Monthly Archives: November 2014

THE FIRST THANKSGIVING WE DON’T REMEMBER

Today 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.

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.

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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 four sentences to it in a letter that he wrote to supporters in England.  Indeed, the 115 words in those four 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.

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 today, 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.

Happy Thanksgiving, and thanks for reading.

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LEARNING FROM THE PILGRIMS’ STORY–PART THREE

Thanksgiving is now only a day away, and before we turn on the football game or rush off to the mall, 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 shared this fact earlier this week when I appeared on the Moody Radio Network program Chris Fabry Live. After Chris and I talked for several minutes, he opened the phone lines to listeners, and one of the first callers (“Kevin from Indiana”) made clear his view that I was badly mistaken about why the Pilgrims came to America. “A bunch of people were under religious oppression,” he asserted. They got the opportunity to come to a place where they could gain religious freedom, “and that’s what these people did.” Case closed.

It’s always difficult to know how to respond to such dogmatism, and I tried to be tactful. I also had to respond off the cuff, and briefly to boot, so I am certain that I botched my reply. Here is how I would have responded to the caller if I could have scripted it in advance and replied at length:

I would start by reiterating something my students (and my children, bless their hearts), have heard over and over again: history is complicated. Our human story is complex, and it doesn’t lend itself well to the bumper sticker slogans and sound bite quotes that we are typically really looking for when we go to the past. 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. If a longing for religious freedom alone had compelled them, they might never have left Leiden, that city where God had allowed them, in Bradford’s estimation, “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. Pilgrim William 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, 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. 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. I told you it was complicated. 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 the mall opens, that is.

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LEARNING FROM THE PILGRIMS’ STORY–PART TWO

In my most recent post 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 Reasl Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History:

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. . . 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.”

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

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

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.

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LEARNING FROM THE PILGRIM STORY–PART ONE

Thanksgiving is only five days away, and so I’ll be ending my All-Thanksgiving-All-the-Time format pretty soon.  I realize that I’ve devoted a fair amount of time to talking about the ways that we remember the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving incorrectly.  I want to conclude with a few posts that touch upon the positive lessons we might learn from a more accurate encounter with the Pilgrims.  The Pilgrims had their blind spots—as do we—but they were also people of faith and courage and hope, and there is much in their example to teach, admonish, and inspire us.  What are the positives that we might glean from their story?

To begin with, there is also much in the Pilgrims’ story that is genuinely inspiring.  We live in a cynical age, and it can seem almost embarrassingly naïve for an academic to describe any subject from the past as inspirational, but no other word in this instance will do.  The Pilgrims endured trials far more arduous than most of us have ever experienced, and they did so with courage and determination and hope and gratitude.  They evinced these traits, furthermore, as part of a larger expression of loyalty and devotion to something outside of themselves—to God above all, of course; to the “sacred bond” and covenant that tied them to their brothers and sisters in Christ; and to their sons and daughters, both born and unborn.

Living in an age in which we reward self-promotion and cheapen the virtues of fortitude and perseverance—attributing them, for instance, to millionaire athletes who play games for a living—there is much in their story that is refreshingly subversive.  And as a father, I am especially touched that so many of their sacrifices were with the welfare of their children and their children’s children in mind.  They left all that was familiar to them and risked everything they had, as one of their earliest chroniclers put it, “in order to preserve to their children a life of the soul.”  I call that an inspiring example.

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

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

But there is more to their example, it is important to stress, than their actual behavior during the moment of trial.  As impressive as it was, we probably place too much emphasis on the Pilgrims’ courage in crossing the angry Atlantic or their humility and hope in celebrating after the horrors of a deadly winter.  The trials that they endured brought to the surface their theology as well as their character, and I suspect that the latter, which we often admire, was largely a product of the former, which we tend to ignore.  As Jesus taught His disciples, the wise man built his house on a rock before the rains fell and the flood came, by hearing His words and doing them as part of the fabric of daily life (Luke 7:24-27).

