Tag Archives: Plymouth Rock

FIVE MYTHS ABOUT THE PILGRIMS

Thanksgiving is a week from today, and in keeping with a time-honored custom dating to 2013, I am bombarding you with posts on the history of Thanksgiving.  Most of them draw to some degree from my book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History.  Below is an essay that originally appeared in the Washington Post.  The Post runs a regular feature each Sunday identifying popular myths about some misunderstood individual or event.  I sketched out a long list of possibilities for the editor, and she chose the five that made it into print.

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Five Myths about the Pilgrims:

When it comes to historical memory, the old saying that you can’t choose your relatives is just plain wrong. Americans have chosen the Pilgrims as honorary ancestors, and we tend to see their story as inseparable from the story of our nation, “land of the Pilgrims’ pride.” We imagine these honorary Founders as model immigrants, peace-loving and pioneers in the democratic experiment. We have burdened them with values they wouldn’t have recognized, and shrouded their story with myth. Here are five of the most common myths about the Pilgrims.

“The Landing of the Pilgrims,” Henry A. Bacon, 1877. Although William Bradford’s history makes clear that there were no females among the initial landing party at Plymouth in December 1621, this imaginative recreation includes several and also gives credence to a local tradition that teenager Mary Chilton was the first Pilgrim to come ashore. Note as well that the beach at Plymouth is predominantly sandy, not rocky as the artist suggests.

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

1) The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. If you visit Plymouth today, you’ll find a distinctive rock about the size of your living-room sofa embedded in the sandy beach, sheltered by a classical Greek portico and labeled with a sign erected by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts proclaiming,”Plymouth Rock: Landing Place of the Pilgrims.” It’s not hard to picture simple English folk huddled on that rock, envisioning through eyes of faith the great nation that would spring from their humble beginning. Except that’s probably not what happened. We “know” the location of the Pilgrims’ landing because in 1741 -121 years after the Pilgrims arrived – a 15-year-old boy overheard 95-year-old Thomas Faunce relate that his father, who came to Plymouth three years after the Mayflower, told him that he’d been told by unnamed persons that the landing occurred there. Curiously, William Bradford never mentioned Plymouth Rock in his history “Of Plymouth Plantation,” and if the expedition landed there he seems not to have noticed.

“Departure of the Pilgrims from Delft Haven,” Charles Lucy, 1847

“Departure of the Pilgrims from Delft Haven,” Charles Lucy, 1847

2). The Pilgrims came to America in search of religious freedom. It’s fair to say that the Pilgrims left England primarily to find religious freedom, but that’s not the primary motive that propelled them to North America. Remember that the Pilgrims went first to Holland, settling eventually in the city of Leiden. There they encountered a religious tolerance almost unheard of in that day and age, and Bradford and Edward Winslow both wrote glowingly of their experience. In Leiden, God had allowed them, in Bradford’s estimation, “to come as near the primitive pattern of the first churches as any other church of these later times.” God had blessed them with “much peace and liberty,” Winslow echoed. If a longing for religious freedom had compelled them, they likely never would have left. But while they cherished the freedom of conscience they enjoyed in Leiden, the Pilgrims had two major complaints: they found it a hard place to maintain their English identity, and an even harder place to make a living. In North America they hoped to live by themselves, enjoy the same degree of religious liberty, and earn a “better and easier” living.

