Tag Archives: religious liberty

LEARNING FROM THE PILGRIMS’ STORY–WHY THE PILGRIMS REALLY CAME TO AMERICA

Only ONE more day 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.  My goal this week is to point out positive lessons we might learn from a more accurate encounter with the Pilgrims’ story.  Today I tackle the question of why the Pilgrims really came to America and what we might learn from their experience.  

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Before we rush off to the mall tomorrow, the more traditional among us will honor the day by reminding our families of the story of the Pilgrims. And in keeping with tradition, we’ll get quite a bit of the story wrong. Most of the inaccuracies will be trivial. In our mind’s eye, we’ll remember the Pilgrims decked out in black suits and enormous silver buckles, seated at a long table loaded with turkey and pumpkin pie. It would be more accurate to imagine them adorned in bright colors, seated on the ground, and enjoying turnips and eel, but these are superficial differences that don’t change the meaning of the story very much.

W.L. Taylor, 1897

W.L. Taylor, 1897

That’s not the case with how we remember the Pilgrims’ reasons for coming to America. The belief that the Pilgrims came to America in search of religious freedom is inspiring, but in the sense that we usually mean it, it’s not really true. I’ve shared this reality numerous times since writing The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History, and I almost always get pushback from the audience. That’s understandable, since most of us from our childhood have been raised to believe quite the opposite. But if we’re going to really learn from the Pilgrims’ story, we need to be willing to listen to them instead of putting words into their mouths.

One of my favorite all-time quotes is from Democracy in America where Alexis de Tocqueville observes, “A false but clear and precise idea always has more power in the world than one which is true but complex.” The Pilgrims’ motives for coming to America is a case in point.

The popular understanding that the Pilgrims came to America “in search of religious freedom” is technically true, but it is also misleading. It is technically true in that the freedom to worship according to the dictates of Scripture was at the very top of their list of priorities. They had already risked everything to escape religious persecution, and the majority never would have knowingly chosen a destination where they would once again wear the “yoke of antichristian bondage,” as they described their experience in England.

To say that the Pilgrims came “in search of” religious freedom is misleading, however, in that it implies that they lacked such liberty in Holland. Remember that the Pilgrims did not come to America directly from England. They had left England in 1608, locating briefly in Amsterdam before settling for more than a decade in Leiden. If a longing for religious freedom alone had compelled them, they might never have left that city. Years later, the Pilgrim’s governor, William Bradford, recalled that in Leiden God had allowed them “to come as near the primitive pattern of the first churches as any other church of these later times.” As Pilgrim Edward Winslow recalled, God had blessed them with “much peace and liberty” in Holland. They hoped to find “the like liberty” in their new home.

Charles Lucy, The Departure of the Pilgrim Fathers, 1847

Charles Lucy, The Departure of the Pilgrim Fathers, 1847

But that is not all that they hoped to find. Boiled down, the Pilgrims had two major complaints about their experience in Holland. First, they found it a hard place to raise their children. Dutch culture was too permissive, they believed. Bradford commented on “the great licentiousness of youth” in Holland and lamented the “evil examples” and “manifold temptations of the place.” Part of the problem was the Dutch parents. They gave their children too much freedom, Bradford’s nephew, Nathaniel Morton, explained, and Separatist parents could not give their own children “due correction without reproof or reproach from their neighbors.”

Compounding these challenges was what Bradford called “the hardness of the place.” If Holland was a hard place to raise strong families, it was an even harder place to make a living. Leiden was a crowded, rapidly growing city. Most houses were ridiculously small by our standards, some with no more than a couple hundred square feet of floor space. The typical weaver’s home was somewhat larger. It boasted three rooms—two on the main floor and one above—with a cistern under the main floor to collect rainwater, sometimes side by side with a pit for an indoor privy.

