Tag Archives: John Robinson

LEARNING FROM THE PILGRIMS’ STORY: DIVINE STRENGTH, HUMAN WEAKNESS

Only THREE more days until Thanksgiving.  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. 

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“The Landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth,” Currier & Ives, 1876.

“The Landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth,” Currier & Ives, 1876.

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?

REMEMBERING “THE FIRST THANKSGIVING”: THE HOSTS OF THE FEAST

The First Thanksgiving--Jean Louis Ferris

The First Thanksgiving–Jean Louis Ferris

While a lot more evidence survives concerning the Pilgrims than we might expect, almost none survives concerning the episode for which we remember them best. The Pilgrims’ historian and long-time governor, William Bradford, never mentioned a 1621 thanksgiving celebration in Of Plymouth Plantation.

Bradford began writing his history in 1630, quickly bringing his narrative up to the landing of the Mayflower, but he then set the work aside and did not resume it until the mid-1640s. From that vantage point (perhaps referring to a journal long since lost), he still recalled vividly the “sad and lamentable” details of the first winter, the particulars of their negotiations with the Wampanoag, the facts of Squanto’s personal history, even the fine points of corn planting. He also noted happily that the Pilgrims began to recover their health and strength in the spring of 1621, reaped an adequate harvest that fall, and enjoyed “good plenty” as winter approached.

What he failed to mention was a celebration of any kind. This should give us pause. It would seem that the episode so indelibly imprinted in our historical memory was not memorable at all to the Pilgrims’ long-time governor.

As it turns out, the only surviving firsthand account of a celebration in 1621 comes from the pen of Edward Winslow, Bradford’s younger assistant. Upon the arrival of a ship from England in November 1621, Winslow crafted a cover letter to accompany the reports to be sent back to the London merchants who were financing the Pilgrims’ venture. In his letter—the main purpose of which was to convince the investors that they weren’t throwing their money away—Winslow described the houses the Pilgrims had built, listed the crops they had planted, and emphasized the success they had been blessed with. To underscore the latter, he added five sentences describing the abundance they now enjoyed.

“Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent four men on fowling; that so we might, after a more special manner, rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labours. They four, in one day, killed as much fowl as, with a little help besides, served the Company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our Arms; many of the Indians coming amongst us. “And amongst the rest, their greatest King, Massasoyt, with some ninety men; whom, for three days, we entertained and feasted. And they went out, and killed five deer: which they brought to the Plantation; and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain, and others.”

These 115 words constitute the sum total of contemporary evidence regarding the First Thanksgiving. It’s a brief, ambiguous account. If we wanted to, we could compile a whole list of details commonly taken for granted about the occasion which we could never prove from Winslow’s brief description. What do we know with any confidence about this iconic event?

Let’s start with some basic details. By William Bradford’s reckoning, the Mayflower had sailed from England in September 1620 with 102 passengers, divided more or less equally between “saints” (members of the Pilgrim congregation of Leiden, Holland) and “strangers” (individuals recruited by the London financiers who were bankrolling the voyage). Thanks to the “general sickness” that had devastated the colony during its first winter, it seems likely that there were fifty-one members of the Plymouth settlement at the time of the celebration—fifty survivors of the Mayflower’s voyage plus toddler Peregrine White, who had been born aboard ship after the Pilgrims reached Cape Cod. (The little colony’s other baby, Oceanus Hopkins, had not survived his first year.)

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651

As we try to imagine the gathering, it would be great if we had a better sense of what the Pilgrims actually looked like, but of course there are no photographs, and the only Pilgrim known to have had his portrait painted was Edward Winslow, but that was not until three decades later. Enough evidence survives for some informed speculation, however. If we could take a time machine back to the occasion, the first thing we might notice about the Pilgrims is how small they were. Europeans in the 17th-century weren’t exactly Hobbits, but they were noticeably shorter and dramatically lighter than we are today. Historians of Elizabethan England estimate that the average adult male stood 5’6”, the average female 5’½ ”, and even as late as the American Civil War, the typical soldier weighed in at less than 140 pounds. With regard to the Pilgrims’ stature, think junior high.

We might also be struck by how the Pilgrims were dressed. We have been conditioned to picture the Pilgrims as if they were headed to a funeral, the somber black of their outfits interrupted only by the occasional white collar and the silver buckles mandatory on all shoes, belts, and hats. In reality, this quaint image of the Pilgrims dates only to the middle of the nineteenth century and was pretty much conjured out of thin air. For one thing, buckles were all but unheard of among common folk for at least another half-century, and even had they been available we may doubt whether the Pilgrims would have worn them, as they tended to frown on anything that remotely resembled jewelry. (Their wives did not even wear wedding rings.)

