Tag Archives: William Bradford

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!

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.

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

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

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.

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.  On the eve of WWI, Brownscombe's imaginative recreation of the "First Thanksgiving" helped link Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims 1621 celebration in the public mind.  Although full of historical inaccuracies, the artist did rightly portray the feast as a large, public, outdoor event.

“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.

WHY THE PILGRIMS REALLY CAME TO AMERICA

Only ONE more day until Thanksgiving. My goal this week has been 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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“Departure of the Pilgrims from Delft Haven,” Charles Lucy, 1847

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

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.

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

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

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 wellbeing.

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

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

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.

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.

"First Thanksgiving at Plymouth," Jeannie Brownscombe, 1914.  On the eve of WWI, Brownscombe's imaginative recreation of the "First Thanksgiving" helped link Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims 1621 celebration in the public mind.  Although full of historical inaccuracies, the artist did rightly portray the feast as a large, public, outdoor event.

“First Thanksgiving at Plymouth,” Jeannie Brownscombe, 1914.

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.

First Thanksgiving

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

Only THREE more days until Thanksgiving.  I realize that I’ve devoted a fair amount of time to talking about the ways that we remember the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving incorrectly.  I want to conclude this week by pointing to some positive lessons we might learn from a more accurate encounter with the Pilgrims’ story. 

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

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

The Pilgrims had their blind spots—as do we—but they were also people of faith and courage and hope, and there is much in their example to teach, admonish, and inspire us.  What are the positives that we might glean from their story?

To begin with, there is also much in the Pilgrims’ story that is genuinely inspiring.  We live in a cynical age, and it can seem almost embarrassingly naïve for an academic to describe any subject from the past as inspirational, but no other word in this instance will do.  The Pilgrims endured trials far more arduous than most of us have ever experienced, and they did so with courage and determination and hope and gratitude.  They evinced these traits, furthermore, as part of a larger expression of loyalty and devotion to something outside of themselves—to God above all, of course; to the “sacred bond” and covenant that tied them to their brothers and sisters in Christ; and to their sons and daughters, both born and unborn.

Living in an age in which we reward self-promotion and cheapen the virtues of fortitude and perseverance—attributing them, for instance, to millionaire athletes who play games for a living—there is much in their story that is refreshingly subversive.  And as a father, I am especially touched that so many of their sacrifices were with the welfare of their children and their children’s children in mind.  They left all that was familiar to them and risked everything they had, as one of their earliest chroniclers put it, “in order to preserve to their children a life of the soul.”  I call that an inspiring example.

But there is more to their example, it is important to stress, than their actual behavior during the moment of trial.  As impressive as it was, we probably place too much emphasis on the Pilgrims’ courage in crossing the angry Atlantic or their humility and hope in celebrating after the horrors of a deadly winter.  The trials that they endured brought to the surface their theology as well as their character, and I suspect that the latter, which we often admire, was largely a product of the former, which we tend to ignore.  As Jesus taught His disciples, the wise man built his house on a rock before the rains fell and the flood came, by hearing His words and doing them as part of the fabric of daily life (Luke 7:24-27).

Surely it made a difference, when it looked as though the ocean would swallow them, that the Pilgrims had long been taught that God was both good and loving, and that not even a sparrow fell to the ground apart from the Father’s will (Matthew 10:29).

Surely it changed their perspective, when parting from their dearest friends on earth, to recall what they had long believed, that the world was not their home, that their real destination was a heavenly country, a city that God had prepared for them (Hebrews 11:16).

Surely it helped, when exposure and starvation stalked them, to bring to mind the Psalmist’s words, “I know, O Lord, that Your judgments are right, and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me” (Psalm 119:75).

Surely it heartened them to remember the sermons of their beloved pastor in Leiden, John Robinson, who had taught them that God brought hardship into their lives as a mercy, “to wean us from the love of the world” and “to make the glory which shall be showed, and whereof our afflictions are not worthy, the more glorious.”  This was hard teaching, no doubt, but it was proven by suffering, and we can’t make sense of the Pilgrims’ behavior apart from it.