In contrast to the seasonal rhythms of farm life, the pace of work was long, intense, and unrelenting. Probably half or more of the Separatist families became textile workers. In this era before the industrial revolution, cloth production was still a decentralized, labor intensive process, with countless families carding, spinning, or weaving in their own homes from dawn to dusk, six days a week, merely to keep body and soul together. Hunger and want had become their taskmaster.

This life of “great labor and hard fare” was a threat to the church, Bradford repeatedly stressed. It discouraged Separatists in England from joining them, he believed, and tempted those in Leiden to return home. If religious freedom was to be thus linked with poverty, then there were some—too many—who would opt for the religious persecution of England over the religious freedom of Holland. And the challenge would only increase over time. Old age was creeping up on many of the congregation, indeed, was being hastened prematurely by “great and continual labor.” While the most resolute could endure such hardships in the prime of life, advancing age and declining strength would cause many either to “sink under their burdens” or reluctantly abandon the community in search of relief.

In explaining the Pilgrim’s decision to leave Holland, William Bradford stressed the Pilgrim’s economic circumstances more than any other factor, but it is important that we hear correctly what he was saying. Bradford was not telling us that the Pilgrims left for America in search of the “American Dream” or primarily to maximize their own individual well being.

In Bradford’s telling, it is impossible to separate the Pilgrims’ concerns about either the effects of Dutch culture or their economic circumstances from their concerns for the survival of their church. The leaders of the Leiden congregation may not have feared religious persecution, but they saw spiritual danger and decline on the horizon.

The solution, the Pilgrim leaders believed, was to “take away these discouragements” by relocating to a place with greater economic opportunity as part of a cooperative mission to preserve their covenant community. If the congregation did not collectively “dislodge . . . to some place of better advantage,” and soon, the church seemed destined to erode like the banks of a stream, as one by one, families and individuals slipped away.

So where does this leave us? Were the Pilgrims coming to America to flee religious persecution? Not at all. Were they motivated by a religious impulse? Absolutely.  But why is it important to make these seemingly fine distinctions? Is this just another exercise in academic hair-splitting? I don’t think so. In fact, I think that the implications of getting the Pilgrims’ motives rights are huge.

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

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

As I re-read the Pilgrims’ words, I find myself meditating on Jesus’ parable of the sower. You remember how the sower casts his seed (the word of God), and it falls on multiple kinds of ground, not all of which prove fruitful. The seed that lands on stony ground sprouts immediately but the plant withers under the heat of the noonday sun, while the seed cast among thorns springs up and then is choked by the surrounding weeds. The former, Jesus explained to His disciples, represents those who receive the word gladly, but stumble “when tribulation or persecution arises for the word’s sake” (Mark 4:17). The latter stands for those who allow the word to be choked by “the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things” (Mark 4:19).

In emphasizing the Pilgrims’ “search for religious freedom,” we inadvertently make the primary menace in their story the heat of persecution. Persecution led them to leave England for Holland, but it was not the primary reason that they came to America. As the Pilgrim writers saw it, the principal threat to their congregation in Holland was not the scorching sun, but strangling thorns.

The difference matters, particularly if we’re approaching the Pilgrims’ moment in history as an opportunity to learn from them. It broadens the kind of conversation we have with them and makes it more relevant. When we hear of the Pilgrims’ resolve in the face of persecution, we may nod our heads admiringly and meditate on the courage of their convictions. Perhaps we will even ask ourselves how we would respond if, God forbid, we were to endure the same trial. And yet the danger seems so remote, the question so comfortably hypothetical. Whatever limitations we may chafe against in the public square, as Christians in the United States we don’t have to worry that the government will send us to prison unless we worship in the church that it chooses and interpret the Bible in the manner that it dictates.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting that we never ask the question. Posing it can remind us to be grateful for the freedom we enjoy. It may inspire us to greater vigilance in preserving that freedom and heighten our concern for Christians around the world who cannot take such freedom for granted. These are good things. But I am suggesting that we not dwell overlong on the question. I’m dubious of the value of moral reflection that focuses on hypothetical circumstances. Avowals of how we would respond to imaginary adversity are worth pretty much what they cost us. Character isn’t forged in the abstract, but in the concrete crucible of everyday life, in the myriad mundane decisions that both shape and reveal the heart’s deepest loves.