On the other hand, the Pilgrims definitely had a taste for bright colors. Plymouth Colony estate inventories contain countless references to red, blue, green, yellow, and “russet” (orange-brown) garments. To cite but two examples, upon his death, carpenter Will Wright left among other items a Bible, a psalm book, a blue coat, and two vests, one white, the other red. The inventory of William Bradford’s estate showed that the long-term governor did, in fact, own a black hat and a “sad colored” (dark) suit, but he also sported a “colored” hat, a red suit, and a violet cloak. If the Pilgrims genuinely viewed their autumn gathering as a time of rejoicing, then they probably left the “sad-colored” clothing at home.

We might also be surprised at how young the Pilgrims were and at how few women there were among them. The mortality of the first winter had struck the “saints” and “strangers” in similar proportions, so that the saints from Leiden remained approximately half of the depleted company at the time of the First Thanksgiving. In other ways, however, the “general sickness” had affected the Pilgrims unevenly. The death rate was higher among wives than among husbands, higher among the married than among the unmarried, higher among adults than among children.

By autumn only three of the fifty-one survivors were definitely older than forty—elder William Brewster, his wife Mary, and a wool comber named Francis Cooke. The colony’s new governor, William Bradford, was only thirty-one. Among the adults, males now outnumbered females five to one. (The ratio had been about three to one at the time of their departure from England.) The higher death toll among adults also meant that children and teenagers now accounted for roughly half of the entire group (up from approximately one-third before the general sickness). These latter included the wonderfully named Remember Allerton, Resolved White, Humility Cooper, and the two Brewster boys, Love and Wrestling.

Death had surely left its mark in other ways, as well. In the four sentences that he devoted to the 1621 celebration, Edward Winslow left no clue about the Pilgrims’ state of mind. The devout among them had been schooled to see God’s loving hand in every trial, to believe, by faith, “that in all their afflictions the justice and mercy of God meet together,” as the Pilgrims pastor in Leiden, John Robinson expressed it. Late in his life, William Bradford preached this gospel to himself in verse:

“Faint not, poor soul, in God still trust / fear not the things thou suffer must / for, whom he loves he doth chastise / and then all tears wipes from their eyes.”

And yet, in the autumn of 1621 the wounds were still so fresh. It would be no stain on the Pilgrims’ faith if their rejoicing was leavened with a lingering heartache. Widowers and orphans abounded. Fourteen of the eighteen wives who had set sail on the Mayflower had perished during the winter. There were now only four married couples, and one of these consisted of Edward and Susannah (White) Winslow, who had married that May shortly after both had lost their spouses. Mary Chilton, Samuel Fuller, Priscilla Mullins, and Elizabeth Tilley each had lost both parents, and young Richard More, who had been torn from his parents before sailing, had since lost the three siblings who sailed with him. 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.

LEARNING FROM THE PILGRIMS’ STORY–PART ONE

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 Landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth,” Currier & Ives, 1876.

“The Landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth,” Currier & Ives, 1876.

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?

SETTING THE STAGE: THE HOSTS OF THE FEAST

SEVEN days to Thanksgiving and counting. 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. At the outset I concentrated mainly on some of the ways we have mythologized the Pilgrim story over the years. This week I am doing my best to sketch the context of the “First Thanksgiving” celebration of 1621. Today’s essay focuses on the fifty-one English folk who hosted the meal.

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The First Thanksgiving--Jean Louis Ferris

The First Thanksgiving–Jean Louis Ferris

While a lot more evidence survives concerning the Pilgrims than we might expect, almost none survives concerning the episode for which we remember them best. The Pilgrims’ historian and long-time governor, William Bradford, never mentioned a 1621 thanksgiving celebration in Of Plymouth Plantation.

Bradford began writing his history in 1630, quickly bringing his narrative up to the landing of the Mayflower, but he then set the work aside and did not resume it until the mid-1640s. From that vantage point (perhaps referring to a journal long since lost), he still recalled vividly the “sad and lamentable” details of the first winter, the particulars of their negotiations with the Wampanoag, the facts of Squanto’s personal history, even the fine points of corn planting. He also noted happily that the Pilgrims began to recover their health and strength in the spring of 1621, reaped an adequate harvest that fall, and enjoyed “good plenty” as winter approached.

