I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving. Our countdown to the holiday is over, but I’m not quite ready to move on yet. Before doing so I want to share one more lesson that I think we might learn from the Pilgrims—in this case, specifically the long-term governor of Plymouth Colony, William Bradford. Bradford was both a man of deep, persevering faith in Christ and a remarkable historian. In the reflections below, I share what Bradford can teach us about a particular approach to the past called providential history.


“Where is God in history?” is a question that many Christians yearn to explore. Many of the believers I have talked with doubt that a historical interpretation can be truly Christian without answering it. Implicitly, they advocate what academic historians call “providential history.” The providential approach to the past views history as an arena in which to trace God’s unfolding plan for humanity. It assumes that the Christian historian, through the ordinary analysis of historical evidence, can discern the Lord’s handiwork on earth. It constantly asks of the past, “Where is God and what is He doing?”

I sympathize with this desire for providential history, but I believe that the reasoning that under girds it is faulty. Let’s begin with the doctrine of providence itself. This crucial church teaching instructs us that God’s sovereignty is exhaustive, that the Lord is working “all things according to the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11b). In the words of the Westminster Confession, God “doth “uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things . . . by His most wise and holy providence.”

Although it may trouble us to hear it, the more seriously we take the doctrine of providence, the less useful it becomes to us for explaining the past. Think for a minute. If we were to apply the principle consistently, the explanation for every event in world history would be reduced to the same three-word conclusion: “God willed it.” (Granted, this would make exams a lot less stressful.) This is why Christian historians think of historical explanation as the identification of secondary causes, of those means that God employs in effecting His will.

For similar reasons, they reject as illogical the temptation to apply providential explanations selectively, to concentrate on secondary means ordinarily and reserve appeals to divine causation for key turning points or particularly momentous events. As Christian historian Jonathan Boyd puts it, “if God’s rule extends over all and his providence comprises all events . . . it makes little sense to name some events as more providential than others.”

In reality, however, for most of us the question “Where is God in history?” is less about divine action than divine purpose. What we really want to know, in other words, is not whether God was at work in a specific historical context but why, that is, how did particular historical events relate to God’s larger divine plan? Here, however, Deuteronomy 29:29 sounds the alarm: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God,” that passage warns us. Only “those things which are revealed belong to us.”

The sweeping historical narratives of the Old Testament repeatedly tell us God’s intentions in acting—why He granted victory in this instance or brought sickness in that one—but we must never forget that the history that comes to us from the Bible is divinely inspired, literally “God-breathed,” as II Timothy 3:16 tells us. To speak bluntly, when we view the Old Testament as authorizing present-day historians to write providential history, we implicitly denigrate the difference that divine inspiration makes in discerning divine purpose. Unwittingly, providential history reflects a low view of Scripture.

The Bible itself makes clear that, in the absence of divine inspiration, God’s purposes in human affairs are easily misunderstood. Part of the problem is our own myopia. As theologian N. T. Wright points out, God’s prophetic messengers are repeatedly saying to His people, “This is what God is doing in your midst. Why are you so blind?” Part of the challenge, to paraphrase Isaiah 55:8, is that “God’s ways are not our ways.” He doesn’t handle things as we would. Thus we are constantly running into surprises in Scripture, what Notre Dame historian Mark Noll calls “strange reversals . . . in the Christian story. The Christ is crucified. Good appears to fail. The monuments of historical goodness—Roman order, Jewish morality—conspire to do unspeakable evil. Good things come out of hopeless situations.”

Countless other gleanings from Scripture frustrate our efforts to reduce God’s ways in history to a simple formula. Blessing is sometimes a sign of divine favor, but not always; God causes the rain to fall on the unjust as well as the just (Matthew 5:45), and He allows the wicked to prosper, if only for a time (Psalm 73:3). Suffering may be an expression of divine judgment, but not always; Jesus’ teaching about the man born blind and the Galileans killed by Pontius Pilate makes this clear (John 9:1-3, Luke 13:1-2). This is why theologian J. I. Packer argues emphatically that “no historical event,” in and of itself, “can make God known to anyone unless God Himself discloses its meaning and place in His plan.”