Here the Pilgrims’ struggle with “thorns” speaks to us. Compared to the dangers they faced in England, their hardships in Holland were so . . . ordinary. I don’t mean to minimize them, but merely to point out that they are difficulties we are more likely to relate to. They worried about their children’s future. They feared the effects of a corrupt and permissive culture. They had a hard time making ends meet. They wondered how they would provide for themselves in old age. Does any of this sound familiar?

And in contrast to their success in escaping persecution, they found the cares of the world much more difficult to evade. As it turned out, thorn bushes grew in the New World as well as the Old. In little more than a decade, William Bradford was concerned that economic circumstances were again weakening the fabric of the church. This time, ironically, the culprit was not the pressure of want but the prospect of wealth (“the deceitfulness of riches”?) as faithful members of the congregation left Plymouth in search of larger, more productive farms. A decade after that, Bradford was decrying the presence of gross immorality within the colony. Drunkenness and sexual sin had become so common, he lamented, that it caused him “to fear and tremble at the consideration of our corrupt natures.”

When we insist that the Pilgrims came to America “in search of religious freedom,” we tell their story in a way that they themselves wouldn’t recognize. In the process, we make their story primarily a source of ammunition for the culture wars. Frustrated by increasing governmental infringement on religious expression, we remind the unbelieving culture around us that “our forefathers” who “founded” this country were driven above all by a commitment to religious liberty.

But while we’re bludgeoning secularists with the Pilgrim story, we ignore the aspects of their story that might cast a light into our own hearts. They struggled with fundamental questions still relevant to us today: What is the true cost of discipleship? What must we sacrifice in pursuit of the kingdom? How can we “shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15) and keep ourselves “unspotted from the world” (James 1:27)? What sort of obligation do we owe our local churches, and how do we balance that duty with family commitments and individual desires? What does it look like to “seek first the kingdom of God” and can we really trust God to provide for all our other needs?

As Christians, these are crucial questions we need to revisit regularly. We might even consider discussing them with our families tomorrow as part of our Thanksgiving celebrations—if there’s time before we head off to the mall, that is.

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EXPOSING THE MYTH OF CHRISTIAN AMERICA . . . SORT OF

I’m sorry to have been away for so long. The beginning of a new academic year is always hectic, and this year seems more frenzied than most. I’ll try to check in at least once a week, although I’ve fallen short of that goal recently. I thank you in advance for sticking with me.

Last time I promised to report on a couple of books that I read this summer on faith and the American founding. In this post and the next I’ll make good on that pledge. The question of whether the United States was founded as a Christian country is a historical perennial—it keeps coming back. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that it never goes away. When I interact with Christians who are interested in history, nine times out of ten this is the first topic they want to talk about.

I was reminded of this last weekend when I began a month-long series of lectures at an evangelical church on what it means to think Christianly about our nation’s past. My goal in the opening talk was simply to persuade the audience that Christians need to pay attention to history—indeed, that we have an obligation to do so—and I said almost nothing about American history specifically. (You can see the gist of my argument here.)  Even so, one of the first questions after I was done concerned the beliefs of America’s founders. Wasn’t the United States founded by Christian men guided by Biblical principles?

It’s a good question but not an easy one. History is complicated, and we live in a culture that requires answers in 140 characters or less. Compounding the challenge, the question has become hopelessly politicized. It’s intertwined with a host of controversial contemporary issues having to do with religious freedom in our increasingly secular society. This raises the stakes. And precisely because more is at stake, the question becomes both more important and harder to handle. Without realizing it, we’re tempted to make history into a weapon instead of a source of wisdom. Unfortunately, we rarely learn from the past when our goal is to prove points with it.

