Only THREE 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. 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 this week by pointing to some positive lessons we might learn from a more accurate encounter with the Pilgrims’ story.
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.
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?