Tag Archives: Of Plymouth Plantation

WHEN CHRISTMAS WASN’T A HOLIDAY

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

The day was December 25, 1621, and the storied “Pilgrims” of Plimoth Plantation were headed out to work.

Sometime that fall—we don’t know exactly when—the fifty passengers of the Mayflower who had survived their first winter in New England had joined ninety or more Wampanoag Indians in a harvest celebration we remember as “the First Thanksgiving.”  We tend to lose interest in their story at that point, unfortunately, although we know much more about the aftermath of the First Thanksgiving than we do about the celebration itself.

One of the things we know is that the Pilgrims’ struggle for survival continued for at least another two years.  This was partly due to the criminal mismanagement of the London financiers who bankrolled the Pilgrims’ voyage.  The “Merchant Adventurers,” as they were known, had sent another boatload of colonists for Plymouth that fall.  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, including family and friends from the Pilgrim congregation in Leiden, would nearly double the colony’s depleted ranks, and the Pilgrims were initially elated.

Their joy was tempered when they discovered that the London merchants had again insisted on adding numerous strangers to the passenger list, “many of them wild enough,” in Governor William Bradford’s words.  What was worse, they had arrived with few clothes, no bedding or pots or pans, and “not so much as biscuit cake or any other victuals,” as 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.”

To compound their adversity, not long after the First Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims received a message from the nearby Narragansett Indians threatening war.  Fearing for their safety, the depleted band began a frenzied construction of a log palisade around their tiny settlement.  (By the end of February they would complete a wall of logs eight feet high and twenty-seven hundred feet long!)  We tend to close the book on the Pilgrims’ story with the small band feasting around the Thanksgiving table.  It was actually but the briefest of interludes to a year of almost unimaginable hardships, and as the year drew to a close, the Pilgrims not one but two imminent threats: hunger and the Narragansett, starvation and war.

But that is not why they were headed out to work on Christmas Day.

They were headed out to work because Christmas Day was no different from any other day, in their estimation.   The Pilgrims understood the concept of holidays literally.  The word holiday in modern parlance is simply the elision of the two-word phrase “holy day.”  As they read their Bibles, the Pilgrims concluded that God alone could command that a day be set apart as holy unto the Lord, and nowhere in the Scripture could they find any commandment to celebrate the birth of Christ.  As the Pilgrims’ pastor in Holland had remarked to them, nowhere in the Bible are we even told that December 25th was Jesus’ birthday.  At the time that the Pilgrims fled England for Holland, the Church of England recognized twenty-seven holy days annually (down from ninety-five at the time that Henry VIII broke with Rome).  The survival of so many holidays on the Anglican calendar was evidence, in the minds of English Puritans, of the degree to which the Church of England still suffered from “the gross darkness of popery.”  Holidays like Christmas (and even Easter) were “papist inventions” that primarily served as a pretext for pagan celebrations.

The “strangers” recently arrived on the Fortune didn’t see it that way, however.  In his famous history Of Plymouth Plantation, Governor William Bradford concluded his review of the events of 1621 with a humorous story of what happened that Christmas:

On the day called Christmas Day, the Governor called them out to work as was used [i.e., as was customary].  But the most of this new company excused themselves and said it went against their consciences to work on that day.  So the Governor told them that if they made it a matter of conscience, he would spare them until they were better informed; so he led away the rest and left them.  But when they came home at noon from their work, he found them in the street at play, openly; some pitching the bar, and some at stool-ball [a game similar to cricket] and such like sports.  So he went to them and took away their implements and told them that was against his conscience, that they should play and others work.  If they made the keeping of it matter of devotion, let them keep their houses; but there should be no gaming or reveling in the streets.

A colleague of mine at the University of Washington once used the paragraph above as the text for his Christmas cards.  An Englishman and a historian of colonial America, he sent the cards primarily for laughs, to tweak his American friends.  There are also more substantive reasons to remember this story at Christmas time.  Bradford’s anecdote reminds us of history’s greatest value: the gift of allowing us to see our own moment in time from the vantage point of another.

Although we are historical creatures, none of us naturally thinks historically.  We come into the world taking for granted that the way things are now is the way that they have always been.  As we gradually come to discover otherwise, we then gravitate to a worse historical error, the assumption that the way things are now—though different from the past—is both inevitable and superior to what came before.  The result is that we are freed from thinking deeply about the values we hold.  Indeed, to the degree that we see them as inevitable or “natural,” we may not even be self-conscious about them at all.