Surely it made a difference, when it looked as though the ocean would swallow them, that the Pilgrims had long been taught that God was both good and loving, and that not even a sparrow fell to the ground apart from the Father’s will (Matthew 10:29).

Surely it changed their perspective, when parting from their dearest friends on earth, to recall what they had long believed, that the world was not their home, that their real destination was a heavenly country, a city that God had prepared for them (Hebrews 11:16).

Surely it helped, when exposure and starvation stalked them, to bring to mind the Psalmist’s words, “I know, O Lord, that Your judgments are right, and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me” (Psalm 119:75).

Surely it heartened them to remember the sermons of their beloved pastor in Leiden, John Robinson, who had taught them that God brought hardship into their lives as a mercy, “to wean us from the love of the world” and “to make the glory which shall be showed, and whereof our afflictions are not worthy, the more glorious.”  This was hard teaching, no doubt, but it was proven by suffering, and we can’t make sense of the Pilgrims’ behavior apart from it.

While the Pilgrims’ story is inspirational it is also encouraging, which is a related but different thing.  Figures from the past inspire us when they make us want to grow in godliness; they encourage us when they help us to believe that that is possible.  None of the Pilgrims was a superhuman, larger-than-life hero of the faith.  As a nineteenth-century writer accurately noted, they were “plain” men and women “of moderate abilities.”

But it’s not just that they lacked extraordinary talents; they were fallen, and it showed.  They argued among themselves, they struggled with doubt, they were tempted by mammon.  To an extent, they revealed their flaws inadvertently, in private correspondence that they surely never expected to see the light of day.  But in large part, we know of the Pilgrims’ fleshly struggles because William Bradford purposed to document them, and I am so glad that he did.

The Pilgrims’ longtime governor would not have made a popular Thanksgiving Day speaker.  Unlike the succession of statesmen who flattered their audiences with purple prose, lauding their adopted ancestors for their unsurpassed wisdom and nobility, Bradford chose instead to underline their shortcomings.  The first colonists had survived and flourished, Bradford insisted in his history Of Plymouth Plantation, not because of their many strengths and virtues, but in spite of “all their weaknesses and infirmities.”  In emphasizing that truth, he gave greater glory to God and offered greater hope to us.

By his own account, Bradford emphasized the Lord’s strength and the Pilgrims’ weakness for two main reasons: so that his readers “in like cases might be encouraged to depend upon God in their trials, and also to bless His name when they see His goodness towards others.”  Might we respond in the same way?

MY TAKE ON THE NATIONAL MONUMENT TO THE FOREFATHERS

MonumentalIn my latest two posts (here and here ) I have shared reflections on Kirk Cameron’s 2012 feature-length documentary, Monumental.  If you haven’t seen the documentary, it takes its title from a massive granite sculpture in Plymouth, Massachusetts known as the National Monument to the Forefathers.  The dramatic high point of the film comes during a fifteen-minute segment when Cameron and co-producer Marshall Foster walk around the base of the monument and discuss its message to Americans today.  (You can view the segment here. )  They contend that the monument illustrates the Pilgrims’ “formula for success.”  If we will heed the teaching of “the tiny band of religious outcasts who founded this country” (in 1620?), then America will once again be truly a land of civil, economic, and religious liberty.

I had the privilege of visiting the same monument when I was doing research on the Pilgrims several years ago, and I walked away with a very different set of reflections than those of Cameron and Foster.  Rather than try to paraphrase them now, I offer below an excerpt from my book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History (Intervarsity Press, 2013):

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National Monument to the Forefathers, Plymouth Massachusetts

National Monument to the Forefathers, Plymouth Massachusetts

In 1889, the townspeople of Plymouth dedicated a memorial to the “forefathers” who had settled there two hundred and sixty-nine years earlier. I sought it out when I visited Plymouth a few years ago. It stands a bit off the beaten track, in the midst of a residential area perhaps a mile northwest of the tourist district around Plymouth Rock. Known as the National Monument to the Forefathers, the memorial rises eight stories above the surrounding neighborhood.