This is why I’m always on the outlook for good books that can help American evangelicals think Christianly about our nation’s past, and why I immediately put Steven Green’s latest book on my reading list when it came out earlier this year. The title was enough to hook me: Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding. I also respect the press that published it. Oxford University Press (which published my book Lincolnites and Rebels) is not a Christian publishing house, but its editorial board takes religion seriously and the press has published a lot of fine work in the area of religious history.

I’ll be reviewing the book for academic scholars in Fides et Historia, a journal affiliated with a national organization of Christian historians called the Conference on Faith and History. Here are my thoughts concerning what Inventing a Christian America has to offer interested Christian readers outside the Academy.

Green-Inventing a Christian America

The author, whom I do not know personally, is a professor of law and director of the Center for Religion, Law, and Democracy at Willamette University. Green explains in the opening pages that his goal is to “unravel the myth of America’s religious foundings,” to help us understand “how the idea of America’s Christian origins became a central part of the nation’s founding narrative.” He promises not to become embroiled in the “irresolvable” debates over whether the Founders “were devout Christians or atheistical deists, of whether the people of the founding generation believed chiefly in divine providence and the role of religion in public life, or in separation of church and state.” Rather than focus primarily on the founding and the Founders, in other words, Green wants to explain why the belief that America was founded as a Christian nation became so important to later Americans’ sense of national identity. Where did the myth come from, and why did it become so deeply entrenched?

Green’s answer is that the myth evolved over several generations, but that “the most significant period of myth-making occurred in the early years of the nineteenth century as the second generation of Americans sought to redefine and reconcile the founding to match their religious and patriotic aspirations for the nation.” This was a period when the Second Great Awakening was transforming the American religious landscape and evangelical denominations—Methodist and Baptists, most notably—were exploding in size and cultural influence. As Christianity flourished in America during the early 1800s, American Christians retroactively baptized the 1600s and 1700s as well, inventing—or at least exaggerating—the nation’s religious roots. In sum, they practiced “revisionist” history.

Let me put my cards on the table here. I think that Green is partially correct. The evidence is overwhelming that the proportion of Americans belonging to Christian churches mushroomed dramatically during the first half of the nineteenth century. It’s also clear that there was a lot of creative rewriting of the nation’s founding during these years. The revolutionary generation had passed from the scene by the height of the Awakening, and newly zealous evangelicals were quick to swallow sentimental commemorations that recreated the past in their own image. They were neither the first nor the last members of the human race to engage in this near universal practice.

Beyond this, Green offers some specific insights that American evangelicals interested in our history need to hear. Repeatedly, he makes the good point that we should be just as cautious in reading histories of the founding written in the nineteenth century as we are of histories written in the twenty-first century. When David Barton insists, for example, that accounts written before 1900 are intrinsically more trustworthy than more recent works, he’s just revealing his ignorance of the context in which the former were written.

Green is also correct to remind us of the danger of proof-texting sources from the past. Most Christians are alert to the danger of plucking isolated verses from the Bible without paying sufficient attention to the totality of Scripture, but we frequently abandon that caution when it comes to the writings of the Founders. We’re rarely willing to do the hard work of immersing ourselves in the historical era that interests us when a few scattered quotes are sufficient to confirm our preconceived notions.

Despite these strengths, I really can’t recommend this book. Here are three reasons why. First, Green fails to follow the roadmap for the book that he sets out in the introduction. Rather than shunning the “irresolvable” debates over the actual religious beliefs of the Founders, Green devotes four fifths of the book to “debunking” specific claims about the founding. The result is that he spends a great deal of time going over territory that has already been plowed again and again: the influence of Christian belief on the establishment of the American colonies, the connection between Christian convictions and the American Revolution, the specific religious beliefs of the leading Founders, and the role of religious principles in the nation’s founding documents, among other topics. In contrast, very little of the book actually focuses on the historical memory of Americans during the early nineteenth century, the period when the belief in America’s Christian founding was supposedly taking root.