Bradford’s anecdote reminds us that Christians—even in our part of the world—have not always thought of Christmas as we do.  When the English Puritans briefly controlled Parliament in the middle of the seventeenth century, they actually enacted a national law prohibiting observance of the day.  On this side of the water, Christian opposition to Christmas continued for much of the rest of the century in New England.  Next door to Plymouth, the Massachusetts Bay Colony officially prohibited the celebration of Christmas in 1659.  The ordinance below continued on the books of the Massachusetts government until 1681:

It is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offense five shilling as a fine to the county.

Puritan ministers like Cotton Mather and Increase Mather likewise denounced celebration of the holiday, noting that the holiday as celebrated in England made a mockery of Christian piety and was little more than an excuse for every form of carnal excess and indulgence.   Such sentiments were slow to fade, and Boston schools were open on Christmas Day for much of the nineteenth century.  Certainly, as late as the Civil War, the South was much more supportive of Christmas than was the North, where the anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing on December 22nd was the more commonly observed December celebration.

Like most of you, I imagine, my family has developed over time an assortment of Christmas traditions that we remember fondly and look forward to unapologetically.  None of us need follow William Bradford’s example by prohibiting celebrations this Sunday.  But it wouldn’t hurt us to think about why we do what we do.  In its essence, that is the practice that Bradford was modeling for us.  We don’t have to arrive at his exact conclusions to take his reminder to heart.

In England and the United States, at least, most of the Christmas traditions we now think of as timeless emerged during the latter half of the 1800s.  Many of these are surely wonderful—I know I’m thankful for Christmas carols, Christmas trees, Christmas cookies, and Christmas Eve candlelight services.  Some are not so positive.  The most obvious is the orgy of buying now so central to the holiday.  But even more pernicious—because less blatant—is the way that, even within our churches, we have narrowed the theological significance of the Incarnation to a sentimental story about a baby in a manger, emphasizing the love of God while severing the miracle of the Incarnation from the human need for Atonement and the divine promise of an already/not yet Kingdom.

For unto us a Child is born, Unto us a Son is given; And the government will be upon His shoulder.  And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  Of the increase of His government and peace There will be no end, Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, To order it and establish it with judgment and justice From that time forward, even forever.  The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this. (Isaiah 9:6-7)

Merry Christmas one and all!

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?

THE FIRST THANKSGIVING IN AMERICAN MEMORY–PART ONE

In recent years I’ve become more and more fascinated with popular historical memory.  It’s an odd phenomenon, really.  By definition, it exists at the intersection between past and present.  In the best case, it’s informed (at least somewhat) by historical evidence, but it’s always influenced by the contemporary context as well.  This means that one of the best ways to track the changing values of a culture is to examine how popular memory of a particular historical event differs over time.  The memory of the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving is a case in point.

The history of popular memory of the First Thanksgiving falls neatly into two broad periods separated by a crucial event in the year 1841.  The first of the two is the simplest to characterize.  For 220 years after the Pilgrims’ 1621 harvest celebration, almost no one remembered the event that later generations would recall as a defining episode in the founding of America.  To our knowledge, there was only one contemporary record made of the event.  Sometime shortly after the celebration, a Pilgrim named Edward Winslow wrote a letter back to an acquaintance in England in which he sketched how the passengers of the Mayflower had fared since their arrival at Plymouth.  In the course of that letter, which was published as part of pamphlet in 1622, Winslow included a 115-word description of the event we now remember as the “First Thanksgiving.”

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651. Winslow sat for the portrait while in England, three decades after penning the only first-hand account of the First Thanksgiving.

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651. Winslow sat for the portrait while in England, three decades after penning the only first-hand account of the First Thanksgiving.

The pamphlet containing the description was published in England under the modest title A Relation or Journall of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Setled at Plimoth in New England, by Certaine English Adventurers both Merchants and Others, with the Difficult Passage, their Safe Arrivall, their Joyfull Building of, and Comfortable Planting Themselves in the Now Well Defended Towne of New Plimoth.  The printer who actually published the book was one “G. Mourt,” and the pamphlet has been known ever by the mercifully shorter title Mourt’s Relation.  (In the seventeenth century, “relation” was another word for “report” or “account.)

Rare in England, Mourt’s Relation was rarer still in the American colonies, and by the beginning of the eighteenth century there was probably not a single copy of it in all of New England.  With neither oral tradition nor a written record to keep it alive, the 1621 event gradually faded until it vanished entirely.

