem—penned by the wife of an ardent abolitionist—imploring Union soldiers to give their lives to make others free.  The audience listened politely, clapped heartily, and adjourned to watch a parade of thousands of almost exclusively white reenactors who have little place for race in their memory of the Civil War they are supposedly recreating.

THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE HAS NO PLACE IN MODERN DEMOCRACY

constitution

The electoral college is in the news again, thanks to the outcome of the recent presidential race.  The latest count–now that the final tally is in from Michigan–shows Trump winning the electoral college handily, 306-232, while losing the popular vote by more than two million ballots, or about 1.7 percentage points.  President-elect Trump thus joins a short list of individuals to win the presidency while losing the popular vote–the others being John Quincy Adams (1824), Rutherford B. Hayes (1876), and George W. Bush (2000).

Predictably, Republicans have rediscovered a deep appreciation of the Founding Fathers for instituting such a wise mechanism for selecting the chief executive.  Most notably, Donald Trump–who as late as 2012 declared the electoral college a “disaster for democracy–now thinks it a “genius” system.  Democrats, for their part, are incensed that the popular will has been thwarted and respond in one of two ways.  Some, like Nancy Pelosi, are calling for a constitutional amendment to abolish the institution entirely.  Others are encouraging electors to disregard the vote of their states and cast their ballots for the candidate who actually won the popular vote.

Clearly, partisan self-interest is driving supposed principles on both sides, and most Americans will recognize that and respond in kind, i.e., according to their partisan leanings.  This is unfortunate, because the problems with the electoral college are real, and need to addressed.  Partisan convictions will insure that this never happens, however.  According to the Constitution, the electoral college cannot be eliminated without a constitutional amendment, and that would require, not only that two-thirds of both houses of Congress agree to a proposed amendment, but also that three-quarters of the states then go on to ratify the proposed change.  In sum, there is absolutely no way to eliminate the electoral college without sustained and extensive bipartisan support, which is another way of saying that it ain’t happening any time soon.

So for now, all we can do is point out that the electoral college doesn’t remotely function as it was intended to by the Framers of the Constitution, and that neither the defenders or the critics of the institution are interested in seeing that happen.

Precious few of the delegates to the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention of 1787 were eager to see the executive of the new government chosen by the direct election of the people.  There were a few lone voices for this alternative, but most deemed it either unwise or unfeasible.  Whatever they thought about the intellectual faculties of the common man, few believed that the rank and file of Americans would have enough knowledge of national affairs and distant statesmen to choose wisely.

Most of the delegates favored one of two alternatives to direct election.  One camp advocated that the president be chosen by the state legislatures.  The other proposed that he be elected by Congress, much like the prime minister in the British parliamentary system.  The electoral college was a compromise between these options in that the state legislatures were to chose electors who would vote for president, and then when no candidate received a majority of the electoral votes–as the Framers fully expected to be the norm once George Washington had left the scene–the House of Representatives would make the final decision in a run-off.  The result was that, in a “normal” election year, both the state legislatures and the Congress would play a role in the election of the president.

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton

But what role would the people play?  The best explanation of how the Framers would have answered this question comes from the pen of Alexander Hamilton.  During the debate over ratification in 1787-1788, Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay penned a series of eighty-five essays in support of the Constitution that became known as the Federalist Papers.  In Federalist no. 68, Hamilton offered the fullest discussion of the way that the electoral college would function and the part that popular opinion would play in regard to it.

In explaining the structure of the electoral college, Hamilton began by observing that the Framers thought it desirable “that the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided.”  He then went on immediately to describe the electoral college as a body of individuals who were to apply “a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice.”

In an editorial in this morning’s Washington Post, Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig quotes Hamilton’s statements as grounds for three conclusions: 1) Barring extraordinary circumstances, the Framers intended that the popular preference should determine the choice of the president.  2) They intended the electoral college to serve as a “safety valve on the people’s choice” that would either affirm or (on rare occasions) overturn the decision of the voters.  3) Given that Hillary Clinton is clearly qualified to serve as president, there is no good reason for electors to overturn the people’s choice.  Ergo (I imagine that’s what they say at Harvard), the electoral college would be acting consistently with the intentions of the Constitution’s Framers by electing Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.