Sculpted from three hundred tons of New England granite, it features a massive octagonal pedestal surmounted by a thirty-six-foot tall female figure labeled “Faith.” Reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty, she faces Plymouth Harbor with a Bible in her left hand, her right hand pointing skyward to symbolize the Pilgrims’ hope of heaven. Seated in a circle around the pedestal are four other immense figures, each classically draped (think “togas”) and bearing the names Liberty, Law, Education, and Morality.

[The sculpture] is an impressive artistic feat, and in its own way, inspiring. Yet, as a historian, as I stood there I couldn’t help thinking of the monument as a metaphor for how we sometimes approach the past. We prefer our heroes larger than life, uncomplicated and unflawed. Thus, without ever doing so consciously, we often refashion the real but flawed heroes we encounter into the very embodiment of the virtues we seek to uphold. When we’re finished, “sons of Adam” have become Greek gods.

In truth, there is much to admire about the “company of plain Englishmen” who disembarked from the Mayflower almost four centuries ago. They were men and women of deep conviction, uneasily daunted, willing to suffer for principle’s sake. They exhibited enormous courage, and they persevered in the face of unspeakable hardship and loss. They loved their children, they loved the body of Christ, and they abandoned everything that was familiar to them in order to serve both.

There is an expression of sacrificial love here that both humbles and inspires. If in a sense the Pilgrims are our adopted ancestors, then they have bequeathed to us an invaluable Christian example of belief, action, and endurance, and we do well to remember it.

And yet the human frailty that [Pilgrim Deacon] Robert Cushman alluded to is an important part of the Pilgrims’ story as well. They argued among themselves. They were too trusting, frequently duped both by strangers and purported friends. They were ethnocentric and sometimes self-righteous.

They struggled with their finances. (It took them twenty-eight years to repay the Merchant Adventurers.) They came to America as “tenderfeet,” unprepared to succeed as fishermen, expecting a climate like that of the French Riviera, and thinking that they had settled on an island for more than a year after their arrival. They were frightened by wolves. They got lost in the woods. (Shortly after first going ashore, William Bradford was caught by an Indian deer trap and dangled helplessly upside down, but to my knowledge there is no monument commemorating that.)

In years to come, they would have a hard time keeping a pastor, their elder’s son-in-law would embezzle from them, and many of their number would move away in search of larger farms, prompting William Bradford to speak of the Plymouth church as “an ancient mother grown old and forsaken of her children.”

But why mention these latter things? Why not just concentrate on the positive? Years ago I spoke at a luncheon sponsored by a national patriotic organization, and during the meal my host, who was himself a Christian, asked me just that. I wasn’t prepared for his question and I stumbled in my reply. If we could repeat that conversation today I would offer three reasons why a balanced approach is preferable.

The first is a simple commitment to honesty. As Christian scholar Ronald Wells points out, honest history “means more than merely telling the truth in factual terms but also telling the truth in all its complexity and ambiguity.”

Second, in acknowledging the frailties of history’s heroes we’re also conveying a more accurate representation of human nature. “Monumental” history—history that glosses over human weaknesses and shortcomings—is not just inaccurate. It teaches bad theology, leaving no room for the lingering effects of sin in the hearts of the figures we admire. It’s particularly ironic when applied to the Pilgrims, for they were steeped in a Reformed Protestant worldview that mocked all pretensions to perfectibility.

“Can those who are converted to God perfectly keep [His] commandments?” asked the Heidelberg Catechism, a Protestant confession popular in Holland when the Pilgrims were in Leiden. “No,” came back the answer; “but even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience.” In even stronger language, John Calvin had insisted that Christians carry the “remains of imperfection” to the grave. Let the “holy servant of God” ponder the action in his life “which he deems most excellent,” Calvin wrote in the Institutes, and “he will doubtless find in it something that savors of the rottenness of the flesh.”