The opposite was true of Thanksgiving itself.  As memory of the First Thanksgiving died away, the celebration of Thanksgiving became more popular, not less.  The original Pilgrims had been very skeptical of regular holy days.  (Remember that our word “holiday” is just an elision of the two words “holy day.”)  The Pilgrims associated regular holidays with the perceived abuses of Catholicism, and in general the only true holy day that they celebrated regularly was the Lord’s Day every Sunday.  Their descendants, however, gradually forgot or rejected their ancestors’ hostility to regularly scheduled holidays.  By the 1690s they had adopted a pattern of annual springtime Fast Days, to beseech God’s blessing on the crop about to be planted, and autumn Thanksgiving Days, in which they thanked the Lord for the harvest just past.

While the custom of springtime fasts never caught on elsewhere, the celebration of regular autumn Thanksgivings spread across New England during the eighteenth century, expanded to the Midwest after the War of 1812, and began to catch on in the Upper South by the 1840s.  Thanksgiving was becoming a beloved American holiday, just not one linked to the Pilgrims.

Since the late-18th century the Pilgrims had been growing in importance in American memory, but the part that they played in the national story was as generic “founders” or “forefathers.”  Thinking of their national story as a series of dramatic images, Americans imagined the Pilgrims huddled on Plymouth Rock, not gathered around the Thanksgiving table.  Out of 223 colonial or state thanksgiving proclamations I have located from the years 1676-1840, not a single one refers to the Pilgrims, even euphemistically.  It was as if the Pilgrims’ 1621 celebration had never occurred.  Americans thought of their Thanksgiving tradition as coming mainly from New England Puritans but did not think of it as originating in a particular historical moment.  As late as 1840, the “First Thanksgiving” was simply not a part of historical memory.

It became a part of popular historical memory not in 1621 but in 1841, the year that Edward Winslow’s account of the Pilgrims’ harvest celebration reentered the historical record.  The key figure in the process was the Reverend Alexander Young, a New England-born Unitarian minister with a passion for local history.  Working with a copy of Mourt’s Relation discovered in Philadelphia a generation earlier, Young included the text of the pamphlet in a compilation of historical documents he titled Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers.  The reverend appended his own explanatory notes to the manuscript, and when he came to Winslow’s description of the Pilgrims’ celebration, the clergyman explained to his audience that what they were reading was an account of the “first thanksgiving . . . of New England.”

The result was that Americans gradually became more and more aware of the Pilgrims’ celebration. Notice I said aware, not impressed. Generations would pass before Americans widely embraced the story of the Pilgrims’ First Thanksgiving as an important chapter in the early history of America. So why was this?

I can think of three reasons. For starters, Winslow’s account showed that the Wampanoag Indians had played a prominent role in the Pilgrims’ celebration. Winslow had devoted only one sentence to the Wampanoag, but that lone sentence made two disturbing facts undeniable: the majority of those present at the “First Thanksgiving” had been Indians, not Pilgrims, and the two groups had interacted peacefully.

The revelation was jarring, especially outside of the Northeast. In 1841, Thanksgiving was still almost exclusively a northern holiday, flourishing particularly in New England and in areas farther west to which New Englanders had migrated in large numbers. In New England—where few Native Americans remained in 1841—it was possible for Yankees to romanticize the “noble savage” and to imagine a carefully circumscribed role for Indians in their beloved regional holiday. Elsewhere this was far from easy.

In 1841 the southeastern United states was only three years removed from the infamous “Trail of Tears,” the forced relocation of the Cherokee Indians from Georgia to Oklahoma that had resulted in more than four thousand Cherokee deaths. West of the Mississippi, violence would continue to punctuate Indian-white relations for another two generations, on scattered battlefields with evocative names like Sand Creek, Little Big Horn, and Wounded Knee. Correspondingly, until long after the Civil War, most artistic representations of Thanksgiving that included Native Americans portrayed them as openly hostile, and it is no coincidence that the now familiar image of Indians and Pilgrims sitting around a common table dates from the early twentieth century. By that time America’s Indian wars were comfortably past, and it would begin to be broadly possible in the public mind to reinterpret the place of Native Americans at the Thanksgiving table. But that would come later. In 1841 the national policy toward Native Americans was not assimilation but removal, and in that respect the First Thanksgiving fit awkwardly in the national story.