Needless to say, Lessig is a Democrat.  (He actually briefly sought the Democratic nomination for president last fall.)  I don’t take issue with his editorial on partisan grounds, however, but on historical ones.  Lessig’s training is in economics and philosophy, not history, and so he may actually believe that his interpretation of Federalist no. 68 is accurate.  It’s not.  Whether intentionally or accidentally, he grossly misrepresents what Hamilton was arguing.

When Hamilton observed that the Framers believed that “the sense of the people should operate in the choice” of the president, he did not have a direct election in mind.  Read in context, it is clear that, to Hamilton’s mind, the public’s role was to have a voice in the selection of electors.  That role might be very indirect.  The Constitution does not specify how the states are to choose electors, and in the early years of the republic the vast majority were simply appointed by the state legislatures.  This means that, to the degree that the average voter had a voice in the selection of electors, it was by voting for candidates to the state legislature, who would at a later time appoint electors.

It is hardly the case that the Framers then charged the electoral college with the job of quality control, overturning the people’s choice when the masses had chosen poorly.  Rather, there was no expectation that the electors would pay any attention to the popular vote for the presidency, or even that there would be a popular vote for president.  Although states gradually began to institute popular elections for the president, this was not immediately the norm, and we do not even have a recorded popular vote for president for the first nine presidential elections in American history.

It is important to remember that the Framers of the Constitution did not anticipate the rise of formal political parties (and would have been distressed by the prospect).  The “sense of the people” was not to be registered by voters supporting state legislators of one political party over its rival, nor were electors to be chosen because of their public identification with one party or its opposite.  The people’s role was simply to choose electors (or state legislators, who would choose electors) who were known for wisdom and integrity.  The electoral college that resulted would not refer to the popular vote at all.  Instead, Hamilton explained, it was hoped that they would “possess the information and discernment requisite” to selecting the next president.

Lessig’s contention that the Framers would have wanted the electoral college to be guided in any way by the people’s choice shows a basic misunderstanding of the historical context.  He is right, however, that the Framers wanted members of the electoral college to be “citizens exercising judgment, not cogs turning a wheel.”  On those grounds, it would be entirely in keeping with the values of the Framers of the Constitution if electors from red states cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton on the grounds that Donald Trump lacks the experience, the temperament, the discernment, and the integrity that the office of president demands.

The majority of Americans, would see Clinton’s election by this means as illegitimate, however.  Americans in 2016 share few values in common with the Framers of the Constitution we claim to revere.  Generally, the Framers held to a world view that scholars term “republican” (no relation to the Republican Party): they held a skeptical view of human nature and maintained that the proper function of government office holders was to rule virtuously on behalf of the people’s welfare but not necessarily constrained by the people’s preferences in every matter.  For nearly two centuries, Americans have ascribed to a democratic worldview that rests on a positive view of humans as morally good and insists that the role of elected officials is to serve as a mouthpiece for majority preferences.

Not all of us will celebrate this repudiation of the values of the Framers.  I certainly don’t.  But this doesn’t change the fundamental reality: the electoral college doesn’t belong in our world.  It originated from a set of assumptions that the majority of Americans no longer affirm, and many would now roundly denounce.  It survives because of the difficulty of convincing both major parties, simultaneously, that neither stands to gain from its anachronistic presence.

 

 

WE ARE PILGRIMS, TOO

Since Monday I’ve been focusing on the lessons we might learn from the Pilgrim story. I thought it fitting to save the most important one—or what I think is the most important—for Thanksgiving Day itself. It’s so obvious that we are prone to overlook it. The Pilgrims “knew that they were pilgrims.” I’ve alluded to this before, but I think it bears repeating this holiday morning.

So why is this a big deal? What does it even mean? It means that the Pilgrims knew who they were. They were travelers, aliens, sojourners. And because of this self-awareness, they had an advantage over many of us with regard to a struggle that every Christian faces: the struggle to maintain a clear sense of our identity in Christ.