Second, because of the approach that Green takes, his treatment of the founding is almost unavoidably superficial. He tries to cover way too much in a book of just over two hundred pages: the establishment of the colonies; the religious beliefs of individual Founders; the influence of Christian conviction and Scriptural principle on views of religious freedom, on political liberty, on resistance to authority, on the Declaration and Constitution, among other things. When he finally gets to the early 1800s—the period that was supposed to be the focus of his book—he seems to have lost steam. He devotes barely forty pages to suggesting how the belief in America’s religious founding grew after the passing of the Revolutionary generation, and his account is superficial and anecdotal, shifting from Parson Weems to Lyman Beecher to Alexis de Tocqueville in rapid succession.

Finally, my sense is that Green has stacked the deck against the Christian America argument. Repeatedly, he defines the argument for America’s religious founding in a way that is easy to discredit. For example, with regard to the original establishment of Britain’s American colonies, he insists that the Christian Nation myth posits not only that the colonies were settled by religiously motivated Christians who believed that government was ordained by God and derived its authority from the Creator, but also that the original settlers were religious dissidents wholly committed to modern understandings of religious freedom. The latter is child’s play to topple. Seventeenth-century Protestants almost never understood religious liberty as we would today. As Green frames his argument, however, their religiously motivated opposition to modern standards of religious toleration becomes evidence for the myth of Christian America. I call that strange.

In the end, this is a book that could have been much better, much more valuable to Christian readers than it is.

LEARNING FROM THE PILGRIMS’ STORY–PART THREE

Thanksgiving is now only a day away, and before we turn on the football game or rush off to the mall, the more traditional among us will honor the day by reminding our families of the story of the Pilgrims. And in keeping with tradition, we’ll get quite a bit of the story wrong. Most of the inaccuracies will be trivial. In our mind’s eye, we’ll remember the Pilgrims decked out in black suits and enormous silver buckles, seated at a long table loaded with turkey and pumpkin pie. It would be more accurate to imagine them adorned in bright colors, seated on the ground, and enjoying turnips and eel, but these are superficial differences that don’t change the meaning of the story very much.

W.L. Taylor, 1897

W.L. Taylor, 1897

That’s not the case with how we remember the Pilgrims’ reasons for coming to America. The belief that the Pilgrims came to America in search of religious freedom is inspiring, but in the sense that we usually mean it, it’s not really true. I shared this fact earlier this week when I appeared on the Moody Radio Network program Chris Fabry Live. After Chris and I talked for several minutes, he opened the phone lines to listeners, and one of the first callers (“Kevin from Indiana”) made clear his view that I was badly mistaken about why the Pilgrims came to America. “A bunch of people were under religious oppression,” he asserted. They got the opportunity to come to a place where they could gain religious freedom, “and that’s what these people did.” Case closed.

It’s always difficult to know how to respond to such dogmatism, and I tried to be tactful. I also had to respond off the cuff, and briefly to boot, so I am certain that I botched my reply. Here is how I would have responded to the caller if I could have scripted it in advance and replied at length:

I would start by reiterating something my students (and my children, bless their hearts), have heard over and over again: history is complicated. Our human story is complex, and it doesn’t lend itself well to the bumper sticker slogans and sound bite quotes that we are typically really looking for when we go to the past. One of my favorite all-time quotes is from Democracy in America where Alexis de Tocqueville observes, “A false but clear and precise idea always has more power in the world than one which is true but complex.” The Pilgrims’ motives for coming to America is a case in point.

The popular understanding that the Pilgrims came to America “in search of religious freedom” is technically true, but it is also misleading. It is technically true in that the freedom to worship according to the dictates of Scripture was at the very top of their list of priorities. They had already risked everything to escape religious persecution, and the majority never would have knowingly chosen a destination where they would once again wear the “yoke of antichristian bondage,” as they described their experience in England.