What he failed to mention was a celebration of any kind. This should give us pause. It would seem that the episode so indelibly imprinted in our historical memory was not memorable at all to the Pilgrims’ long-time governor.

As it turns out, the only surviving firsthand account of a celebration in 1621 comes from the pen of Edward Winslow, Bradford’s younger assistant. Upon the arrival of a ship from England in November 1621, Winslow crafted a cover letter to accompany the reports to be sent back to the London merchants who were financing the Pilgrims’ venture. In his letter—the main purpose of which was to convince the investors that they weren’t throwing their money away—Winslow described the houses the Pilgrims had built, listed the crops they had planted, and emphasized the success they had been blessed with. To underscore the latter, he added five sentences describing the abundance they now enjoyed.

“Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent four men on fowling; that so we might, after a more special manner, rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labours. They four, in one day, killed as much fowl as, with a little help besides, served the Company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our Arms; many of the Indians coming amongst us. “And amongst the rest, their greatest King, Massasoyt, with some ninety men; whom, for three days, we entertained and feasted. And they went out, and killed five deer: which they brought to the Plantation; and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain, and others.”

These 115 words constitute the sum total of contemporary evidence regarding the First Thanksgiving. It’s a brief, ambiguous account. If we wanted to, we could compile a whole list of details commonly taken for granted about the occasion which we could never prove from Winslow’s brief description. What do we know with any confidence about this iconic event?

Let’s start with some basic details. By William Bradford’s reckoning, the Mayflower had sailed from England in September 1620 with 102 passengers, divided more or less equally between “saints” (members of the Pilgrim congregation of Leiden, Holland) and “strangers” (individuals recruited by the London financiers who were bankrolling the voyage). Thanks to the “general sickness” that had devastated the colony during its first winter, it seems likely that there were fifty-one members of the Plymouth settlement at the time of the celebration—fifty survivors of the Mayflower’s voyage plus toddler Peregrine White, who had been born aboard ship after the Pilgrims reached Cape Cod. (The little colony’s other baby, Oceanus Hopkins, had not survived his first year.)

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651

As we try to imagine the gathering, it would be great if we had a better sense of what the Pilgrims actually looked like, but of course there are no photographs, and the only Pilgrim known to have had his portrait painted was Edward Winslow, but that was not until three decades later. Enough evidence survives for some informed speculation, however. If we could take a time machine back to the occasion, the first thing we might notice about the Pilgrims is how small they were. Europeans in the 17th-century weren’t exactly Hobbits, but they were noticeably shorter and dramatically lighter than we are today. Historians of Elizabethan England estimate that the average adult male stood 5’6”, the average female 5’½ ”, and even as late as the American Civil War, the typical soldier weighed in at less than 140 pounds. With regard to the Pilgrims’ stature, think junior high.

We might also be struck by how the Pilgrims were dressed. We have been conditioned to picture the Pilgrims as if they were headed to a funeral, the somber black of their outfits interrupted only by the occasional white collar and the silver buckles mandatory on all shoes, belts, and hats. In reality, this quaint image of the Pilgrims dates only to the middle of the nineteenth century and was pretty much conjured out of thin air. For one thing, buckles were all but unheard of among common folk for at least another half-century, and even had they been available we may doubt whether the Pilgrims would have worn them, as they tended to frown on anything that remotely resembled jewelry. (Their wives did not even wear wedding rings.)

On the other hand, the Pilgrims definitely had a taste for bright colors. Plymouth Colony estate inventories contain countless references to red, blue, green, yellow, and “russet” (orange-brown) garments. To cite but two examples, upon his death, carpenter Will Wright left among other items a Bible, a psalm book, a blue coat, and two vests, one white, the other red. The inventory of William Bradford’s estate showed that the long-term governor did, in fact, own a black hat and a “sad colored” (dark) suit, but he also sported a “colored” hat, a red suit, and a violet cloak. If the Pilgrims genuinely viewed their autumn gathering as a time of rejoicing, then they probably left the “sad-colored” clothing at home.

We might also be surprised at how young the Pilgrims were and at how few women there were among them. The mortality of the first winter had struck the “saints” and “strangers” in similar proportions, so that the saints from Leiden remained approximately half of the depleted company at the time of the First Thanksgiving. In other ways, however, the “general sickness” had affected the Pilgrims unevenly. The death rate was higher among wives than among husbands, higher among the married than among the unmarried, higher among adults than among children.