In sum, while we can be confident that God is constantly at work in human history, both for His glory and for our good, it is not ours to know God’s specific intentions for any particular historical occurrence not explained in Scripture.

Does this mean that we simply dismiss the question “Where is God in history?” No, but when we encounter dogmatic answers to the question, we must recognize them for what they are—prophetic declarations, not historical conclusions. If a pastor feels called to assume the prophet’s mantle and pronounce from the pulpit God’s intent in a particular historical event, we may choose to give him a respectful hearing. But when a historian claims to know God’s purposes in that same event—not from special revelation, but on the basis of ordinary analysis of historical evidence—then we rightfully dismiss that claim as presumptuous.

When we approach the past both Christianly and historically, the most that we can ever do with regard to God’s intention in a particular event is to speculate, and when we speculate we should be explicit that we are doing so. As Wright points out, the apostle Paul modeled this for us when writing to Philemon about his runaway slave, Onesimus. Paul conjectured that “perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave” but as “a beloved brother” (Philemon 15-16a). Perhaps is the key word here; it is a mark of what Wright calls “the necessary reticence of faith.” With exemplary humility, Paul combines an unshakeable confidence that God is at work with an awareness of his inability to read God’s mind. His modest perhaps invites God to say of Paul’s claim, “Well, actually, no.”

For a more recent illustration of this marriage of confidence and humility, I can think of no better work to commend than William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation. On the one hand, Bradford interpreted the unfolding of events around him as a glove on the hand of Jehovah. The Maker Bradford adores is “not a God afar off,” to quote the prophet Jeremiah, but “a God near at hand” (Jeremiah 23:23).

This statue of William Bradford, by Cyrus Dallin, stands in Pilgrim Memorial State Park in Plymouth, MA>

This statue of William Bradford, by Cyrus Dallin, stands in Pilgrim Memorial State Park in Plymouth, MA.

Although the Pilgrim governor regularly alluded to what we’ve called secondary causes, he never hesitated to link them to the Lord’s overarching decrees. When John Howland fell overboard amidst a violent storm, he didn’t drown, Bradford explained, because “it pleased God that he caught hold of the topsail halyards.” The Pilgrims’ first landing party survived the attack by the Nausets because it had “pleased God to vanquish their enemies and give them deliverance.” The “general sickness” of that gruesome first winter occurred because “it pleased God to visit” them “with death”; the death toll ended only when “it pleased God” for “the mortality . . . to cease.” When Squanto showed up he was “sent of God.” When rain relieved their drought-parched crops, it was because the Lord had brought “seasonable showers” as a “gracious and speedy answer to their prayer.” Finally, when many of the Mayflower’s passengers ultimately lived to an unusually old age, the cause, Bradford knew, lay in “the marvelous providence of God!”

And yet Bradford paired this deep conviction that God was “near at hand” with a resistance to proclaiming God’s specific purposes in any given circumstance. God was in control and God was good—this much was certain, God had revealed that—and so Bradford did not hesitate to interpret the Lord’s providential oversight of the Pilgrims as an expression of His love for them. Beyond this he would not go, however, and Bradford’s history contains not a hint of special knowledge concerning the particulars of the divine plan. God’s specific will was simply too difficult to discern. Bradford took pains to show that the congregation at Leiden was divided as to the wisdom of migrating to America, and at no place in his history did he declare the decision to relocate as indisputably the will of God. The plan was “lawful” and its objectives “honourable”—that was all that could be said.

Bradford’s reticence is all the more remarkable when we remind ourselves that he was writing well after the events he was describing. From hindsight, he knew that the Pilgrims not only had survived unimaginable hardships but that their colony had grown and flourished materially. What is more, thousands more Puritans were flocking to New England, building on the Pilgrims’ “small beginning” to shine a light to the entire English nation. Could we blame Bradford had he concluded that God had indeed preserved the Pilgrims for a very special purpose?