The First Thanksgiving--Jean Louis Ferris

The “First Thanksgiving”–Jean Louis Ferris

3)  The Pilgrims’ autumn celebration in 1621 was the First Thanksgiving. No one seriously believes that the Pilgrims were the first to stop and thank their Creator for a bountiful harvest. Native Americans had a long tradition of thanksgiving celebrations. The Algonquian people, for example, participated in regular ceremonies linked to the crop cycle, while the nearby Wampanoag annually celebrated the first harvest of the new season with a “strawberry thanksgiving.” Europeans who arrived in North America prior to the Pilgrims likely also engaged in such observances. There is evidence of a thanksgiving service held in 1564 near present-day Jacksonville, Florida by French Huguenots-at a time when only two of the Pilgrims had even been born. The very next year Spanish documents refer to a thanksgiving mass celebrated at St. Augustine by conquistadores (who would soon slaughter the nearby Huguenots). Texas historians insist that Spanish colonists celebrated thanksgiving with the Manso Indians near present-day El Paso in 1598, not early enough to beat out Florida but still a generation before the celebration in Massachusetts. Among English settlers, there is evidence of a thanksgiving celebration in 1607 at a short-lived colony on the coast of Maine, and of two others among Virginia colonists in 1610 and 1619. More importantly, if the Pilgrims’ 1621 celebration was far from the first Thanksgiving, from the Pilgrims’ perspective it was not a Thanksgiving at all, but rather a kind of autumn harvest festival. As the Pilgrims understood it, a genuine Thanksgiving was a solemn observance to be observed irregularly, a “holy day” devoted to worship in acknowledgment of a specific, extraordinary blessing from the Lord.

4)  The Pilgrims were a humorless lot with a fondness for black. With more wit than historical accuracy, H. L. Mencken famously defined “puritanism” as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.” Modern Americans bought in to the stereotype, so that we regularly picture the Pilgrims as if they were on their way to a funeral, their solemn behavior matched by a somber wardrobe. When we read Winslow’s description of the Pilgrims’ 1621 harvest festival, however, we’re transported to a scene of beer and barbeque, shooting and sports. And forget about the ubiquitous black outfits. In fact, the Pilgrims had a taste for a wide range of bright colors. Estate inventories in Plymouth Colony reveal abundant references to red, blue, green, yellow and orange garments. Carpenter Will Wright, for example, upon his death left a blue coat and two vests, one white, the other red. William Bradford’s estate inventory showed that the long-term governor owned a “colored” hat, a red suit and a violet cloak. Pretty gaudy, actually.

“The Pilgrims Signing the Compact, on Board the Mayflower,” engraving after a painting by Tompkins Matteson, 1859. Shortly after dropping anchor in Cape Cod in November 1620, forty-one adult males gathered in the great cabin of the Mayflower to sign the statement we now remember as the Mayflower Compact.

“The Pilgrims Signing the Compact, on Board the Mayflower,” engraving after a painting by Tompkins Matteson, 1859.

5) The Pilgrims’ Mayflower Compact was an early and noteworthy example of American democracy. Americans have loaded this document with far more significance than it’s worthy of. We read it selectively, zeroing in on the parts where the signers commit to form “a civil body politic” and agree to formulate “just and equal laws . . . for the general good of the colony.” But it is no accident that the Compact begins with a description of the signatories as “the loyal subjects of our dread sovereign lord, King James.” Having been blown off course en route to America, the Pilgrims were about to settle some 200 miles north of the northernmost jurisdiction of the Virginia Company, authorized by King James I to coordinate colonial ventures along the Atlantic seaboard. It was quite possible they were committing an illegal act in the eyes of the Crown. But they made a point of assuring James of their unquestioned loyalty. They also identify him as their king not by virtue of their consent, but “by the grace of God.” This puts the Mayflower Compact closer to an affirmation of the divine right of kings than of the right of self-rule.

BEFORE THE FIRST THANKSGIVING: PLYMOUTH ROCK AND “THE GENERAL SICKNESS”

“The Landing of the Pilgrims,” Henry A. Bacon, 1877. Although William Bradford’s history makes clear that there were no females among the initial landing party at Plymouth in December 1621, this imaginative recreation includes several and also gives credence to a local tradition that teenager Mary Chilton was the first Pilgrim to come ashore. Note as well that the beach at Plymouth is predominantly sandy, not rocky as the artist suggests.

“The Landing of the Pilgrims,” Henry A. Bacon, 1877. Although William Bradford’s history makes clear that there were no females among the initial landing party at Plymouth in December 1621, this imaginative recreation includes several and also gives credence to a local tradition that teenager Mary Chilton was the first Pilgrim to come ashore.

After sighting land in early December, the Pilgrims spent the next six weeks exploring the coast of Massachusetts before settling on a location for their future home. Finally, on the 23rd of December all who were able went ashore about thirty miles south of present-day Boston and set to work. More than a century later (but still more than a century before Bradford’s history was discovered in London), the descendants of the Pilgrims would come to believe that they knew exactly where their ancestors had landed when they first set foot on the site. Specifically, they had it on good authority that the Pilgrims had touched ground at a distinctive rock still embedded in the sandy beach—what we know today as “Plymouth Rock.”