While the Pilgrims’ story is inspirational it is also encouraging, which is a related but different thing.  Figures from the past inspire us when they make us want to grow in godliness; they encourage us when they help us to believe that that is possible.  None of the Pilgrims was a superhuman, larger-than-life hero of the faith.  As a nineteenth-century writer accurately noted, they were “plain” men and women “of moderate abilities.”

But it’s not just that they lacked extraordinary talents; they were fallen, and it showed.  They argued among themselves, they struggled with doubt, they were tempted by mammon.  To an extent, they revealed their flaws inadvertently, in private correspondence that they surely never expected to see the light of day.  But in large part, we know of the Pilgrims’ fleshly struggles because William Bradford purposed to document them, and I am so glad that he did.

The Pilgrims’ longtime governor would not have made a popular Thanksgiving Day speaker.  Unlike the succession of statesmen who flattered their audiences with purple prose, lauding their adopted ancestors for their unsurpassed wisdom and nobility, Bradford chose instead to underline their shortcomings.  The first colonists had survived and flourished, Bradford insisted in his history Of Plymouth Plantation, not because of their many strengths and virtues, but in spite of “all their weaknesses and infirmities.”  In emphasizing that truth, he gave greater glory to God and offered greater hope to us.

By his own account, Bradford emphasized the Lord’s strength and the Pilgrims’ weakness for two main reasons: so that his readers “in like cases might be encouraged to depend upon God in their trials, and also to bless His name when they see His goodness towards others.”  Might we respond in the same way?

REMEMBERING “THE FIRST THANKSGIVING”: THE GUESTS AT THE FEAST

“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth,” Jennie Brownscombe, 1914. Arguably one of the most famous depictions of the event, Brownscombe’s work suggests that the Pilgrims outnumbered their Native American guests. In reality, there were likely at least twice as many Wampanoag as Pilgrims at the feast.

“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth,” Jennie Brownscombe, 1914. Arguably one of the most famous depictions of the event, Brownscombe’s work suggests that the Pilgrims outnumbered their Native American guests. In reality, there were likely at least twice as many Wampanoag as Pilgrims at the feast.

The presence of the Wampanoag has for a long time loomed large in popular memory of the First Thanksgiving. A bit of context is necessary. The Pilgrims chose Plymouth as the site for their colony for several reasons. At its center was a tall hill which would be readily defensible. There was a decent, if somewhat shallow harbor. The coast was alive with “innumerable fowl,” the shore boasted an abundance of mussels (“the greatest and best that ever we saw”), and the harbor was teeming with lobsters and crabs. What is more, there were several small brooks and numerous springs blessed with “the best water that ever we drank.”

But the clincher was that much of the adjacent land had already been cleared for planting, which would save them incalculable labor. The Pilgrims unknowingly had landed in a region of present-day Massachusetts that had once been teeming with Native Americans, but sometime after 1617 the entire region had been devastated by disease, possibly bubonic plague or viral hepatitis contracted from European fishermen. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands had died in the epidemic, whole villages being wiped out so suddenly that there was no time to bury the dead.

On a journey inland during the summer of 1621, Edward Winslow was puzzled by the combination of “many goodly fields” but few inhabitants. The paradox was solved when he came across “skulls and bones . . . still lying above the ground where their houses and dwellings had been.” A few years later, another English settler related that all through the coastal forest the Indians “had died on heapes, as they lay in their houses,” the gruesome remains reminding the observer of “a new found Golgotha.”

The new home the Pilgrims would call Plymouth was actually the abandoned village of a tribe called the Patuxet, where as many as two thousand individuals may have lived scarcely five years before. There were remnants of other peoples nearby—chiefly the Wampanoag (the closest), Massachusetts, Nausets, and Narragansetts—but with the exception of the last, these also had been recently decimated.