And yet he did not. The Pilgrims’ story was just too ambiguous; in his heart, Bradford knew that it intertwined increasing prosperity with declining purity. In reviewing their history, furthermore, the truth of Romans 11:33 regularly constrained him. “God’s judgments are unsearchable,” the governor noted, echoing Paul, “neither dare I be bold therewith.” We would do well to follow the Pilgrim governor’s example, not because Bradford’s stature as an honorary “Founder” gives him moral authority over our lives, but because his modest, yet literally “faith-full” approach to the past resonates with the precepts of Scripture.


Just a few images of Thanksgiving that come to my mind today as I read about current events.  They don’t add up to a clear historical narrative–just food for thought.

“Home to Thanksgiving,” George H. Durrie, 1861. As late as the Civil War, homecoming was probably the most common theme of Thanksgiving images. For supporters of the holiday, Thanksgiving was “supremely the home day,” with “the gathering together of the family its most charming feature.”

“Home to Thanksgiving,” George H. Durrie, 1861. As late as the Civil War, homecoming was probably the most common theme of Thanksgiving images. For supporters of the holiday, Thanksgiving was “supremely the home day,” with “the gathering together of the family its most charming feature.”


"Football Match between Yale and Princeton," Harper's Weekly, 1879. In 1876 the newly formed Intercollegiate Football Association held its championship game on Thanksgiving Day in New York City, and in short order the annual Thanksgiving Day contest had evolved into the country’s premier sporting event, drawing crowds upwards of forty thousand by the early 1890s.

“Football Match between Yale and Princeton,” Harper’s Weekly, 1879. In 1876 the newly formed Intercollegiate Football Association held its championship game on Thanksgiving Day in New York City, and in short order the annual Thanksgiving Day contest had evolved into the country’s premier sporting event, drawing crowds upwards of forty thousand by the early 1890s.


“Thanksgiving: A Study in Proportion,” Udo Keppler, 1912. BY the early twentieth century, numerous commentators feared that Thanksgiving had become nothing more than a day for pleasure and self-indulgence. This Puck cartoon shows a pile of large items representing the pleasures of the holiday—a football, golf clubs, a shotgun, a theater mask and, of course, a turkey—towering over a dark and probably empty church in the background.

“Thanksgiving: A Study in Proportion,” Udo Keppler, 1912. By the early twentieth century, numerous commentators feared that Thanksgiving had become nothing more than a day for pleasure and self-indulgence. This Puck cartoon shows a pile of large items representing the pleasures of the holiday—a football, golf clubs, a shotgun, a theater mask and, of course, a turkey—towering over a dark and probably empty church in the background.


"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. 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.


"Freedom from Want," Norman Rockwell, 1943. This now iconic portrayal of a family Thanksgiving meal graced the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in the midst of WWII.

“Freedom from Want,” Norman Rockwell, 1943. This now iconic portrayal of a family Thanksgiving meal graced the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in the midst of World War Two.


Thanksgiving Night, 2015? A spontaneous photograph of early Black Friday violence sweeps the internet.

Thanksgiving Night, 2015? This spontaneous photograph of early Black Friday violence has swept the internet.


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.

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

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

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.”

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).


Many of you may be headed to the airport or the interstate for holiday travel, and if so, you might want to pass the time by listening to the podcast of a recent interview that I did with Professor Al Zambone of Augustana College.  Zambone maintains a great site called “Historically Thinking” that features conversations with historians on a wide range of topics.  Al and I had a lengthy conversation recently about popular memory of the First Thanksgiving, and you can find it here.

Alternatively, you might be interested in a different podcast on Thanksgiving that I did with my old University of Washington colleague, political scientist Anthony Gill, who moderates a wonderful site titled “Research on Religion.”  You can access that podcast here.

Both individuals are wonderful scholars and you would find much of value on their sites.


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.

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.

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

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

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

“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.


Only ONE more day until Thanksgiving. As an alternative to the ubiquitous countdown to Black Friday, each weekday this month I have been posting brief essays on the history of the First Thanksgiving and its place in American memory.  My goal this week is 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.  