By autumn only three of the fifty-one survivors were definitely older than forty—elder William Brewster, his wife Mary, and a wool comber named Francis Cooke. The colony’s new governor, William Bradford, was only thirty-one. Among the adults, males now outnumbered females five to one. (The ratio had been about three to one at the time of their departure from England.) The higher death toll among adults also meant that children and teenagers now accounted for roughly half of the entire group (up from approximately one-third before the general sickness). These latter included the wonderfully named Remember Allerton, Resolved White, Humility Cooper, and the two Brewster boys, Love and Wrestling.

Death had surely left its mark in other ways, as well. In the four sentences that he devoted to the 1621 celebration, Edward Winslow left no clue about the Pilgrims’ state of mind. The devout among them had been schooled to see God’s loving hand in every trial, to believe, by faith, “that in all their afflictions the justice and mercy of God meet together,” as the Pilgrims pastor in Leiden, John Robinson expressed it. Late in his life, William Bradford preached this gospel to himself in verse:

“Faint not, poor soul, in God still trust / fear not the things thou suffer must / for, whom he loves he doth chastise / and then all tears wipes from their eyes.”

And yet, in the autumn of 1621 the wounds were still so fresh. It would be no stain on the Pilgrims’ faith if their rejoicing was leavened with a lingering heartache. Widowers and orphans abounded. Fourteen of the eighteen wives who had set sail on the Mayflower had perished during the winter. There were now only four married couples, and one of these consisted of Edward and Susannah (White) Winslow, who had married that May shortly after both had lost their spouses. Mary Chilton, Samuel Fuller, Priscilla Mullins, and Elizabeth Tilley each had lost both parents, and young Richard More, who had been torn from his parents before sailing, had since lost the three siblings who sailed with him. 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.

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?

NOT OUR CLONES IN FUNNY CLOTHES, or WHY NOT TO TRUST RUSH REVERE

Thanksgiving is now only five days away, so I thought I would return again for some reflections on the most popular Thanksgiving book of the season, Rush Limbaugh’s Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims.  The book is holding at #3 in the Amazon best-sellers ranking, and even though it was only released at the end of October, it has already elicited nearly 600 reader reviews.  You can read them here.

Rush RevereThe readers’ reviews are discouraging on multiple levels.  Critics–and there aren’t many–have almost nothing substantive to say.  Their comments consist almost entirely of ad hominem attacks on either the author or his supporters.  Rather than seriously critiquing the book, they call attention to Limbaugh’s multiple divorces, his much-publicized addiction to prescription medications, or (most commonly) his king-sized ego and inflated sense of self-importance.  In explaining the book’s popularity, they simply lash out at the  “ditto-heads” stupid enough to waste their money on such drivel.  What any of this has to do with Limbaugh’s understanding of the Pilgrims is far from clear.

But the comments from fans of the book are almost as empty.  The two most common observations are that 1) the book is entertaining, and 2) that it is historically accurate.  I get the first judgment.  Who among us prefers dense, dull, dry-as-dust prose?  Making the past seem to “come alive” is always an asset, especially when you’re trying to reach younger readers.  Furthermore, entertainment value is pretty much in the eye of the beholder, and if the reviewers on Amazon.com were entertained in reading the book, then they were.  I might wish that they were training their children and grandchildren to appreciate better literature, but that’s a different matter.

What I don’t get is the constant refrain of praise for the book’s historical accuracy.  As I noticed in my last post, the book has no footnotes or bibliography, no reference to evidence of any kind.  And yet the vast majority of readers have absolute confidence that Limbaugh is “setting the record straight.”  It’s “about time someone tells our kids the truth about our history,” writes one reviewer.  The book gives “an accurate account of American history!”  exults another.  It tells “the real facts,” is “truthful and honest,” and reveals “the REAL history of this amazing country,” echo others.  And again I find myself asking, “how do they know?”  Have they read the relevant early seventeenth century sources–e.g., Of Plymouth Plantation, Mourt’s Relation, Good Newes from New England, and The Works of John Robinson–and concluded that Limbaugh is true to the historical record?  Or are they predisposed to accept on faith the “scholarship” of a radio personality whose politics they agree with?

In truth, neither the book’s critics nor its defenders pay much attention at all to evidence.  Critics seem to know in advance that they will hate the book and read it only to mock it.  Advocates seem to know in advance that they will love the book and go on to adore it uncritically.  There’s a lot of sound and fury here, but precious little substance.