“Pilgrims” is one of those words that we have used so much that it has lost much of the power of its literal meaning. Today we typically use the word as a proper noun. It’s the name we reserve for the specific group of individuals who came to New England on the Mayflower in 1620. When William Bradford used the word in describing that group nearly four centuries ago, however, he used it to convey the Leiden Separatists’ understanding that they were merely strangers passing through this world en route to another destination.

We read this in one of the most often quoted passages in Of Plymouth Plantation. In book I, Bradford recounted the emigrants’ departure from Holland and their heart-wrenching parting from those in their congregation who would not be making the journey. Writing a decade later, he recalled the “abundance of tears” that was shed as the group said their goodbyes and “left that goodly and pleasant city [Leiden, Holland] which had been their resting place near twelve years.” They could find the resolve to press on, Bradford explained, drawing from the eleventh chapter of the book of Hebrews, because “they knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lift up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits.”

“Departure of the Pilgrims from Delft Haven,” Charles Lucy, 1847

“Departure of the Pilgrims from Delft Haven,” Charles Lucy, 1847

I am convinced that if we shared this sense of pilgrimage it would shape not only how we celebrate Thanksgiving, but also the way that we think about God’s blessings throughout the year. Although he didn’t speak specifically of the relation between pilgrimage and gratitude, C. S. Lewis wonderfully captured what I have in mind in my favorite passage from The Problem of Pain. Lewis observed that

The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.

I think the Pilgrims, or most of them, understood this. I hope we can, too. When we know that we are pilgrims, it changes how we approach the Thanksgiving table. The feast that awaits us is a “pleasant inn,” and we are right to delight in it, but we must not let it tempt us to “rest our hearts in this world.” The food we enjoy and the fellowship that warms us are mere glimpses and shadows—a taste of things to come. It is good if they nourish and encourage us, but it is better still when they increase our hunger for a different feast, the banquet that God is preparing for those who “desire a better, that is, a heavenly country” (Hebrews 11:16).

THE “FIRST THANKSGIVING” WE’VE FORGOTTEN

Tomorrow families all across America will celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, and some, at least, will link what they are doing to the Pilgrims’ celebration on the coast of Massachusetts in 1621. Although frequently embellished and sometimes caricatured, the story of the Pilgrims’ “First Thanksgiving” is rich with insight and inspiration. The Pilgrims were human, which means that they bore the imprint of the Fall with all its attendant sinful consequences: they were ethnocentric, sometimes judgmental and intolerant, prone to bickering, and tempted by mammon. They were also people of remarkable faith and fortitude—common folk of average abilities and below-average means who risked everything in the interest of their families and their community of faith.

"Pilgrims Going to Church," George H. Boughton, 1867

“Pilgrims Going to Church,” George H. Boughton, 1867

The Pilgrims’ trial began with their voyage on the Mayflower, a 65-day-long ordeal in which 102 men, women, and children crossed the stormy Atlantic in a space the size of a city bus. Following that came a cruel New England winter for which they were ill prepared. (Massachusetts is more than six hundred miles south of London—on a line of latitude even with Madrid, Spain—and the Pilgrims were expecting a much more temperate climate.) Due more to exposure than starvation, their number dwindled rapidly, so that by the onset of spring some fifty-one members of the party had died. A staggering fourteen of the eighteen wives who had set sail on the Mayflower had perished in their new home. Widowers and orphans abounded.

That the Pilgrims could celebrate at all in this setting was a testimony both to human resilience and to heavenly hope. Yet celebrate they did, most probably sometime in late September or early October after God had granted them a harvest sufficient to see them through the next winter. This is an inspiring story, and it is a good thing for Christians this Thanksgiving to remember it. I don’t know about you, but I am always encouraged when I sit down with Christian friends and hear of how God has sustained them in hard times. Remembering the Pilgrims’ story is a lot like that, although the testimony comes to us not from across the room but from across the centuries.