Before we rush off to the mall tomorrow, the more traditional among us will honor the day by reminding our families of the story of the Pilgrims. And in keeping with tradition, we’ll get quite a bit of the story wrong. Most of the inaccuracies will be trivial. In our mind’s eye, we’ll remember the Pilgrims decked out in black suits and enormous silver buckles, seated at a long table loaded with turkey and pumpkin pie. It would be more accurate to imagine them adorned in bright colors, seated on the ground, and enjoying turnips and eel, but these are superficial differences that don’t change the meaning of the story very much.

W.L. Taylor, 1897

W.L. Taylor, 1897

That’s not the case with how we remember the Pilgrims’ reasons for coming to America. 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.

Charles Lucy, The Departure of the Pilgrim Fathers, 1847

Charles Lucy, The Departure of the Pilgrim Fathers, 1847

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 well being.

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.

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

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

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.

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—if there’s time before we head off to the mall, that is.



Only TWO more days until Thanksgiving. As an alternative to the ubiquitous countdown to Black Friday, each weekday this month I have been posting brief essays on the history of the First Thanksgiving and its place in American memory.  My goal this week is to point out positive lessons we might learn from a more accurate encounter with the Pilgrims’ story.  Yesterday I shared with you that I find the Pilgrims’ story both inspiring and encouraging. I also find it challenging and convicting. To explain what I mean by the latter, here’s an extended excerpt from my book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History:


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

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

“. . . From where I stand, though, the most crucial things the Pilgrims have to say to us have nothing to do with Thanksgiving itself. Far more important than its indictment of the holiday, the Pilgrim ideal throws into bold relief the supreme individualism of modern American life. The Pilgrims saw the world in terms of groups—family, church, community, nation—and whatever we think of their view, the contrast drives home our own preoccupation with the individual. It was with Americans in mind that French writer Alexis de Tocqueville coined the term later translated as “individualism,” and the exaltation of the self that he observed in American society nearly two centuries ago has only grown relentlessly since.

The individual is now the constituent unit of American society, individual fulfillment holds sway as the highest good, individual conscience reigns as the highest authority. We conceive of adulthood as the absence of all accountability, define liberty as the elimination of all restraint, and measure the worth of social organizations—labor unions, clubs, political parties, even churches—by the degree to which they promote our individual agendas. In sum, as Christian writers Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon conclude, “our society is a vast supermarket of desire, in which each of us is encouraged to stand alone and go out and get what the world owes us.”

From across the centuries, the Pilgrims remind us that there is another way. They modeled their own ideals imperfectly, to be sure, for as the years passed in New England, they learned from experience what we have known but long ago forgotten, namely, that prosperity has a way of loosening the social ties that adversity forges. By 1644, so many of the original colonists had moved away in search of larger farms that William Bradford likened the dwindling Plymouth church to “an ancient mother grown old and forsaken of her children.”

And yet, in their finest moments, the Pilgrims’ example speaks to us, whispering the possibility that we have taken a wrong turn. Anticipating Hauerwas and Willimon, they observe our righteous-sounding commitment to be “true to ourselves” and pose the discomfiting question: “What if our true selves are made from the materials of our communal life?”

. . . I think that meditating on the Pilgrims’ story might also show us our worldliness. “Do not love the world or the things in the world,” John the Apostle warns, referring to the hollow rewards held out to us by a moral order at enmity with God (I John 2:15). From our privileged perspective the Pilgrims lived in abject poverty, and imagining ourselves in their circumstances may help us to see more clearly, not only the sheer magnitude of pleasure and possessions that we take for granted, but also the power that they hold over our lives.

But for many of us the seductiveness of the world is more subtle than Madison Avenue’s message of hedonism and materialism. God has surrounded us with countless blessings that He wants us to enjoy: loving relationships, rewarding occupations, beautiful surroundings. Yet in our fallenness, we are tempted to convert such foretastes of eternity into ends in themselves, numbing our longing for God and causing us to “rest our hearts in this world,” as C. S. Lewis put it in The Problem of Pain. Here is where the Pilgrims speak to me loudly. It is not their poverty that I find most convicting, but their hope of heaven.