I began this blog more than a year ago out of a sense of calling to be in conversation with other Christians about what it means to think wisely–historically and Christianly–about the American past.  If that is your desire as well, then I hope you will agree with me that loving God with our minds is worlds away from the mindless name-calling that so often masquerades as thoughtful reflection in today’s public square.  Nor do we satisfy the biblical injunction to “take every thought captive into obedience to Christ” by simply determining the politics of the messenger and then reflexively embracing (or rejecting)  the message.  Ours is a higher, harder, and ultimately more rewarding calling.

First ThanksgivingI didn’t write my recent book, The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History, primarily to “set the record straight” about the Pilgrims and their 1621 celebration, although I did hope to provide a faithful retelling of that fascinating story.  Rather, my primary goal was to warn readers about the snares that await us when we study history, and to introduce them to a variety of principles and concepts that are essential to keep in mind whenever we  study any episode or people from the past.  You know the old saw about the difference between giving someone a fish versus teaching them how to fish.  I didn’t want to spoon-feed the “real story” of the past as much as show how the real story lays bare key principles for thinking historically and Christianly about the past.  I wanted to help readers think historically more than tell them what to think about a particular historical moment.

Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims illustrates pretty much every pitfall that I warn about in The First Thanksgiving, but in the interest of time I’ll just mention two.  One of the most common temptations we face when studying history is the temptation to go to the past for ammunition instead of illumination–more determined to prove points than 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 findings can reinforce values that we already hold or promote agendas to which we are already committed.  This approach to the past makes history just one more battleground in the culture wars, with both sides ransacking the past in search of evidence to support their own predetermined positions.  When we employ the history-as-ammunition approach, we predictably find what we are looking for, but we rob history of its power in the process.  History loses its power to surprise and unnerve us, ultimately to teach us anything at all.

The second common temptation is to turn historical figures into our next-door neighbors in funny clothes–that is, thinking of them as just like us.  If the temptation to search for ammunition reflects a propensity of our hearts, the tendency to exaggerate the familiarity of the past reflects a characteristic of our brains.  We are wired to learn by analogy.  Without even having to think about it, when we come across something new we reflexively search for an analogue, rummaging through the file drawers of our minds in search of the image or object or concept that most closely resembles it.  When we find what looks like a decent match, we say that the new thing we have encountered is “like” something else.  The construction of this analogy is totally natural, but it’s also dangerous, because once we have recognized something familiar in the past, we will be tempted to label it and move on rather than wrestle with it and learn.  When we do that, we almost always exaggerate the degree to which the past was similar to the present.

This danger is particularly great when studying groups like the Pilgrims who do share some of our ways of looking at the world.  We read about men and women who were religiously motivated, family oriented, and committed to liberty–all of which is true–and without even realizing it we’re soon thinking of them as one of “us.”  The problem with this is that, once it occurs, what really happens is that we stop thinking about them at all.  They become our clones in funny clothes, and any chance of seeing ourselves more clearly or of learning from people who were the product of a different time and place goes right out of the window.

Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims constantly exaggerates the similarity between the Pilgrims and 21st-century Americans.  Oh, there are undoubtedly differences: the Pilgrims as Limbaugh describes them are more grateful than we are; they’re tougher, more courageous, more committed to liberty.  But these are differences of degree, not of kind.  The Pilgrims’ values are our values, they just lived them out more effectively.  At bottom, they are who we want to be (or should want to be).  They are us when we’re having a good day.

A case in point is Limbaugh’s treatment of the Pilgrims’ commitment to liberty or freedom, a recurring theme throughout the book.  We learn early on that the Pilgrims were “real people ready to give their lives for their freedom, no matter the cost, no matter the pain, no matter the sacrifice.”  And indeed they were.  But what the Pilgrims meant by “freedom” and what Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims conveys are two very different things.

Because this is a book for young readers, Limbaugh understandably does not provide an abstract, dictionary definition for freedom.  Instead, he has various characters in the book discuss the concept and come to their own conclusions.  For example, early in the book Rush Revere chastises his talking horse, Liberty, for misbehaving in a Dutch shoe shop (I am not making this up) and says that from now on Liberty will have to stay right by his side.  “Your freedom to choose as you please is becoming troublesome!” he scolds the horse.  But out of the mouths of babes and talking horses can come wisdom, and Liberty responds by telling Rush Revere that he sounds a lot like the tyrannical King James, who had similarly restricted the Separatists’ freedom in England.  “I had a sick feeling in my stomach,” a chastened Rush Revere informs the reader.  “I felt horrible for trying to force Liberty to do what I wanted.”  Rush Revere apologizes to Liberty and adds, “And just for the record, I hope you never feel forced to do anything.”