When Paul and Barnabas learned that the pagans at Lystra wanted to offer sacrifices to them, they tore their clothes and cried out, “Why are you doing these things? We also are men with the same nature as you” (Acts 14:15). I think many of the Pilgrims would have reacted similarly to the National Monument to the Forefathers.

Third and finally, when we make room for our heroes’ frailties in our narratives of the past, we at the same time make greater room for God’s glory. Remember the Lord’s words to Paul: “My strength is made perfect in weakness” (II Corinthians 12:9). As one contemporary Christian author has commented, it is not our weakness that inhibits God’s working in us so much as our “delusions of strength.”

The Pilgrims had no such delusions. “Our voyage . . . hath been as full of crosses as ourselves have been of crookedness,” Deacon Robert Cushman confessed, “but God can do much.” “How few, weak, and raw were we at our first beginning,” Pilgrim Edward Winslow recalled, “and yet God preserved us.” “What could now sustain them but the Spirit of God and His grace?” Governor William Bradford asked in wonder. Throughout his history [Of Plymouth Plantation] Bradford seems to glory in the Pilgrims’ weakness, but his object in doing so is clear:

 . . . that their children may see with what difficulties their fathers wrestled in going through these things in their first beginnings; and how God brought them along, notwithstanding all their weaknesses and infirmities.

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KIRK CAMERON’S “MONUMENTAL” PILGRIMS–PART TWO

As we strive to study the past Christianly, one of our goals should be to identify heroes without manufacturing idols.

We all need heroes, individuals to look up to who model the character and accomplishments we aspire to.  There’s nothing wrong with that, in fact we have biblical warrant for it.  In his first letter to the church at Corinth, the apostle Paul taught and admonished the fellowship there regarding a number of topics and then offered the audacious suggestion, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (I Corinthians 11:1).  It is as if Paul was saying, “Look, I realize that this teaching can be difficult, so if you’re having a hard time, just follow my example as I try to live it out before you.”  He even promised to send his “son in the faith” Timothy to “remind you of my ways in Christ” (I Corinthians 4:17).

But note the constant qualifiers: the Corinthians were to follow Paul’s example because he was following Christ’s; they were to study Paul’s ways because his ways were “in Christ.”  Heroes are fine, in other words—the great “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews 11 is full of them—but the traits that we admire them for should be traits consistent with the example of Christ and the teaching of scripture.

Needless to say, this is not the pattern we find in contemporary American culture.  There are admirable exceptions, but a quick glance at who we reward with fame and imitation suggests that character is all but irrelevant.  Our heroes are typically young, attractive, sexy, and thin.  Their contribution to society lies mostly in their ability to perform for us on the movie screen, the concert stage, or the playing field.  Like gushing Miss America candidates, we may claim to desire world peace and a cure for cancer, but what we really value is entertainment.

Before this turns into a self-righteous rant, let me add that we who name the name of Christ bear our fair share of responsibility for this cultural shallowness.  What is more, when with the best of intentions we turn to history to resist this superficiality, we are often lured into a pattern of thinking that comes close to idolatry.

Kirk Cameron’s 2012 documentary Monumental comes perilously near to crossing this line.  As I mentioned in my last post, I share many of Cameron’s values and I don’t doubt that his motives are honorable.  In this sense I want to stand with him as he strives to uphold biblical principles in our fallen world.  But I have to stand against him in his approach to American history.

Monumental

The message of Monumental will resonate with evangelicals who are distressed by the amorality and immorality of contemporary American culture.  It will inspire many who are looking for a better way, and it will probably persuade many with its message that we can only move forward by looking backward.  In a certain sense I agree.  But before embarking on this project, Cameron would have done well to remember John Calvin’s centuries-old warning (in his Institutes of the Christian Religion) that the human mind is “a perpetual forge of idols.”  Had Cameron taken that warning seriously, his documentary might have conveyed a very different message.

The propensity to forge idols that Calvin warned against is something that we fallen humans carry with us at all times, including during our excursions “into” the past.  This means that one snare that awaits us when we study non-Biblical history is the temptation to fashion idols out of the admirable figures we encounter.