When I was three years old, my proud father, who was superintendent of the Sunday School in our small-town Baptist church, stood me on a chair in front of his Bible class so that I could regale the adults with a gospel hymn. (I know this because my mother was so fond of remembering it.) “When we all get to heaven,” I lisped enthusiastically, “What a day of rejoicing that will be. / When we all see Jesus, / We’ll sing and shout for victory.” On the whole, I don’t think American Christians sing much about heaven any more, much less long for it. I know that I do not, and I don’t think I’m alone.

After decades of talking with Christian young people about the afterlife, Wheaton College professor Wayne Martindale concluded that, “aside from hell, perhaps,” heaven “is the last place we . . . want to go.” This should give us pause, shouldn’t it, especially when we recall how largely heaven figures in New Testament teaching? “Lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven” (Matthew 6:20), Jesus taught His disciples. On the very night He was betrayed He promised His followers that He would prepare a place for them and asked the Father that they might “be with Me where I am” (John 17:24). Paul reminds us of this “hope which is laid up for [us] in heaven” (Colossians 1:5). Peter writes of the “inheritance incorruptible and undefiled” that the Lord “has reserved” for us there (I Peter 1:4).

There are surely many reasons why we find it so hard to “set [our] minds on things above” (Colossians 3:2), including our misperceptions of heaven and our fear of the unknown, but one reason must also be how well off we are in this world. If “churchgoing Americans . . . don’t much want to go to Heaven,” Martindale conjectures, it may be because we feel so “comfortable” on earth. Our creature comforts abound, and for long stretches of time we are able to fool ourselves about the fragility of life. Modern American culture facilitates our self-deception through a conspiracy of silence. We tacitly agree not to discuss death, hiding away the lingering aged and expending our energies in a quest for perpetual youth.

Here the Pilgrims clearly have the advantage on us. In the world as they knew it, material comforts were scarce, daily existence was arduous, starvation was possible, and death was always near. Readily might they echo the apostle Paul: “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable” (I Corinthians 15:19). What a consolation to believe that, when their “earthly house” had returned to the dust, they would inherit “a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (II Corinthians 5:1). What a help, in time of heartache, to “lift up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country.” What a balm to their souls, to quote Bradford’s poignant prose, that “they knew they were pilgrims.”

What difference would it make if such a realization were to penetrate our hearts today? I don’t think it would require that we become “too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good,” as naysayers have sometimes suggested. Asserting that “a continual looking forward to the eternal world” is “one of the things a Christian is meant to do,” C. S. Lewis found in history the pattern that “the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.” Indeed, in Lewis’s estimation, “It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in,’” he concluded. “Aim at earth and you will get neither.”

Rather than amounting to a form of escapism, “aiming at heaven” might actually enable us to see both ourselves and the world around us more clearly. To begin with, to know we are pilgrims is to understand our identity and, by extension, where our ultimate hope lies. This is something we struggle with, in my opinion.

American Christians over the years have been tempted to confuse patriotism and piety, confounding our national identity as citizens of the United States with our spiritual identity in Christ. We are to “be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1), Paul enjoins us, and yet never forget that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:19). We should thank God daily for the blessings he has showered on our country, but to know we are pilgrims is to understand that our hope of “survival, success, and salvation” rests solely on our belonging to Christ, not our identity as Americans.

In contradiction to this truth, American culture calls us to be “well-adjusted citizens of the Kingdom of this world,” as Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft trenchantly observes. We who name the “name above all names” have all too often acquiesced, in part by convincing ourselves that, given America’s “Christian culture,” there were no hard choices to be made—that our religious and national identities were mutually reinforcing, if not downright indistinguishable.

But if knowing we are pilgrims means that our true citizenship is in heaven, it also means that we are “strangers” and “aliens” here on earth—yes, even in the United States—and this means, in turn, that we should expect the values of our host country to differ from those of our homeland. American Christians have adopted numerous ploys to obscure this reality, but one of the most influential has been the way we have remembered our past. One example of this is how we have distorted the Pilgrims’ story, clothing them with modern American values and making the future United States—not heaven—their true promised land.”

First Thanksgiving