This 1877 painting by Charles Howard Johnson portrays Native Americas as hostile to the Pilgrims.  It was the late-19th century before the Pilgrims and Indians began to be portrayed as friends.

This 1877 painting by Charles Howard Johnson portrays Native Americas as hostile to the Pilgrims. It was the late-19th century before the Pilgrims and Indians began to be portrayed as friends.

Keep in mind also the growing sectional rivalry of the period. Winslow’s account of the 1621 celebration was republished just as tensions between North and South were beginning to mount. Unfortunately, fans of Thanksgiving had traditionally emphasized its regional ties. New England magazines and newspapers boasted that the holiday was “strictly one of New England origin.” The custom was “precious to every New-England man,” and without its recurrence “a Yankee could scarce comprehend that the year had passed.” More to the point, white southerners also associated the holiday with New England, and that made it suspect in their eyes. Even as it gradually expanded southward, there was a lingering tendency among southerners to think of Thanksgiving as a holiday invented by Pharisaical Yankees to take the place of Christmas, which Puritans had traditionally spurned.

New Englanders did little to make the holiday easier to swallow. From our twenty-first-century perspective, one of the striking things about Thanksgiving in antebellum America is how politicized it could be. For southern whites, it didn’t help that northern governors often endorsed the abolition of slavery in their annual proclamations, or that antislavery organizations sometimes took up collections at thanksgiving services, or that New England abolitionists wrote poetry linking the “Pilgrim Spirit” to John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. (In 1859, Brown and a small band of followers occupied the federal arsenal in that place as the first step in an ill-defined plot to foment a slave uprising. Yankee educator Franklin Sanborn, a secret supporter of Brown’s scheme, penned a tribute to the antislavery zealot, noting that “the Pilgrim Fathers’ earnest creed . . . inspired this hero’s noblest deed.”)

As the crisis of the Union came to a head, the Richmond Daily Dispatch surely spoke for many southerners in mocking New England’s favorite holiday. When a New York newspaper reported that the newly elected Abraham Lincoln had celebrated the holiday “like the rest of Anglo-Saxon mankind,” the editor of the Dispatch erupted. Thanksgiving was unknown outside “a few Yankee Doodle States,” he insisted with some exaggeration, “but it is a common notion of New England, that it is the hub of the whole creation, the axis of the entire universe, and that when it thanks God that it is not as other men, everybody else is doing the same. . . . What a race these sycophants are!”

A final reason for the Pilgrims’ limited usefulness to mid-nineteenth century Americans, I believe, is that they had come to celebrate Thanksgiving in a way that the Pilgrims would not have recognized, much less approved. This had not been intentional. Americans’ Thanksgiving traditions had developed while the country knew nothing about the First Thanksgiving. And then, after two centuries, in the span of less than two decades the veil was pulled back. The first step had been the republication of Mourt’s Relation, but much more was involved. A decade later came the release of three volumes of writings and sermons from the Pilgrims’ pastor in Leiden, John Robinson. Five years after that came the dramatic publication of Pilgrim Governor William Bradford’s long-lost history Of Plymouth Plantation.

Collectively, these sources revealed that the Pilgrims had roundly criticized the Church of England for its numerous annual holidays. All three underscored the Pilgrims’ conviction that Days of Thanksgiving should be proclaimed irregularly and should center on public worship. Unfortunately for the Pilgrims’ popularity, mid-nineteenth-century Americans had precisely reversed these criteria. By the eve of the Civil War, the “traditional American Thanksgiving” was a regularly scheduled celebration centered inside the home.

If the Pilgrims’ story was to become an important part of Thanksgiving, there was much that would have to change.  We’ll talk about those changes next time.

WILLIAM BRADFORD ON “PROVIDENTIAL” HISTORY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE “FIRST THANKSGIVING” WE’VE FORGOTTEN

Tomorrow families all across America will celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, and some, at least, will link what they are doing to the Pilgrims’ celebration on the coast of Massachusetts in 1621. Although frequently embellished and sometimes caricatured, the story of the Pilgrims’ “First Thanksgiving” is rich with insight and inspiration. The Pilgrims were human, which means that they bore the imprint of the Fall with all its attendant sinful consequences: they were ethnocentric, sometimes judgmental and intolerant, prone to bickering, and tempted by mammon. They were also people of remarkable faith and fortitude—common folk of average abilities and below-average means who risked everything in the interest of their families and their community of faith.