But what would that look like, specifically?  In context, Calvin was addressing the literal worship of physical objects as a substitute for God, but that’s clearly not the pitfall that concerns us here.  Other writers have broadened Calvin’s insight to apply more generally, pointing to our tendency to waver in our allegiance to God, to elevate things or people or desires to the position of primacy in our hearts that belongs to God alone.  That’s always a valid concern, but again not what I have in mind.

In my experience, if we would keep from forging idols in history, there are two related responses that we must especially guard against, both of which effectively clothe the humans that we study with divine attributes.  First, we must beware of describing any figures from the past other than Christ Himself as if they were above reproach—or to put it another way, as if they were without sin.

None of us would ever come right out and say this of a historical figure, and yet there is a subtle temptation to gloss over the flaws in our heroes that their virtues may shine the more brightly.  To take even a single step down this path is to begin the gradual descent from history to hagiography, from the admiration of heroes to the worship of ancestors.

Second, we must be careful never to act as if we are morally bound to follow the example of figures from the past, for this is to impute authority where God has not granted it.  Trust me, Christians fall into this trap all the time.

To give but one example, we strain to prove that the Founding Fathers were predominantly Christians, as if that is somehow supposed to matter to our unbelieving contemporaries.  They’re entirely justified in replying, “Why should we care?”  Why should they, indeed?  If the United States needs to foster religion as an “indispensable support” of the republic, it is not because George Washington told us so in his farewell address (although he did, by the way).

Remember the proviso in Paul’s exhortation: “Imitate me,” he told the Corinthians, “as I also imitate Christ.”  Anytime we forget that stipulation, acting as if a non-canonical figure from the past intrinsically deserves to be followed, we take a long step toward erecting an idol.

Monumental violates both of these strictures.

The heart of the documentary’s argument comes in a fifteen-minute segment in which co-producer Dr. Marshall Foster and Cameron stand at the foot of the little known National Monument to the Forefathers in Plymouth, Massachusetts.  (You can view the segment here.)  The monument is undeniably impressive.  Carved from three hundred tons of granite and rising eight stories above the earth, it features a massive octagonal pedestal surmounted by a thirty-six-foot tall female figure labeled “Faith.”  Seated in a circle around the pedestal are four other immense figures, each classically draped and bearing the names Liberty, Law, Education, and Morality.

As they walk around the massive sculpture, Cameron plays the role of the zealous Christian eager to learn how to turn America back to God, while Foster plays the historian ready to unlock the secrets of America’s hidden Christian past.

National Monument to the Forefathers, Plymouth Massachusetts

National Monument to the Forefathers, Plymouth Massachusetts

(And to be clear, Foster is “playing” at being a historian.  He has no formal training in history at all.  Despite his impressive sounding title of founder of the “World History Institute,” all of his graduate study is in theology, and even in that sphere his credentials are questionable.  According to his organization’s website, Foster is “Dr. Foster” because he holds a Doctorate in Divinity from Cathedral Bible College, a tiny open-enrollment school currently located in Marion, South Carolina.  In May of this year, the school’s founder and president pleaded guilty to federal charges that he systematically forced international students to work for a fraction of minimum wage or face deportation.)

Before going to the Forefather’s Monument, however, Foster takes Cameron to the top of Burial Hill in Plymouth, the site overlooking the harbor where the Pilgrims built their original meeting house and fort.  “There’s nothing like bones to remind you of your heritage,” Foster ruminates.  “That’s why I like bringing people up here, because it reminds us of our own mortality.  It reminds us that we are in a relay race. We are in a generational relay race.  And they understood that.”

They are the Pilgrims, of course.  Here the documentary is a bit misleading, as most of the graves on Burial Hill belong to later generations of Plymouth colonists, not the original passengers of the Mayflower, but no matter.  Foster’s point is that the Pilgrims took seriously their responsibility to bequeath their faith and their identity as Christ followers to their descendants, and there is no doubt that he is right.  In large measure, their determination to risk their lives to come to America was with their children and their children’s children in mind.