The Pilgrims’ descendants knew about this landmark because in 1741—121 years after the landing—a fifteen-year-old boy overheard ninety-five-year-old Thomas Faunce relate that his father, who came to Plymouth three years after the Mayflower, had told him that he had been told by unnamed persons that the landing had occurred there. (No, it wouldn’t hold up in a court of law, but if you visit Plymouth today you’ll find a rock about the size of your living-room couch sheltered by a classical Greek portico, before a sign erected by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts which proclaims, “Plymouth Rock: Landing Place of the Pilgrims.”)

“Plymouth Rock.” Today nearly a million people visit Pilgrim Memorial State Park each year in order to view this boulder.

“Plymouth Rock.” Today nearly a million people visit Pilgrim Memorial State Park each year in order to view this boulder.

Curiously, Bradford never mentioned such a rock in his narrative, and if the expedition landed there he seems not to have noticed. Other features did attract the group’s attention, however. When they returned to the Mayflower, they told the other passengers of a tall hill which would be readily defensible, sloping gradually down to a decent, if somewhat shallow harbor.

With eyes of faith, the Pilgrims envisioned a fort at the top of a 165-foot hill, the six cannon they had brought with them commanding the landscape in every direction. From the fort—which would double as a meeting house on Sundays—they saw descending toward the water a double row of snug houses. (Nineteen would suffice, they calculated, with every single male assigned to live with a family.) There would also be storehouses, stables, and gardens, and around the entire village a reassuring palisade.

Half of the Mayflower’s passengers would live to see this vision a reality, but during their horrific first winter they struggled to erect a handful of crude structures, likely little more than frameworks of saplings slathered in mud and topped with thatched roofs. (High winds sometimes blew away the daubing, and sparks from the chimneyless fireplaces always threatened to set the roofs on fire.) The cruel weather was their constant enemy, preventing them from working more than half of any week, but above all they were plagued by sickness.

Although historian Samuel Eliot Morison designated the period from January through March the Pilgrims’ “starving time,” the Pilgrims themselves recalled it as the time of the “general sickness” or the “common infection.” They sometimes spoke of “scurvy” as the source of their suffering, but the most likely culprit was pneumonia brought on by prolonged exposure to the elements.

For the first six weeks after their arrival, the ship’s longboat had been mostly unavailable for general service, either because it was undergoing repairs or being used by various expeditions. This meant that whenever the passengers wished to go ashore they had to wade through frigid waters up to their thighs, and because the harbor was so shallow, the Mayflower was often anchored more than a mile from the beach. Late in life, William Bradford compiled a list of the passengers with information of their “deceasings and increasings,” and it is no coincidence that the phrase “died soon after they came ashore” was a common epitaph.

At its worst, the epidemic claimed two or three victims a day, and there was a time when scarcely a half dozen of the Pilgrims were well enough to tend to the rest. Bradford, who himself hovered near death for a time, later particularly praised elder William Brewster and the company’s military leader, Myles Standish, for their heroic efforts on behalf of the ill. These “spared no pains night nor day, but with abundance of toil and hazard of their own health . . . did all the homely and necessary offices” for the sick “which dainty and queasy stomachs cannot endure to hear named.”

The toll was staggering. Within weeks, fifty-two of the 102 passengers who had reached Cape Cod were dead, including fourteen of the twenty-six heads of families and the colony’s recently elected governor, John Carver. All but four families had lost at least one member. Of the eighteen married couples who had sailed from England, only three had survived intact. “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God,” Paul and Barnabas had instructed the churches of Asia Minor (Acts 14:22). The Pilgrims understood this well.

SETTING THE STAGE: PLYMOUTH ROCK AND THE “GENERAL SICKNESS”

EIGHT 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. At the outset I concentrated mainly on some of the ways we have mythologized the Pilgrim story over the years. This week I want to contextualize the First Thanksgiving as accurately as I can. Today we’ll discuss two episodes from the winter of 1620-1621: one that is mostly imaginary, on that was all too real. 