In like manner, later in the book Limbaugh presents a conversation between Pilgrim soldier Myles Standish and Tommy White, a middle-school student who has accompanied Rush and Liberty on their trip back in time.  When Standish explains that the Church of England had tried to tell the Pilgrims how to act and think, young Tommy furrows his brow and commiserates, “Yeah, I don’t like when people try to control me.”

So what is the definition of “liberty” that is being conveyed?  It  boils down to freedom from external control.  If a horse wants to go into a shoe shop, he should be able to,  and no eleven-year-old school boy should be forced to do anything against his will.  This definition nicely conforms with modern American values: our understanding of “rights” as “what I want” and of liberty as the individual freedom to do anything, say anything, go anywhere, etc.  But it bears only the most superficial resemblance to what the Pilgrims had in mind when they spoke of liberty.

The Separatists at Leiden had been taught a very different understanding of liberty than our contemporary notion.  Central to their thinking was the concept of covenant, which emphasized not rights but responsibility–between God and man and between man and man.  Consequently, the liberty that they venerated facilitated obedience more than autonomy, order more than individualism, and service more than self-expression.  Liberty, as they understood it, was the freedom not to do whatever you wanted but to do what was right, and what was right was determined by the law of God and by your obligations to your neighbor.  Liberty, then, was the freedom to pursue a life of faithfulness in the network of relationships in which God had placed you.  In the words of the Pilgrims’ pastor in Leiden, John Robinson, “It is a Christian’s liberty . . . to serve God in faith, and his brethren in love.”

From the Pilgrims’ perspective, human society was not a conglomeration of individuals but of groups.  They believed that God had ordained three basic building blocks for society: the family, the church, and the civil community.  Each of these constituent units was organic (like a living being), interdependent, and hierarchical.  Each was characterized by shared responsibilities and mutual obligations within clearly defined chains of authority.  So, for example, all of the colonists were to submit to the civil magistrate, whose authority (whether he was Christian or “heathen”), came from God.  When the Separatists had decided to defy both the Church of England and the English king by creating their own congregations, they had not done so as an assertion of individual right, but as an expression of their obligation to obey God rather than man.

Indeed, as the Pilgrims understood the world, there was nothing particularly admirable about self-assertion or the insistence on individual rights.  Rather, it was self-denial that lay at the heart of every virtue.  In the words of Robert Cushman, a deacon in the Pilgrims’ congregation in Leiden, “Nothing in this world doth more resemble heavenly happiness, than for men to live as one, being of one heart, and one soul; neither anything more resembles hellish horror, than for every man to shift for himself.”

The Pilgrims have no authority over us, and their way of looking at the world is not automatically binding on us.  But their world view was not the one that Rush Limbaugh has given them, and readers of Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims should at least know that.

HOW NOT TO ARGUE HISTORICALLY: THOUGHTS ON “SOUTHERN SLAVERY AS IT WAS”

In my last two posts I have been talking about the dangers of grounding essentially religious arguments about the present in historical assertions about the past.  Drawing examples from the writings first of Peter Marshall Jr. and David Manuel and then of Francis Schaeffer, I have argued that such an approach has awful consequences.  The worst is that these writers effectively backed themselves into a corner in which it was impossible to admit historical errors.  Any mistakes in their interpretation of the American past would seem to undermine their religious critique of the American present.  In Schaeffer’s case, at least, this led him to group critics of his interpretation of U. S. history with “weak Christians” who don’t fully believe the Scriptures.

It is easy for us to condemn this as unbridled arrogance, but let me check that impulse with this reminder: In books like The Light and the Glory and How Should We Then Live?, Marshall, Manuel, and Schaeffer were courageously calling American evangelicals to think deeply about the surrounding culture, to “take very thought captive in obedience to Christ.”

Schaeffer, in particular, was contesting a deeply entrenched fundamentalist tendency to be suspicious of intellectual pursuits.  He challenged American Christians, instead, to think Christianly about science and philosophy, art and architecture, music and medicine and politics.  His writings about history were  a seamless part of this larger project, and even Christian historians who are skeptical of his historical interpretations–and almost all of them are–give Schaeffer credit for motivating a generation of believers to take the life of the mind more seriously.  That is a huge accomplishment.