Cameron’s job in this segment is primarily to serve as Foster’s set-up man, posing questions to guide what is essentially a lecture from the director of the “World History Institute.”  “I wish they had left us some kind of a training manual,” the former teenage star of Growing Pains says wistfully, “some kind of secret sauce recipe card that we could pick up and go, ‘Here’s what it is!  Here’s what we do!’”

The good news (gospel?) at the core of Monumental is that there is such a “training manual” or “secret sauce recipe card” (what an awful metaphor), and that it is hidden in plain sight near the spot where America was “founded.”

Before taking Cameron to the National Monument to the Forefathers, Foster sets the stage with an allusion to scripture.  “When the children of Israel are going into the Promised Land,” Foster reminds Cameron, “they cross the Jordan River and God stood it on end and they walked across.  And before the waters stopped parting, God told them to take twelve stones from the bottom of the river and put them up on the top of Mt. Gilgal and make a monument so that when your children ask, ‘What are these stones?’ you will be able to tell them, ‘This is where God parted the sea.’”  This is a mostly accurate re-telling of an episode in the history of Israel recounted in the book of Joshua, chapter four.

Now comes the segue.  “And that’s what the Pilgrims left us,” Foster explains.  They left us a monument that not only gives tribute to what was accomplished here, but it gives us a specific strategy, a breakout of a blueprint [so that] if we would ever forget what made America great, what made us free, we can go back and follow that strategy—and it’s right up on a hill a half mile from here.”  At this point the scene shifts several hundred yards to the northwest, to the site of the National Monument to the Forefathers.

I cannot overstate how deeply flawed this comparison is.  To begin with, the monument described to us in the book of Joshua calls attention to the work of God on behalf of His people.  When the Israelites’ children asked them what the twelve stone stones meant, they were to explain to them what God had done, “that all the peoples of the earth may know the hand of the Lord, that it is mighty” (Joshua 4:24).

The National Monument to the Forefathers, in contrast, calls attention not to God but to the PilgrimsGranted, the monument implies that the Pilgrims were people of faith, but they also had the wisdom to recognize the four other indispensable pillars of a great and free nation and the purity of character necessary to model them rightly for us.  Both the monument and the documentary have the same message: Want to be a great, free, and prosperous nation?  Look to the Pilgrims.  Look to the Pilgrims.

Implicit in the comparison is also the suggestion that ancient Israel and the United States are analogous.  Think about it: Foster begins by alluding to a monument erected by God’s chosen nation of old at the point at which they entered their Promised Land.  He then likens it to a monument erected supposedly by the Pilgrims near the point where they entered the future United States.  Lurking in the comparison is a portrayal of the United States as God’s “New Israel,” a theologically disastrous conclusion that well meaning Americans have too frequently embraced.  (To cite one example, this was the message of The Light and the Glory, by Peter Marshall Jr. and David Manuel, the book that remains the single most popular Christian interpretation of American history ever written.  For my review of that book, click here.)

Finally, as a historian, I cringe at Foster’s nonsensical statement that “the Pilgrims” were the ones who “left us” the monument at Plymouth.  The National Monument to the Forefathers was dedicated in 1889, two hundred sixty-nine years after the voyage of the Mayflower.  Completed the same year as Jane G. Austin’s fabulously popular and romanticized account of the Pilgrims, Standish of Standish (see my prior post on this novel), the monument primarily tells us how Victorian America wanted to remember the Pilgrims a quarter of a millennium after they passed from the scene.

Writing at the height of the Pilgrim’s popularity during the early years of the Cold War, Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison wryly observed, “One price the Pilgrims have to pay for their popularity is the attribution to them of many things or trends popular now, but of which they knew nothing and cared less.”  The National Monument to the Forefathers reveals much more about the values of the late-nineteenth century than it does about the worldview of the Pilgrims, just as Foster’s interpretation of the monument primarily reveals to us the values of Marshall Foster and Kirk Cameron.