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“The Landing of the Pilgrims,” Henry A. Bacon, 1877. Although William Bradford’s history makes clear that there were no females among the initial landing party at Plymouth in December 1621, this imaginative recreation includes several and also gives credence to a local tradition that teenager Mary Chilton was the first Pilgrim to come ashore. Note as well that the beach at Plymouth is predominantly sandy, not rocky as the artist suggests.

“The Landing of the Pilgrims,” Henry A. Bacon, 1877. Although William Bradford’s history makes clear that there were no females among the initial landing party at Plymouth in December 1621, this imaginative recreation includes several and also gives credence to a local tradition that teenager Mary Chilton was the first Pilgrim to come ashore. Note as well that the beach at Plymouth is predominantly sandy, not rocky as the artist suggests.

After sighting land in early December, the Pilgrims spent the next six weeks exploring the coast of Massachusetts before settling on a location for their future home. Finally, on the 23rd of December all who were able went ashore about thirty miles south of present-day Boston and set to work. More than a century later (but still more than a century before Bradford’s history was discovered in London), the descendants of the Pilgrims would come to believe that they knew exactly where their ancestors had landed when they first set foot on the site. Specifically, they had it on good authority that the Pilgrims had touched ground at a distinctive rock still embedded in the sandy beach—what we know today as “Plymouth Rock.”

The Pilgrims’ descendants knew about this landmark because in 1741—121 years after the landing—a fifteen-year-old boy overheard ninety-five-year-old Thomas Faunce relate that his father, who came to Plymouth three years after the Mayflower, had told him that he had been told by unnamed persons that the landing had occurred there. (No, it wouldn’t hold up in a court of law, but if you visit Plymouth today you’ll find a rock about the size of your living-room couch sheltered by a classical Greek portico, before a sign erected by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts which proclaims, “Plymouth Rock: Landing Place of the Pilgrims.”)

“Plymouth Rock.” Today nearly a million people visit Pilgrim Memorial State Park each year in order to view this boulder.

“Plymouth Rock.” Today nearly a million people visit Pilgrim Memorial State Park each year in order to view this boulder.

Curiously, Bradford never mentioned such a rock in his narrative, and if the expedition landed there he seems not to have noticed. Other features did attract the group’s attention, however. When they returned to the Mayflower, they told the other passengers of a tall hill which would be readily defensible, sloping gradually down to a decent, if somewhat shallow harbor.

With eyes of faith, the Pilgrims envisioned a fort at the top of a 165-foot hill, the six cannon they had brought with them commanding the landscape in every direction. From the fort—which would double as a meeting house on Sundays—they saw descending toward the water a double row of snug houses. (Nineteen would suffice, they calculated, with every single male assigned to live with a family.) There would also be storehouses, stables, and gardens, and around the entire village a reassuring palisade.

Half of the Mayflower’s passengers would live to see this vision a reality, but during their horrific first winter they struggled to erect a handful of crude structures, likely little more than frameworks of saplings slathered in mud and topped with thatched roofs. (High winds sometimes blew away the daubing, and sparks from the chimneyless fireplaces always threatened to set the roofs on fire.) The cruel weather was their constant enemy, preventing them from working more than half of any week, but above all they were plagued by sickness.

Although historian Samuel Eliot Morison designated the period from January through March the Pilgrims’ “starving time,” the Pilgrims themselves recalled it as the time of the “general sickness” or the “common infection.” They sometimes spoke of “scurvy” as the source of their suffering, but the most likely culprit was pneumonia brought on by prolonged exposure to the elements.

For the first six weeks after their arrival, the ship’s longboat had been mostly unavailable for general service, either because it was undergoing repairs or being used by various expeditions. This meant that whenever the passengers wished to go ashore they had to wade through frigid waters up to their thighs, and because the harbor was so shallow, the Mayflower was often anchored more than a mile from the beach. Late in life, William Bradford compiled a list of the passengers with information of their “deceasings and increasings,” and it is no coincidence that the phrase “died soon after they came ashore” was a common epitaph.