The Pilgrims’ trial began with their voyage on the Mayflower, a 65-day-long ordeal in which 102 men, women, and children crossed the stormy Atlantic in a space the size of a city bus. Following that came a cruel New England winter for which they were ill prepared. (Massachusetts is more than six hundred miles south of London—on a line of latitude even with Madrid, Spain—and the Pilgrims were expecting a much more temperate climate.) Due more to exposure than starvation, their number dwindled rapidly, so that by the onset of spring some fifty-one members of the party had died. A staggering fourteen of the eighteen wives who had set sail on the Mayflower had perished in their new home. Widowers and orphans abounded.

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

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

That the Pilgrims could celebrate at all in this setting was a testimony both to human resilience and to heavenly hope. Yet celebrate they did, most probably sometime in late September or early October after God had granted them a harvest sufficient to see them through the next winter. This is an inspiring story, and it is a good thing for Christians this Thanksgiving to remember it. I don’t know about you, but I am always encouraged when I sit down with Christian friends and hear of how God has sustained them in hard times. Remembering the Pilgrims’ story is a lot like that, although the testimony comes to us not from across the room but from across the centuries.

And yet the part of the Pilgrims’ story that modern-day Americans have chosen to emphasize doesn’t seem to have been that significant to the Pilgrims themselves. More importantly, it fails to capture the heart of the Pilgrims’ thinking about God’s provision and our proper response. Most of what we know about the Pilgrims’ experience after leaving Holland comes from two Pilgrim writers—William Bradford, the long-time governor of the Plymouth colony, and Edward Winslow, his close assistant. Bradford never even referred to the Pilgrims’ 1621 celebration (what we call the “First Thanksgiving”) in his famous history of the Pilgrims’ colony, Of Plymouth Plantation. Winslow mentioned it but briefly, devoting five sentences to it in a letter that he wrote to supporters in England. Indeed, the 115 words in those five sentences represent the sum total of all that we know about the occasion!

This means that there is a lot that we would like to know about that event that we will never know. It seems likely (although it must be conjecture) that the Pilgrims thought of their autumn celebration that first fall in Plymouth as something akin to the harvest festivals common at that time in England. What is absolutely certain is that they did not conceive of the celebration as a Thanksgiving holiday.

"First Thanksgiving at Plymouth," Jeannie Brownscombe, 1914

“First Thanksgiving at Plymouth,” Jeannie Brownscombe, 1914

When the Pilgrims spoke of holidays, they used the word literally. A holiday was a “holy day,” a day specially set apart for worship and communion with God. Their reading of the scripture convinced them that God had only established one regular holy day under the new covenant, and that was the Lord’s Day each Sunday. Beyond that, they did believe that the scripture allowed the consecration of occasional Days of Fasting and Humiliation to beseech the Lord for deliverance from a particular trial, as well as occasional Days of Thanksgiving to praise the Lord for his extraordinary provision. Both were comparatively solemn observances, characterized by lengthy religious services full of prayer, praise, instruction, and exhortation.

From the Pilgrims’ perspective, their first formal celebration of a Day of Thanksgiving in Plymouth came nearly two years later, in July 1623. We’re comparatively unfamiliar with it because, frankly, we get bored with the Pilgrims once they’ve carved the first turkey. We condense their story to three key events—the Mayflower Compact, the Landing at Plymouth Rock, and the First Thanksgiving—and quickly lose interest thereafter. In reality, the Pilgrims’ struggle for survival continued at least another two years.

This was partly due to the criminal mismanagement of the London financiers who bankrolled the colony. Only weeks after their 1621 harvest celebration, the Pilgrims were surprised by the arrival of the ship Fortune. The thirty-five new settlers on board would nearly double their depleted ranks. Unfortunately, they arrived with few clothes, no bedding or pots or pans, and “not so much as biscuit cake or any other victuals,” as William Bradford bitterly recalled. Indeed, the London merchants had not even provisioned the ship’s crew with sufficient food for the trip home.

The result was that, rather than having “good plenty” for the winter, the Pilgrims, who had to provide food for the Fortune’s return voyage and feed an additional thirty-five mouths throughout the winter, once again faced the prospect of starvation. Fearing that the newcomers would “bring famine upon us,” the governor immediately reduced the weekly food allowance by half. In the following months hunger “pinch[ed] them sore.” By May they were almost completely out of food. It was no longer the season for waterfowl, and if not for the shellfish in the bay, and the little grain they were able to purchase from passing fishing boats, they very well might have starved.