And yet the part of the Pilgrims’ story that modern-day Americans have chosen to emphasize doesn’t seem to have been that significant to the Pilgrims themselves. More importantly, it fails to capture the heart of the Pilgrims’ thinking about God’s provision and our proper response. Most of what we know about the Pilgrims’ experience after leaving Holland comes from two Pilgrim writers—William Bradford, the long-time governor of the Plymouth colony, and Edward Winslow, his close assistant. Bradford never even referred to the Pilgrims’ 1621 celebration (what we call the “First Thanksgiving”) in his famous history of the Pilgrims’ colony, Of Plymouth Plantation. Winslow mentioned it but briefly, devoting five sentences to it in a letter that he wrote to supporters in England. Indeed, the 115 words in those five sentences represent the sum total of all that we know about the occasion!

This means that there is a lot that we would like to know about that event that we will never know. It seems likely (although it must be conjecture) that the Pilgrims thought of their autumn celebration that first fall in Plymouth as something akin to the harvest festivals common at that time in England. What is absolutely certain is that they did not conceive of the celebration as a Thanksgiving holiday.

"First Thanksgiving at Plymouth," Jeannie Brownscombe, 1914.  On the eve of WWI, Brownscombe's imaginative recreation of the "First Thanksgiving" helped link Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims 1621 celebration in the public mind.  Although full of historical inaccuracies, the artist did rightly portray the feast as a large, public, outdoor event.

“First Thanksgiving at Plymouth,” Jeannie Brownscombe, 1914.

When the Pilgrims spoke of holidays, they used the word literally. A holiday was a “holy day,” a day specially set apart for worship and communion with God. Their reading of the scripture convinced them that God had only established one regular holy day under the new covenant, and that was the Lord’s Day each Sunday. Beyond that, they did believe that the scripture allowed the consecration of occasional Days of Fasting and Humiliation to beseech the Lord for deliverance from a particular trial, as well as occasional Days of Thanksgiving to praise the Lord for his extraordinary provision. Both were comparatively solemn observances, characterized by lengthy religious services full of prayer, praise, instruction, and exhortation.

From the Pilgrims’ perspective, their first formal celebration of a Day of Thanksgiving in Plymouth came nearly two years later, in July 1623. We’re comparatively unfamiliar with it because, frankly, we get bored with the Pilgrims once they’ve carved the first turkey. We condense their story to three key events—the Mayflower Compact, the Landing at Plymouth Rock, and the First Thanksgiving—and quickly lose interest thereafter. In reality, the Pilgrims’ struggle for survival continued at least another two years.

This was partly due to the criminal mismanagement of the London financiers who bankrolled the colony. Only weeks after their 1621 harvest celebration, the Pilgrims were surprised by the arrival of the ship Fortune. The thirty-five new settlers on board would nearly double their depleted ranks. Unfortunately, they arrived with few clothes, no bedding or pots or pans, and “not so much as biscuit cake or any other victuals,” as William Bradford bitterly recalled. Indeed, the London merchants had not even provisioned the ship’s crew with sufficient food for the trip home.

The result was that, rather than having “good plenty” for the winter, the Pilgrims, who had to provide food for the Fortune’s return voyage and feed an additional thirty-five mouths throughout the winter, once again faced the prospect of starvation. Fearing that the newcomers would “bring famine upon us,” the governor immediately reduced the weekly food allowance by half. In the following months hunger “pinch[ed] them sore.” By May they were almost completely out of food. It was no longer the season for waterfowl, and if not for the shellfish in the bay, and the little grain they were able to purchase from passing fishing boats, they very well might have starved.

The harvest of 1622 provided a temporary reprieve from hunger, but it fell far short of their needs for the coming year, and by the spring of 1623 the Pilgrims’ situation was again dire. As Bradford remembered their trial, it was typical for the colonists to go to bed at night not knowing where the next day’s nourishment would come from. For two to three months they had no bread or beer at all and “God fed them” almost wholly “out of the sea.”

Adding to their plight, the heavens closed up around the third week in May, and for nearly two months it rained hardly at all. The ground became parched, the corn began to wither, and hopes for the future began dying as well. When another boatload of settlers arrived that July, they were “much daunted and dismayed” by their first sight of the Plymouth colonists, many of whom were “ragged in apparel and some little better than half naked.” The Pilgrims, for their part, could offer the newcomers nothing more than a piece of fish and a cup of water.