At its worst, the epidemic claimed two or three victims a day, and there was a time when scarcely a half dozen of the Pilgrims were well enough to tend to the rest. Bradford, who himself hovered near death for a time, later particularly praised elder William Brewster and the company’s military leader, Myles Standish, for their heroic efforts on behalf of the ill. These “spared no pains night nor day, but with abundance of toil and hazard of their own health . . . did all the homely and necessary offices” for the sick “which dainty and queasy stomachs cannot endure to hear named.”

The toll was staggering. Within weeks, fifty-two of the 102 passengers who had reached Cape Cod were dead, including fourteen of the twenty-six heads of families and the colony’s recently elected governor, John Carver. All but four families had lost at least one member. Of the eighteen married couples who had sailed from England, only three had survived intact. “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God,” Paul and Barnabas had instructed the churches of Asia Minor (Acts 14:22). The Pilgrims understood this well.

THE FIRST THANKSGIVING IN AMERICAN MEMORY–PART ONE

Some time ago an interviewer asked me to identify the most surprising thing I had learned in my study of the “First Thanksgiving.” I replied that the discoveries that interested me most had less to do with the actual 1621 celebration than with the way that American memory of the event had changed over time.  Although when I began this Countdown to Thanksgiving I said I would only  post on weekdays, I’ve decided to share some “bonus” reflections on how Americans have remembered the First Thanksgiving over the last four centuries.  Look for two posts this weekend, with two more on the topic a week from now. 

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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.  In the next few posts I thought I’d show you what I mean, drawing from research that I conducted for my book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History.

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.

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

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

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.”

Even though Americans now were aware of the Pilgrims’ 1621 celebration, it would be a long time—generations, in fact—before the American people widely credited the Pilgrims as the founders of their Thanksgiving tradition.  In my next post I will explain why that was so.

KIRK CAMERON’S “MONUMENTAL” PILGRIMS–PART ONE

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

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

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

Monumental

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is clear from the context in which Bradford famously used the term in his history Of Plymouth Plantation. Toward the middle of book I, Bradford movingly described the Pilgrims’ departure from Holland, as the members of the Leiden congregation who were leaving for America said goodbye to the friends and loved ones remaining behind. (Bradford himself was leaving his three-year-old son.) With “an abundance of tears,” Bradford recalled, the group left “that goodly and pleasant city which had been their resting place near twelve years; but they knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lift up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits.”

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

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

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

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FIVE MYTHS ABOUT THE PILGRIMS

Thanksgiving is barely three weeks away, and so I plan on bombarding you with more than a few posts that draw from my book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History.  Below is an essay published this time a year ago in the Washington Post.  The Post runs a regular feature each Sunday identifying popular myths about some misunderstood individual or event.  I sketched out a long list of possibilities for the editor, and she chose the five that made it into print.

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Five Myths about the Pilgrims:

When it comes to historical memory, the old saying that you can’t choose your relatives is just plain wrong. Americans have chosen the Pilgrims as honorary ancestors, and we tend to see their story as inseparable from the story of our nation, “land of the Pilgrims’ pride.” We imagine these honorary Founders as model immigrants, peace-loving and pioneers in the democratic experiment. We have burdened them with values they wouldn’t have recognized, and shrouded their story with myth. Here are five of the most common myths about the Pilgrims.

1) The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. If you visit Plymouth today, you’ll find a distinctive rock about the size of your living-room sofa embedded in the sandy beach, sheltered by a classical Greek portico and labeled with a sign erected by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts proclaiming,”Plymouth Rock: Landing Place of the Pilgrims.” It’s not hard to picture simple English folk huddled on that rock, envisioning through eyes of faith the great nation that would spring from their humble beginning. Except that’s probably not what happened. We “know” the location of the Pilgrims’ landing because in 1741 -121 years after the Pilgrims arrived – a 15-year-old boy overheard 95-year-old Thomas Faunce relate that his father, who came to Plymouth three years after the Mayflower, told him that he’d been told by unnamed persons that the landing occurred there. Curiously, William Bradford never mentioned Plymouth Rock in his history “Of Plymouth Plantation,” and if the expedition landed there he seems not to have noticed.

