THIRTEEN days to Thanksgiving and counting. As an alternative to the ubiquitous countdown to Black Friday, each weekday between now and Thanksgiving I will be posting brief essays on the history of the First Thanksgiving and its place in American memory. In my last two posts I offered an extended review of one popular Christian assessment of the Pilgrims’ world view: Kirk Cameron’s 2012 documentary Monumental. Before moving on, I thought I should offer my own take on the monument that the documentary centers on: The National Monument to the Forefathers in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
I had the privilege of visiting the 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 his co-producer, “Dr.” Marshall 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:
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 London merchants who bankrolled their venture.) 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.