In the depths of this trial the Pilgrims were sure of this much: it was God who had sent this great drought; it was the Lord who was frustrating their “great hopes of a large crop.” This was not the caprice of “nature,” but the handiwork of the Creator who worked “all things according to the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11). Fearing that He had done this thing for their chastisement, the community agreed to set apart “a solemn day of humiliation, to seek the Lord by humble and fervent prayer, in this great distress.”

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651

As Edward Winslow explained, their hope was that God “would be moved hereby in mercy to look down upon us, and grant the request of our dejected souls. . . . But oh the mercy of our God!” Winslow exulted, “who was as ready to hear, as we to ask.” The colonists awoke on the appointed day to a cloudless sky, but by the end of the prayer service—which lasted eight to nine hours—it had become overcast, and by morning it had begun to rain, as it would continue to do for the next fourteen days. Bradford marveled at the “sweet and gentle showers . . . which did so apparently revive and quicken the decayed corn.” Winslow added, “It was hard to say whether our withered corn or drooping affections were most quickened or revived.”

Overwhelmed by God’s gracious intervention, the Pilgrims immediately called for another providential holiday. “We thought it would be great ingratitude,” Winslow explained, if we should “content ourselves with private thanksgiving for that which by private prayer could not be obtained. And therefore another solemn day was set apart and appointed for that end; wherein we returned glory, honor, and praise, with all thankfulness, to our good God.” This occasion, likely held at the end of July, 1623, perfectly matches the Pilgrims’ definition of a thanksgiving holy day. It was a “solemn” observance, as Winslow noted, called to acknowledge a very specific, extraordinary blessing from the Lord. In sum, it was what the Pilgrims themselves would have viewed as their “First Thanksgiving” in America, and we have all but forgotten it.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving tomorrow, perhaps we might remember both of these occasions. The Pilgrims’ harvest celebration of 1621 is an important reminder to see God’s gracious hand in the bounty of nature. But the Pilgrims’ holiday of 1623—what they would have called “The First Thanksgiving”—more forthrightly challenges us to look for God’s ongoing, supernatural intervention in our lives.

Have a great day tomorrow.

WHY THE PILGRIMS REALLY CAME TO AMERICA

Only ONE more day until Thanksgiving. My goal this week has been to point out positive lessons we might learn from a more accurate encounter with the Pilgrims’ story.  Today I tackle the question of why the Pilgrims really came to America and what we might learn from their experience.  

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“Departure of the Pilgrims from Delft Haven,” Charles Lucy, 1847

“Departure of the Pilgrims from Delft Haven,” Charles Lucy, 1847

The belief that the Pilgrims came to America in search of religious freedom is inspiring, but in the sense that we usually mean it, it’s not really true. I’ve shared this reality numerous times since writing The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History, and I almost always get pushback from the audience. That’s understandable, since most of us from our childhood have been raised to believe quite the opposite. But if we’re going to really learn from the Pilgrims’ story, we need to be willing to listen to them instead of putting words into their mouths.

One of my favorite all-time quotes is from Democracy in America where Alexis de Tocqueville observes, “A false but clear and precise idea always has more power in the world than one which is true but complex.” The Pilgrims’ motives for coming to America is a case in point.

The popular understanding that the Pilgrims came to America “in search of religious freedom” is technically true, but it is also misleading. It is technically true in that the freedom to worship according to the dictates of Scripture was at the very top of their list of priorities. They had already risked everything to escape religious persecution, and the majority never would have knowingly chosen a destination where they would once again wear the “yoke of antichristian bondage,” as they described their experience in England.

To say that the Pilgrims came “in search of” religious freedom is misleading, however, in that it implies that they lacked such liberty in Holland. Remember that the Pilgrims did not come to America directly from England. They had left England in 1608, locating briefly in Amsterdam before settling for more than a decade in Leiden. If a longing for religious freedom alone had compelled them, they might never have left that city. Years later, the Pilgrim’s governor, William Bradford, recalled that in Leiden God had allowed them “to come as near the primitive pattern of the first churches as any other church of these later times.” As Pilgrim Edward Winslow recalled, God had blessed them with “much peace and liberty” in Holland. They hoped to find “the like liberty” in their new home.