And yet good intentions without discernment can still do much harm.  My point in these posts has not been to provide a “final answer” about the degree to which the American founding was Christian (as if that were possible!), as important as that question is.  No, my goal has been to call attention to the damage we can do in conflating the authority of Scripture with the force of our own fallible interpretations of the American past.

Toward that end, I want to share one final illustration of how not to argue historically.  The work I have in mind is a booklet from the 1990s titled Southern Slavery as It Was, authored by two prominent Reformed pastors, Douglas Wilson and Steven Wilkins.

Of the two, Wilkins, a Presbyterian pastor from Louisiana, is probably less well known today, but Wilson is growing in name recognition.  For decades he has been a prominent figure in the Northwest, having founded a church, grammar school, college, and press in his home base of Moscow, Idaho.  Of late he has increased in national stature, thanks especially to his well publicized debates with the (now deceased) atheist Christopher Hitchens, to his growing prominence within the Gospel Coalition, and by his recent authorship of the satirical novel Evangellyfish, which Christianity Today named the best work of fiction in 2012.

SSAIW

Southern Slavery as It Was is a textbook example of the danger of grounding religious arguments in historical interpretations.  Unlike Marshall and Manuel and Schaeffer, who linked their critique of the contemporary U. S. to debatable assertions about the American founding, Wilson and Wilkins went into battle wielding a contentious interpretation of slavery and the Old South.

“The South has long carried the stigma of racism and bigotry,” the authors declare in the booklet’s first sentence.  “The institution of slavery has so blackened the Southern position that nothing about the South can be viewed as good or right. . . . We have all heard of the heartlessness–the brutalities, immoralities, and cruelties–that were supposedly inherent in the system of slavery. . . . The truthfulness of this description has seldom been challenged.  The point of this small booklet,” the authors explain, “is to establish that this impression is largely false.”

In a preemptive strike against those who would challenge their interpretation,  Wilson and Wilkins conclude the booklet’s introduction by exhorting readers to relinquish all false belief about slavery and the South.  “Because we have resolved to abandon sin,” they declare ominously, “this must include the sin of believing a lie” [italics in the original].  The pastors gave their readers a simple choice, in other words: agree with us or be guilty.

By why is it of such paramount importance to know the truth about southern slavery?  Wilson and Wilkins answer by sharing anecdotes of public debates in which liberals dismissed arguments against homosexuality or abortion by observing that the Bible condoned slavery.  The implicit argument in such retorts was that, because slavery is evil and the Bible allows for slavery, then the Bible is obviously an unreliable moral guide.  Reminding us that Christians must never “be embarrassed by any portion of the Word of God,” the pastors then make an utterly illogical leap: they seek to defend the Scripture’s apparent allowance of slavery by defending the treatment of slaves in the American South.

The author’s justification is an egregious non sequitur.  The entire argument of Southern Slavery as It Was is unnecessary and irrelevant to their stated objective.  There is a substantive theological argument that they might have offered, but I am not a theologian, and I want to keep our focus on how they used history.

The desire to help Christians to understand and not be embarrassed by biblical teaching on slavery did not require Wilson and Wilkins to defend slavery as it existed in the American South.  If Beethoven is not on trial when a junior-high band plays his Fifth Symphony, neither is the Bible on trial when we evaluate the godliness of southern slaveholders.

To return to the anecdotal example of the liberal champion of homosexuality or abortion who dismisses the Bible because it tolerates slavery, sincere Christians engaged in contemporary debates have a ready answer with regard to slavery in the American context.  “If the Bible seemingly allows for slavery,” we might answer, “it also condemns racism and enjoins masters to do as they would be done by.  To the degree that southern slavery was racist (and it was, systemically so), or that masters transgressed the Golden Rule, the Bible cannot be interpreted to condone it.”

Wilson and Wilkins do not follow this course, unfortunately.  Implying that anything less than a robust defense of the Old South would weaken the Scriptural argument against homosexuality or abortion, they insist that southern slavery’s “sad realities” were overshadowed by its more admirable features.  Here is a sampling of what they contend:

* “Slavery as it existed in the South . . . was a relationship based on mutual affection and confidence.  There has never been a multi-racial society which has existed with such mutual intimacy and harmony in the history of the world.”

* “Slaves were well treated and often had a deep loyalty to, and affection for, their masters.”