That the Pilgrims survived, humanly speaking, was due to the assistance of nearby Indians, although some of that assistance was, shall we say, inadvertent. When the first landing party was exploring the coastline back in November, they had stumbled on an underground cache of dried Indian corn (which they had never seen before) and promptly appropriated it, purposing to give the owners “full satisfaction when they should meet with any of them.” When spring came it proved invaluable as seed, and in fact nearly four-fifths of the acreage that they planted in 1621 was sown from this unexpected supply. Without it, William Bradford admitted, the entire settlement “might have starved.”

That they knew how to make good use of the seed was—as every schoolchild knows—also courtesy of the Indians, in particular a surviving Patuxet named Tisquantum, or Squanto for short. Squanto had been kidnapped by an English sea captain around 1614 and sold as a slave in Spain. He then escaped, made his way to England, spent some time in Newfoundland, and eventually returned to the New England coast with an English explorer sometime after 1617, only to learn that his people were no more. The combination of Squanto’s extraordinary past and his invaluable service to the Pilgrims prompted William Bradford to declare Squanto “a special instrument sent of God for their good.”

It was Squanto who taught the Pilgrims to fertilize their cornfields with shad from nearby streams and to add beans and squash (to climb the corn stalks) once the corn shoots had broken the ground. Equally valuable in the short run, it was Squanto who taught them how to catch eels from the creek and river beds. In an impressive display, Squanto dug them out with his feet and caught them with his bare hands, and in a few hours had as many as he could lift. To the hungry Pilgrims they were a delicacy; a visitor two years later described them as “passing sweet, fat and wholesome, having no taste at all of the mud.”

Perhaps of greatest importance, it was Squanto who served as the Pilgrims’ interpreter and facilitated peaceful, if often tense, relations with the nearby Wampanoag. Since first landing at Cape Cod, the Pilgrims had repeatedly sighted Indians at a distance, and even traded shots with a group of Nausets, but except for the message they conveyed when they discharged their weapons, they had not as yet actually communicated with any of the native peoples in the area. With Squanto’s aid, in March of 1621 the Pilgrims agreed to a kind of mutual-defense pact with the Wampanoag sachem (or chief) Massasoit, one that both sides honored, incidentally, for more than fifty years.

All of this makes it plausible to believe that, when God granted the Pilgrims a good harvest, they would have invited their Native American neighbors to join them in their 1621 harvest celebration. Perhaps they did. Yet it bears emphasizing: four centuries after the fact, we still don’t know for sure how the Wampanoag came to be at the Pilgrims’ feast. The belief that the Pilgrims invited them as a gesture of good will is sheer conjecture.  No direct evidence survives to prove it.

In fairness, according to an English merchant who visited Plymouth in 1623, when William Bradford remarried in the summer of that year, the Pilgrims invited Massasoit and the Wampanoag to the wedding celebration. That they did something comparable two years earlier for their harvest feast is not implausible.
And yet, Edward Winslow’s ambiguous reference to “Indians coming amongst us” leaves open the possibility that they simply showed up, uninvited, expecting hospitality.

This, too, is plausible, for they had a track record of doing precisely that. According to Winslow, the very day after the Pilgrims concluded a peace treaty with the Wampanoag the previous March, “divers of their people came over to us, hoping to get some victuals as we imagined.” This initiated a pattern the Pilgrims would come to know well. In the coming weeks, the Wampanoag “came very often” and in force, bringing their wives and children with them.

By late spring the problem had gotten so bad that Governor Bradford sent a delegation to the Wampanoag settlement to “prevent abuses in their disorderly coming unto us.” Traveling to Massasoit’s home in present-day Rhode Island, a commission of Edward Winslow and Stephen Hopkins first presented the sachem with a handsome red “horseman’s coat” trimmed in lace. Then, as diplomatically as possible, they explained to the Wampanoag leader that, while his people were welcome to visit, the Pilgrims “could no longer give them such entertainment as [they] had done.” Translation: don’t plan on staying for dinner every time you pay us a visit.

Even if Massasoit and his men were invited, we err when we remember the First Thanksgiving as some kind of idyllic multicultural celebration. It was likely tense at best. The Pilgrims had been schooled to see the Native Americans they encountered as bloodthirsty “savages”; even after the feast one of the Pilgrim writers would describe the Wampanoag as naturally “cruel and treacherous people.” The Wampanoag had learned to view Europeans in much the same way, for more than once European sailors or fishermen visiting Cape Cod had kidnapped or murdered unsuspecting natives.