I am convinced that the Pilgrims would be distraught if they could view the National Monument erected in their honor.  In my next post I will explain why I think so.

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KIRK CAMERON’S “MONUMENTAL” PILGRIMS–PART ONE

On the whole, the Pilgrims haven’t fared well in modern-day popular memory. We tend to caricature them—clothing them in buckles and black hats and arming them with blunderbusses. We sometimes condemn them—casting them as religious fanatics intolerant of difference and suspicious of anything fun. What we seldom do is consider them carefully, opening ourselves to the possibility that they might have something to teach us. I wrote The First Thanksgiving not because I’m a Pilgrim groupie, but because I was convinced that when we take their story seriously we can learn a lot about ourselves—about what we love, how we see the world, and how we live within it.

Unfortunately, when amateur historians have taken the Pilgrims seriously they have typically produced what Christian historian Mark Noll calls “ideological history.” Ideological history succumbs to the temptation to go to the past for ammunition instead of illumination—to “prove points” instead of to gain understanding. We fall into this trap whenever we know too definitely what we want to find in the past, when we can already envision how our anticipated “discoveries” will reinforce values that we already hold or promote agendas to which we are already committed. Rush Limbaugh’s Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims is a textbook example of this kind of history. (I’ve written on it most recently here and here.)  If you buy this book you won’t learn much about the Pilgrims’ worldview, but you will learn a great deal about Rush Limbaugh’s.

You don’t have to be a liberal academic or a partisan talk-show host to fashion ideological history, however. Well-meaning Christians do so all the time as well. When it comes to our treatment of the Pilgrims, a classic case in point would be Kirk Cameron’s 2012 feature-length documentary, Monumental. I want to say up front that I have nothing personal against Kirk Cameron. Many of the critical reviews of Monumental on the internet ooze condescension and contempt; they seem to flow from a starting point that takes for granted the absurdity of an evangelical perspective on anything. That is not where I am coming from, and I hope that is obvious. I want to stand with Kirk Cameron in his apparent desire to honor God and train his children in biblical wisdom. But I must stand against his approach to American history, which is both historically inaccurate and theologically confused. In this post and the next two, I want to explain what I mean.

Monumental

Although I am sure Cameron’s intentions are honorable, Monumental exhibits all the marks of ideological history. The documentary is not interested in understanding the complexity of the Pilgrims’ values and beliefs. Cameron and co-producer Marshall Foster are on a quest for ammunition more than enlightenment. Committed to a particular set of values, they want to use the Pilgrims to make a historical argument for their contemporary agenda. In their hands, the Pilgrims become two-dimensional props for an extended infomercial.

A case in point would be the central premise on which the documentary is grounded. According to Cameron, the documentary “seeks to discover America’s true ‘national treasure’— the people, places, and principles that made America the freest, most prosperous and generous nation the world has ever known.” His search leads him to the Pilgrims. “There’s no question,” Cameron explains, that “the tiny band of religious outcasts who founded this country hit upon a formula for success that went way beyond what they could have imagined. How else can you explain the fact that they established a nation that has become the best example of civil, economic and religious liberty the world has ever known?”

So the Pilgrims “founded this country”? They “established” this nation? Really? I will pass over the utter illogic of such a statement to focus on a more important point: The Pilgrims weren’t remotely thinking about founding a country, nor would they want to be remembered for doing so. They were English to the core and came to North America, in part, to try to preserve aspects of their English identity. As Pilgrim Edward Winslow later recalled, they feared “how like we were to lose our language and our name of English” if they remained in Holland.

But more important than their English identity was their identity in Christ, which was paramount in their thinking. Arguably the most important aspect of the Pilgrim’s worldview is also the easiest for us to overlook, precisely because it seems so very familiar to us. Here it is: the Pilgrims thought of themselves as “pilgrims.” Monumental misses this completely.