"Landing of the Pilgrims," Henry A. Bacon, 1877

“Landing of the Pilgrims,” Henry A. Bacon, 1877

But that is not all that they hoped to find. Boiled down, the Pilgrims had two major complaints about their experience in Holland. First, they found it a hard place to raise their children. Dutch culture was too permissive, they believed. Bradford commented on “the great licentiousness of youth” in Holland and lamented the “evil examples” and “manifold temptations of the place.” Part of the problem was the Dutch parents. They gave their children too much freedom, Bradford’s nephew, Nathaniel Morton, explained, and Separatist parents could not give their own children “due correction without reproof or reproach from their neighbors.”

Compounding these challenges was what Bradford called “the hardness of the place.” If Holland was a hard place to raise strong families, it was an even harder place to make a living. Leiden was a crowded, rapidly growing city. Most houses were ridiculously small by our standards, some with no more than a couple hundred square feet of floor space. The typical weaver’s home was somewhat larger. It boasted three rooms—two on the main floor and one above—with a cistern under the main floor to collect rainwater, sometimes side by side with a pit for an indoor privy.

In contrast to the seasonal rhythms of farm life, the pace of work was long, intense, and unrelenting. Probably half or more of the Separatist families became textile workers. In this era before the industrial revolution, cloth production was still a decentralized, labor intensive process, with countless families carding, spinning, or weaving in their own homes from dawn to dusk, six days a week, merely to keep body and soul together. Hunger and want had become their taskmaster.

This life of “great labor and hard fare” was a threat to the church, Bradford repeatedly stressed. It discouraged Separatists in England from joining them, he believed, and tempted those in Leiden to return home. If religious freedom was to be thus linked with poverty, then there were some—too many—who would opt for the religious persecution of England over the religious freedom of Holland. And the challenge would only increase over time. Old age was creeping up on many of the congregation, indeed, was being hastened prematurely by “great and continual labor.” While the most resolute could endure such hardships in the prime of life, advancing age and declining strength would cause many either to “sink under their burdens” or reluctantly abandon the community in search of relief.

In explaining the Pilgrim’s decision to leave Holland, William Bradford stressed the Pilgrim’s economic circumstances more than any other factor, but it is important that we hear correctly what he was saying. Bradford was not telling us that the Pilgrims left for America in search of the “American Dream” or primarily to maximize their own individual wellbeing.

"Pilgrims Going to Church," George H. Boughton, 1867

“Pilgrims Going to Church,” George H. Boughton, 1867

In Bradford’s telling, it is impossible to separate the Pilgrims’ concerns about either the effects of Dutch culture or their economic circumstances from their concerns for the survival of their church. The leaders of the Leiden congregation may not have feared religious persecution, but they saw spiritual danger and decline on the horizon.

The solution, the Pilgrim leaders believed, was to “take away these discouragements” by relocating to a place with greater economic opportunity as part of a cooperative mission to preserve their covenant community. If the congregation did not collectively “dislodge . . . to some place of better advantage,” and soon, the church seemed destined to erode like the banks of a stream, as one by one, families and individuals slipped away.

So where does this leave us? Were the Pilgrims coming to America to flee religious persecution? Not at all. Were they motivated by a religious impulse? Absolutely.  But why is it important to make these seemingly fine distinctions? Is this just another exercise in academic hair-splitting? I don’t think so. In fact, I think that the implications of getting the Pilgrims’ motives rights are huge.

As I re-read the Pilgrims’ words, I find myself meditating on Jesus’ parable of the sower. You remember how the sower casts his seed (the word of God), and it falls on multiple kinds of ground, not all of which prove fruitful. The seed that lands on stony ground sprouts immediately but the plant withers under the heat of the noonday sun, while the seed cast among thorns springs up and then is choked by the surrounding weeds. The former, Jesus explained to His disciples, represents those who receive the word gladly, but stumble “when tribulation or persecution arises for the word’s sake” (Mark 4:17). The latter stands for those who allow the word to be choked by “the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things” (Mark 4:19).