To say that the Pilgrims came “in search of” religious freedom is misleading, however, in that it implies that they lacked such liberty in Holland. If a longing for religious freedom alone had compelled them, they might never have left Leiden, that city where 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.” As Pilgrim Edward Winslow recalled, God had blessed them with “much peace and liberty” in Holland. They hoped to find “the like liberty” in their new home.

Charles Lucy, The Departure of the Pilgrim Fathers, 1847

Charles Lucy, The Departure of the Pilgrim Fathers, 1847

But that is not all that they hoped to find. Boiled down, the Pilgrims had two major complaints about their experience in Holland. First, they found it a hard place to raise their children. Dutch culture was too permissive, they believed. Pilgrim William Bradford commented on “the great licentiousness of youth” in Holland and lamented the “evil examples” and “manifold temptations of the place.” Part of the problem was the Dutch parents. They gave their children too much freedom, Nathaniel Morton explained, and Separatist parents could not give their own children “due correction without reproof or reproach from their neighbors.”

Compounding these challenges was what Bradford called “the hardness of the place.” If Holland was a hard place to raise strong families, it was an even harder place to make a living. Leiden was a crowded, rapidly growing city. Most houses were ridiculously small by our standards, some with no more than a couple hundred square feet of floor space. The typical weaver’s home was somewhat larger. It boasted three rooms—two on the main floor and one above—with a cistern under the main floor to collect rainwater, sometimes side by side with a pit for an indoor privy.

In contrast to the seasonal rhythms of farm life, the pace of work was long, intense, and unrelenting. Probably half or more of the Separatist families became textile workers. In this era before the industrial revolution, cloth production was still a decentralized, labor intensive process, with countless families carding, spinning, or weaving in their own homes from dawn to dusk, six days a week, merely to keep body and soul together. Hunger and want had become their taskmaster.

This life of “great labor and hard fare” was a threat to the church, Bradford repeatedly stressed. It discouraged Separatists in England from joining them, he believed, and tempted those in Leiden to return home. If religious freedom was to be thus linked with poverty, then there were some—too many—who would opt for the religious persecution of England over the religious freedom of Holland. And the challenge would only increase over time. Old age was creeping up on many of the congregation, indeed, was being hastened prematurely by “great and continual labor.” While the most resolute could endure such hardships in the prime of life, advancing age and declining strength would cause many either to “sink under their burdens” or reluctantly abandon the community in search of relief.

In explaining the Pilgrim’s decision to leave Holland, William Bradford stressed the Pilgrim’s economic circumstances more than any other factor, but it is important that we hear correctly what he was saying. Bradford was not telling us that the Pilgrims left for America in search of the “American Dream” or primarily to maximize their own individual wellbeing. In Bradford’s telling, it is impossible to separate the Pilgrims’ concerns about either the effects of Dutch culture or their economic circumstances from their concerns for the survival of their church. The leaders of the Leiden congregation may not have feared religious persecution, but they saw spiritual danger and decline on the horizon.

The solution, the Pilgrim leaders believed, was to “take away these discouragements” by relocating to a place with greater economic opportunity as part of a cooperative mission to preserve their covenant community. If the congregation did not collectively “dislodge . . . to some place of better advantage,” and soon, the church seemed destined to erode like the banks of a stream, as one by one, families and individuals slipped away.

So where does this leave us? Were the Pilgrims coming to America to flee religious persecution? Not at all. Were they motivated by a religious impulse? Absolutely. I told you it was complicated. But why is it important to make these seemingly fine distinctions? Is this just another exercise in academic hair-splitting? I don’t think so. In fact, I think that the implications of getting the Pilgrims’ motives rights are huge.