Here is what I mean. The powerful message originally contained in the word pilgrim is now mostly lost on us. We speak of “the Pilgrims” without thinking about the term, using it as a kind of shorthand title for the group that came over on the Mayflower and played a role in the founding of America. Literally, the word “pilgrim” refers to a person on a journey, often, but not always, to a place of particular religious significance. When Americans first began to speak of “the Pilgrims” in the 1790s this meaning was still understood, but even then it was common to mistake the group’s destination. In annual commemorations of the (supposed) landing at Plymouth Rock (a landmark the Pilgrims themselves never mentioned), orators repeatedly described the Pilgrims as religiously motivated but worldly focused.

In 1820, for example, Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster figuratively positioned the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock and invited his audience to listen in as their ancestors contemplated the future of the land to which God had brought them. “We shall plant here a new society,” the senator imagined the Pilgrims saying to one another. “We shall here begin a work that shall last for ages” they vowed, as they peered into the future and saw the fulfillment of their vision in a new country built upon Pilgrim principles.

Toward the close of the nineteenth century, a popular magazine employed a similar rhetorical convention to make the same point. This time it was the Pilgrims’ elder William Brewster who stood alone on the rock and supposedly prophesied:

Blessed will it be for us, blessed for this land, for this vast continent! Nay, from generation to generation will the blessing descend. Generations to come shall look back to this hour . . . and say: “Here was our beginning as a people. These were our fathers. Through their trials we inherit our blessings. Their faith is our faith; their hope is our hope; their God our God.”

Countless politicians, preachers, and writers echoed the point: The tiny Pilgrim band had forged the “nucleus of a mighty civilization.” They “were among the main foundation-layers of our Great Republic.” They brought with them “the germ of our national life.”

Monumental perpetuates this view. As told by Cameron and Foster, the Pilgrims’ journey ended when they reached the shores of America. The future United States was their Canaan, their promised land. It can be inspiring to remember their story that way. According to both Governor William Bradford and Deacon Robert Cushman, however, that’s not how the Pilgrims themselves saw it. Certainly, they were searching for an earthly location where they could perpetuate proper worship and earn a better living, but to the degree that the Pilgrims thought of themselves as “pilgrims,” they meant that they were temporary travelers in a world that was not their home.

This is clear from the context in which Bradford famously used the term in his history Of Plymouth Plantation. Toward the middle of book I, Bradford movingly described the Pilgrims’ departure from Holland, as the members of the Leiden congregation who were leaving for America said goodbye to the friends and loved ones remaining behind. (Bradford himself was leaving his three-year-old son.) With “an abundance of tears,” Bradford recalled, the group left “that goodly and pleasant city which had been their resting place near twelve years; but 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.”

As he penned these words, Bradford was almost certainly thinking of the eleventh chapter of the book of Hebrews, that great survey of Old Testament heroes of the faith. There, in the text of the 1596 edition Geneva Bible that Bradford brought with him to Plymouth, we read that these men and women “confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on earth.” The writer goes on to explain that any “that say such things [i.e., think of themselves as pilgrims], declare plainly, that they seek a country,” but the country sought is a “heavenly” one (Hebrews 11:13-16).

In a much less known passage actually written earlier, Deacon Cushman employed similar imagery. In an essay published in 1622, Cushman reviewed the argument for “removing out of England into the parts of America.” In the introduction, Cushman emphasized that God no longer gave particular lands to any people, as he once had given Canaan to the nation of Israel. “But now we are all in all places strangers and pilgrims, travelers and sojourners,” Cushman observed, “having no dwelling but in this earthen tabernacle.” Perhaps with II Corinthians 5:1 in mind, the deacon elaborated, “Our dwelling is but a wandering, and our abiding but as a fleeting, and in a word our home is nowhere, but in the heavens, in that house not made with hands, whose maker and builder is God, and to which all ascend that love the coming of our Lord Jesus.”

Potentially, we can remember the Pilgrims as our spiritual ancestors and still preserve their understanding of “pilgrimage.” When we remember them as our national ancestors, however—as key figures in the founding of America—we unwittingly refashion that sense of pilgrimage into something they wouldn’t recognize. Monumental does this repeatedly.

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