* “One could argue that the black family has never been stronger than it was under slavery.”

* Slaves lived “a life of plenty, of simple pleasures.”  Enslavement was a “pleasant . . . experience for the majority.”

* “Most southern blacks (slave and free) supported the southern war effort.”

* “Slavery produced in the South a genuine affection between the races that we believe we can say has never existed in any nation before the War or since.”

The damage inflicted by such an argument is immense.  To begin with, it will understandably constitute an enormous stumbling block for many black Christians.  (For elaborations of this point which refer to a later work by Pastor Wilson, see here, here, and here.)

Second, the authors’ argument teaches Christians, black and white, that unless they agree with the authors’ views on southern slavery (not on Biblical principles, mind you, but on American history!) that they are simply part of the problem, helping to undermine any argument against homosexuality or abortion.  (Several years ago, when I forwarded a lengthy critique of SSAIW to Wilson through the elders of my church, Wilson noted in his lengthy reply to my elders, “When a homosexual couple move in next door to Dr. McKenzie, and they are just as married in the eyes of the state of Washington as he is, he should take note of the fact that we have been fighting this kind of thing for years.”)

Finally, the authors’ argument will rightly be a stumbling block to sincere seekers who don’t yet accept the gospel.  When the booklet predictably became a lightning rod for controversy early in the last decade, non-Christians who followed the resulting furor observed the embarrassing spectacle of zealous Christians linking scriptural orthodoxy with the dogmatic insistence that southern slaves were content and well cared for.  What a tragedy.

Let me stress my belief that both Wilson and Wilkins–like Schaeffer and Marshall and Manuel–were honorably motivated.  When I see their zeal and courage, I am honestly convicted.  Thus in criticizing their use of history, I am in no way impugning their character.  I simply see Southern Slavery as It Was as a sad illustration of the consequences that regularly ensue when Christians seek to wield history as a weapon in the culture wars, and I want to do everything that I can to help us learn from the example.

Like Marshall, Manuel, and Schaeffer before them, Wilson and Wilkins were in a dilemma of their own making: any acknowledgment of historical error on their part would be seen as undermining their critique of contemporary culture.  As a Christian historian in a northwestern congregation much influenced by Doug Wilson’s teaching, I wrote privately to Pastor Wilson back in 1996, not long after the publication of Southern Slavery as It Was, to share my opinion that it was marred by numerous errors of fact and logic.  In 1998 I wrote again to him privately, and then five years later, as attacks on the booklet from local critics were rising to a crescendo, I forwarded a 30+ page critique of SSAIW through the elders of my church.  Finally, with the moral support of one of my elders, I flew to Moscow, Idaho and met personally with Wilson, trying one last time to convince him that his approach was wrongheaded.

Wilson was gracious to me in all of these private interactions, but he made it clear that if I disagreed with him publicly I would be undermining his work for God’s kingdom.  As he wrote in one e-mail, “either you remain out of the fracas,” referring to the tempest then swirling around the booklet, “or you fight alongside me, or you get co-opted by their side,” referring to the secular “intoleristas” who opposed his ministry.  In sum, unless I was willing to endorse his views or remain silent, I would inevitably aid the cause of his enemies–and his enemies were God’s enemies.

I was reminded of this position on numerous occasions in the coming months.  When I finally decided to share my concerns at my church’s men’s meeting, one of the members in attendance interrupted my presentation to say that I was “sinning” by questioning Wilson’s historical teaching.  Then when I criticized Wilson’s scholarship in a brief letter to World magazine (in response to an article on the controversy in Moscow that quoted me), one of the elders at Wilson’s church e-mailed my pastor (copying me) to say that “God’s enemies really love this stuff.”

How does it come to this?  How do we reach the point where views on American history can be a litmus test of spiritual faithfulness?  We must train ourselves to resist any and every effort to proclaim a particular interpretation of non-Biblical history as the Christian understanding.  Where God has not spoken, we must not pronounce our own opinions as final.

I am reminded of the words of Puritan John Robinson, the Pilgrims’ pastor in Leiden, Holland before their emigration to New England.  “Err we may, alas! too easily,” Robinson lamented from the pulpit.  Reminding his congregation of the human propensity “to err and be deceived in many things,” he enjoined them to cultivate a “modesty of mind” and be willing to learn from those with whom they disagreed.

Nearly four centuries later, that’s still good advice.  Much is at stake.  Evangelical intellectual life will never flourish until we can disagree among ourselves without questioning each others’ character.