If the Pilgrims had arrived just a few years earlier, before the great epidemic had ravaged the Wampanoag, Massasoit’s first inclination would likely have been to drive the newcomers into the ocean. Now with but a shadow of his former strength—and possibly in awe of the Pilgrims’ muskets—the sachem opted for warfare of a different kind: he commanded his powwows to curse the new arrivals. According to William Bradford’s nephew, Nathaniel Morton, for three days the Wampanoag medicine men convened “in a dark and dismal swamp” and “in a horrid and devilish manner did curse and execrate them with their conjurations.” This is a part of the Thanksgiving story we tend not to emphasize.

If Morton’s information was accurate, it was only after this covert operation failed that Massasoit turned to diplomacy. It is possible that he was encouraged to do so by the English-speaking Squanto, who saw in this alternative strategy an opportunity to improve his status among the Wampanoag, who had essentially been holding the Patuxet Indian prisoner since his appearance the previous year. Although Squanto figures prominently in children’s books as the Pilgrims’ friend, the Pilgrims soon concluded that he “sought his own ends and played his own game,” as William Bradford recalled.

As Bradford and Edward Winslow both told the story, Squanto tried to play the Pilgrims and Wampanoag off against each other, in one case orchestrating false reports of an impending attack on Plymouth, at other times telling Massasoit that the Pilgrims kept the plague under their storehouse and would soon unleash it unless he could persuade them to desist. In both instances Squanto was apparently striving to enhance his own influence as an intermediary and peacemaker, making the Wampanoag “believe he could stir up war against whom he would, and make peace for whom he would.” When Massasoit learned of this duplicity, he sent his own knife to the Pilgrims through messengers and requested that they cut off Squanto’s head and hands. When the Pilgrims declined to do so—they needed Squanto even if they no longer trusted him—the Wampanoag were “mad with rage.”

If the Pilgrims’ association with the Wampanoag was often strained, their relations with other native peoples in the area were often worse. Not long after the First Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims received a threat from the Narragansett Indians and began to construct a palisade for self-defense. Fear pushed them to a prodigious pace, for by the end of February 1622 a log fence eight feet high and twenty-seven hundred feet long ringed the entire settlement. That spring they began construction of a fort inside the palisade to render their position even stronger, and after ten months of tedious labor they had completed a citadel at the top of the hill complete with six cannon.

About that time they briefly went to war against the Massachusetts Indians. Having reason to believe that the Massachusetts were planning a surprise attack, the Pilgrims initiated a preemptive strike, sending Myles Standish and eight men to ambush a contingent of Massachusetts warriors. Upon hearing of the bloodshed, their beloved Pastor Robinson wrote plaintively from Holland, “Oh, how happy a thing had it been, if you had converted some before you had killed any!”

As we imagine the Pilgrims and their Wampanoag guests sharing a meal at the First Thanksgiving, it will serve as an antidote to over-sentimentality if we remember that less than two years later the head of a Massachusetts Indian decorated the Pilgrims’ fort. Governor Bradford explained to the Merchant Adventurers that they kept it there “for a terror unto others.” The “others” likely included Massasoit and the Wampanoag, for when they arrived for the governor’s marriage feast a couple of weeks later, they would have seen the gruesome trophy displayed prominently, along with “a piece of linen cloth dyed in the same Indian’s blood.”

TALKING ABOUT THANKSGIVING

A couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to sit down with my friend Wayne Shepherd to discuss how we remember the Pilgrims and the “First Thanksgiving.”  If you don’t know him, Wayne is the host of a wonderful radio/podcast interview program.  “First Person” is carried by nearly three hundred stations across the country, and I heartily recommend it.

If you’d care to listen in, our conversation will be airing this weekend on radio, and is available online even now, here.

 

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

The First Thanksgiving--Jean Louis Ferris

The First Thanksgiving–Jean Louis Ferris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet celebrate they did.