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

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

As I re-read the Pilgrims’ words, I find myself meditating on Jesus’ parable of the sower. You remember how the sower casts his seed (the word of God), and it falls on multiple kinds of ground, not all of which prove fruitful. The seed that lands on stony ground sprouts immediately but the plant withers under the heat of the noonday sun, while the seed cast among thorns springs up and then is choked by the surrounding weeds. The former, Jesus explained to His disciples, represents those who receive the word gladly, but stumble “when tribulation or persecution arises for the word’s sake” (Mark 4:17). The latter stands for those who allow the word to be choked by “the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things” (Mark 4:19).

In emphasizing the Pilgrims’ “search for religious freedom,” we inadvertently make the primary menace in their story the heat of persecution. Persecution led them to leave England for Holland, but it was not the primary reason that they came to America. As the Pilgrim writers saw it, the principal threat to their congregation in Holland was not the scorching sun, but strangling thorns.

The difference matters, particularly if we’re approaching the Pilgrims’ moment in history as an opportunity to learn from them. It broadens the kind of conversation we have with them and makes it more relevant. When we hear of the Pilgrims’ resolve in the face of persecution, we may nod our heads admiringly and meditate on the courage of their convictions. Perhaps we will even ask ourselves how we would respond if, God forbid, we were to endure the same trial. And yet the danger seems so remote, the question so comfortably hypothetical. Whatever limitations we may chafe against in the public square, as Christians in the United States we don’t have to worry that the government will send us to prison unless we worship in the church that it chooses and interpret the Bible in the manner that it dictates.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting that we never ask the question. Posing it can remind us to be grateful for the freedom we enjoy. It may inspire us to greater vigilance in preserving that freedom and heighten our concern for Christians around the world who cannot take such freedom for granted. These are good things. But I am suggesting that we not dwell overlong on the question. I’m dubious of the value of moral reflection that focuses on hypothetical circumstances. Avowals of how we would respond to imaginary adversity are worth pretty much what they cost us. Character isn’t forged in the abstract, but in the concrete crucible of everyday life, in the myriad mundane decisions that both shape and reveal the heart’s deepest loves.

Here the Pilgrims’ struggle with “thorns” speaks to us. Compared to the dangers they faced in England, their hardships in Holland were so . . . ordinary. I don’t mean to minimize them, but merely to point out that they are difficulties we are more likely to relate to. They worried about their children’s future. They feared the effects of a corrupt and permissive culture. They had a hard time making ends meet. They wondered how they would provide for themselves in old age. Does any of this sound familiar?

And in contrast to their success in escaping persecution, they found the cares of the world much more difficult to evade. As it turned out, thorn bushes grew in the New World as well as the Old. In little more than a decade, William Bradford was concerned that economic circumstances were again weakening the fabric of the church. This time, ironically, the culprit was not the pressure of want but the prospect of wealth (“the deceitfulness of riches”?) as faithful members of the congregation left Plymouth in search of larger, more productive farms. A decade after that, Bradford was decrying the presence of gross immorality within the colony. Drunkenness and sexual sin had become so common, he lamented, that it caused him “to fear and tremble at the consideration of our corrupt natures.”

When we insist that the Pilgrims came to America “in search of religious freedom,” we tell their story in a way that they themselves wouldn’t recognize. In the process, we make their story primarily a source of ammunition for the culture wars. Frustrated by increasing governmental infringement on religious expression, we remind the unbelieving culture around us that “our forefathers” who “founded” this country were driven above all by a commitment to religious liberty.

But while we’re bludgeoning secularists with the Pilgrim story, we ignore the aspects of their story that might cast a light into our own hearts. They struggled with fundamental questions still relevant to us today: What is the true cost of discipleship? What must we sacrifice in pursuit of the kingdom? How can we “shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15) and keep ourselves “unspotted from the world” (James 1:27)? What sort of obligation do we owe our local churches, and how do we balance that duty with family commitments and individual desires? What does it look like to “seek first the kingdom of God” and can we really trust God to provide for all our other needs?

As Christians, these are crucial questions we need to revisit regularly. We might even consider discussing them with our families tomorrow as part of our Thanksgiving celebrations—if there’s time before the mall opens, that is.

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