2). The Pilgrims came to America in search of religious freedom. It’s fair to say that the Pilgrims left England primarily to find religious freedom, but that’s not the primary motive that propelled them to North America. Remember that the Pilgrims went first to Holland, settling eventually in the city of Leiden. There they encountered a religious tolerance almost unheard of in that day and age, and Bradford and Edward Winslow both wrote glowingly of their experience. In Leiden, God had allowed them, in Bradford’s estimation, “to come as near the primitive pattern of the first churches as any other church of these later times.” God had blessed them with “much peace and liberty,” Winslow echoed. If a longing for religious freedom had compelled them, they likely never would have left. But while they cherished the freedom of conscience they enjoyed in Leiden, the Pilgrims had two major complaints: they found it a hard place to maintain their English identity, and an even harder place to make a living. In North America they hoped to live by themselves, enjoy the same degree of religious liberty, and earn a “better and easier” living.

3)  The Pilgrims’ autumn celebration in 1621 was the First Thanksgiving. No one seriously believes that the Pilgrims were the first to stop and thank their Creator for a bountiful harvest. Native Americans had a long tradition of thanksgiving celebrations. The Algonquian people, for example, participated in regular ceremonies linked to the crop cycle, while the nearby Wampanoag annually celebrated the first harvest of the new season with a “strawberry thanksgiving.” Europeans who arrived in North America prior to the Pilgrims likely also engaged in such observances. There is evidence of a thanksgiving service held in 1564 near present-day Jacksonville, Florida by French Huguenots-at a time when only two of the Pilgrims had even been born. The very next year Spanish documents refer to a thanksgiving mass celebrated at St. Augustine by conquistadores (who would soon slaughter the nearby Huguenots). Texas historians insist that Spanish colonists celebrated thanksgiving with the Manso Indians near present-day El Paso in 1598, not early enough to beat out Florida but still a generation before the celebration in Massachusetts. Among English settlers, there is evidence of a thanksgiving celebration in 1607 at a short-lived colony on the coast of Maine, and of two others among Virginia colonists in 1610 and 1619. More importantly, if the Pilgrims’ 1621 celebration was far from the first Thanksgiving, from the Pilgrims’ perspective it was not a Thanksgiving at all, but rather a kind of autumn harvest festival. As the Pilgrims understood it, a genuine Thanksgiving was a solemn observance to be observed irregularly, a “holy day” devoted to worship in acknowledgment of a specific, extraordinary blessing from the Lord.

4)  The Pilgrims were a humorless lot with a fondness for black. With more wit than historical accuracy, H. L. Mencken famously defined “puritanism” as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.” Modern Americans bought in to the stereotype, so that we regularly picture the Pilgrims as if they were on their way to a funeral, their solemn behavior matched by a somber wardrobe. When we read Winslow’s description of the Pilgrims’ 1621 harvest festival, however, we’re transported to a scene of beer and barbeque, shooting and sports. And forget about the ubiquitous black outfits. In fact, the Pilgrims had a taste for a wide range of bright colors. Estate inventories in Plymouth Colony reveal abundant references to red, blue, green, yellow and orange garments. Carpenter Will Wright, for example, upon his death left a blue coat and two vests, one white, the other red. William Bradford’s estate inventory showed that the long-term governor owned a “colored” hat, a red suit and a violet cloak. Pretty gaudy, actually.

5) The Pilgrims’ Mayflower Compact was an early and noteworthy example of American democracy. Americans have loaded this document with far more significance than it’s worthy of. We read it selectively, zeroing in on the parts where the signers commit to form “a civil body politic” and agree to formulate “just and equal laws . . . for the general good of the colony.” But it is no accident that the Compact begins with a description of the signatories as “the loyal subjects of our dread sovereign lord, King James.” Having been blown off course en route to America, the Pilgrims were about to settle some 200 miles north of the northernmost jurisdiction of the Virginia Company, authorized by King James I to coordinate colonial ventures along the Atlantic seaboard. It was quite possible they were committing an illegal act in the eyes of the Crown. But they made a point of assuring James of their unquestioned loyalty. They also identify him as their king not by virtue of their consent, but “by the grace of God.” This puts the Mayflower Compact closer to an affirmation of the divine right of kings than of the right of self-rule.

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