In emphasizing the Pilgrims’ “search for religious freedom,” we inadvertently make the primary menace in their story the heat of persecution. Persecution led them to leave England for Holland, but it was not the primary reason that they came to America. As the Pilgrim writers saw it, the principal threat to their congregation in Holland was not the scorching sun, but strangling thorns.

The difference matters, particularly if we’re approaching the Pilgrims’ moment in history as an opportunity to learn from them. It broadens the kind of conversation we have with them and makes it more relevant. When we hear of the Pilgrims’ resolve in the face of persecution, we may nod our heads admiringly and meditate on the courage of their convictions. Perhaps we will even ask ourselves how we would respond if, God forbid, we were to endure the same trial. And yet the danger seems so remote, the question so comfortably hypothetical. Whatever limitations we may chafe against in the public square, as Christians in the United States we don’t have to worry that the government will send us to prison unless we worship in the church that it chooses and interpret the Bible in the manner that it dictates.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting that we never ask the question. Posing it can remind us to be grateful for the freedom we enjoy. It may inspire us to greater vigilance in preserving that freedom and heighten our concern for Christians around the world who cannot take such freedom for granted. These are good things. But I am suggesting that we not dwell overlong on the question. I’m dubious of the value of moral reflection that focuses on hypothetical circumstances. Avowals of how we would respond to imaginary adversity are worth pretty much what they cost us. Character isn’t forged in the abstract, but in the concrete crucible of everyday life, in the myriad mundane decisions that both shape and reveal the heart’s deepest loves.

"First Thanksgiving at Plymouth," Jeannie Brownscombe, 1914.  On the eve of WWI, Brownscombe's imaginative recreation of the "First Thanksgiving" helped link Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims 1621 celebration in the public mind.  Although full of historical inaccuracies, the artist did rightly portray the feast as a large, public, outdoor event.

“First Thanksgiving at Plymouth,” Jeannie Brownscombe, 1914.

Here the Pilgrims’ struggle with “thorns” speaks to us. Compared to the dangers they faced in England, their hardships in Holland were so . . . ordinary. I don’t mean to minimize them, but merely to point out that they are difficulties we are more likely to relate to. They worried about their children’s future. They feared the effects of a corrupt and permissive culture. They had a hard time making ends meet. They wondered how they would provide for themselves in old age. Does any of this sound familiar?

And in contrast to their success in escaping persecution, they found the cares of the world much more difficult to evade. As it turned out, thorn bushes grew in the New World as well as the Old. In little more than a decade, William Bradford was concerned that economic circumstances were again weakening the fabric of the church. This time, ironically, the culprit was not the pressure of want but the prospect of wealth (“the deceitfulness of riches”?) as faithful members of the congregation left Plymouth in search of larger, more productive farms. A decade after that, Bradford was decrying the presence of gross immorality within the colony. Drunkenness and sexual sin had become so common, he lamented, that it caused him “to fear and tremble at the consideration of our corrupt natures.”

When we insist that the Pilgrims came to America “in search of religious freedom,” we tell their story in a way that they themselves wouldn’t recognize. In the process, we make their story primarily a source of ammunition for the culture wars. Frustrated by increasing governmental infringement on religious expression, we remind the unbelieving culture around us that “our forefathers” who “founded” this country were driven above all by a commitment to religious liberty.

But while we’re bludgeoning secularists with the Pilgrim story, we ignore the aspects of their story that might cast a light into our own hearts. They struggled with fundamental questions still relevant to us today: What is the true cost of discipleship? What must we sacrifice in pursuit of the kingdom? How can we “shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15) and keep ourselves “unspotted from the world” (James 1:27)? What sort of obligation do we owe our local churches, and how do we balance that duty with family commitments and individual desires? What does it look like to “seek first the kingdom of God” and can we really trust God to provide for all our other needs?

As Christians, these are crucial questions we need to revisit regularly. We might even consider discussing them with our families tomorrow as part of our Thanksgiving celebrations.

First Thanksgiving