The harvest of 1622 provided a temporary reprieve from hunger, but it fell far short of their needs for the coming year, and by the spring of 1623 the Pilgrims’ situation was again dire. As Bradford remembered their trial, it was typical for the colonists to go to bed at night not knowing where the next day’s nourishment would come from. For two to three months they had no bread or beer at all and “God fed them” almost wholly “out of the sea.”

Adding to their plight, the heavens closed up around the third week in May, and for nearly two months it rained hardly at all. The ground became parched, the corn began to wither, and hopes for the future began dying as well. When another boatload of settlers arrived that July, they were “much daunted and dismayed” by their first sight of the Plymouth colonists, many of whom were “ragged in apparel and some little better than half naked.” The Pilgrims, for their part, could offer the newcomers nothing more than a piece of fish and a cup of water.

In the depths of this trial the Pilgrims were sure of this much: it was God who had sent this great drought; it was the Lord who was frustrating their “great hopes of a large crop.” This was not the caprice of “nature,” but the handiwork of the Creator who worked “all things according to the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11). Fearing that He had done this thing for their chastisement, the community agreed to set apart “a solemn day of humiliation, to seek the Lord by humble and fervent prayer, in this great distress.”

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651

As Edward Winslow explained, their hope was that God “would be moved hereby in mercy to look down upon us, and grant the request of our dejected souls. . . . But oh the mercy of our God!” Winslow exulted, “who was as ready to hear, as we to ask.” The colonists awoke on the appointed day to a cloudless sky, but by the end of the prayer service—which lasted eight to nine hours—it had become overcast, and by morning it had begun to rain, as it would continue to do for the next fourteen days. Bradford marveled at the “sweet and gentle showers . . . which did so apparently revive and quicken the decayed corn.” Winslow added, “It was hard to say whether our withered corn or drooping affections were most quickened or revived.”

Overwhelmed by God’s gracious intervention, the Pilgrims immediately called for another providential holiday. “We thought it would be great ingratitude,” Winslow explained, if we should “content ourselves with private thanksgiving for that which by private prayer could not be obtained. And therefore another solemn day was set apart and appointed for that end; wherein we returned glory, honor, and praise, with all thankfulness, to our good God.” This occasion, likely held at the end of July, 1623, perfectly matches the Pilgrims’ definition of a thanksgiving holy day. It was a “solemn” observance, as Winslow noted, called to acknowledge a very specific, extraordinary blessing from the Lord. In sum, it was what the Pilgrims themselves would have viewed as their “First Thanksgiving” in America, and we have all but forgotten it.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving tomorrow, perhaps we might remember both of these occasions. The Pilgrims’ harvest celebration of 1621 is an important reminder to see God’s gracious hand in the bounty of nature. But the Pilgrims’ holiday of 1623—what they would have called “The First Thanksgiving”—more forthrightly challenges us to look for God’s ongoing, supernatural intervention in our lives.

Have a great day tomorrow.

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. 

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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?

NOT OUR CLONES IN FUNNY CLOTHES: RUSH LIMBAUGH’S REVISIONIST HISTORY OF THE PILGRIMS

SIXTEEN 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 post, I began an extended review of Rush Limbaugh’s fabulously popular work of historical fiction, Rush Limbaugh and the Brave Pilgrims. That post focused on Limbaugh’s gross distortion of the Pilgrim’s economic values. Today I tackle Limbaugh’s misrepresentation of the Pilgrims’ understanding of liberty.

I don’t share these thoughts as some sort of partisan screed. Politically, I’m a conservative, but I don’t think that any good cause can ever genuinely be served by untruths. More importantly, as a Christian, I am distressed that Limbaugh systematically purges the Pilgrims of values that would rightly challenge our contemporary secular culture in fruitful ways. With no apparent sense of irony, on the cover of each book in the “Rush Revere” series Limbaugh superimposes his own face on a historical figure. This is (unintentionally) a marvelous metaphor for his approach to history, for he repeatedly refashions historical figures in his own image.

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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.

A second common temptation is to turn historical figures into our next-door neighbors in funny clothes—that is, to think 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 RevereRush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims constantly exaggerates the similarity between the Pilgrims and 21st-century Americans. Oh, certainly there are 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. Liberty tells 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, but to do what was right. 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.  In its pages you’ll find Rush Limbaugh’s values, not the Pilgrims’.

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