What We Can Learn About Freedom from the Pilgrims (Since Thanksgiving is Coming)

Happy Thanksgiving! I hope you have a blessed and thankful Thanksgiving wherever you spend it. May God bless and protect you and everyone you love and worry about and pray for. Happy Thanksgiving!

Every year at this time, I reflect on what the Pilgrims have to teach us about freedom. I share my thoughts with you in hopes of giving you something to discuss at the Thanksgiving table other than the most recent election or Uncle Throckmorton’s newly strange behavior.

The first thing I need to mention is that the Pilgrims do not seem nearly as strange to most of us Americans as they should. And they SHOULD seem strange. After all, they lived more than 400 years ago and differ from us in countless ways — which is precisely why we should listen to what they have to teach us. If they were just like us, they wouldn’t have anything to teach us that we don’t already know.

As Sam Wineburg teaches us (Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001) at its best, the study of history always involves a simultaneous encounter with both the familiar and the strange. If there were nothing familiar to us about the people we study, how could we possibly learn anything from them? But if they were wholly familiar to us, what could they possibly teach us that we didn’t already know? We need to remember that people from the past are never either larger-than-life heroes or our next-door-neighbors.

We particularly need to be reminded of this when we think about the Pilgrims. Ever since we were in elementary school and made handprint turkeys and colored inside the outlines of Pilgrims which we then cut out and glued to toilet paper tubes, we have thought of the Pilgrims as somehow “just like us”. And as adults, when we look fondly back on the Pilgrims, we remember that they were Christian, that they were motivated by their faith to cross an ocean, that they valued family — and so it is tempting to think of them as “clones of us in funny clothes.” But they weren’t. They were men and women who were the products of a different time and place.

For example, like most English people of their day, they thought corn was an animal food, that tomatoes were unhealthy, that sweet potatoes were an aphrodisiac, and that swan was a delicacy. They loved beer, but viewed water with suspicion.

Furthermore, they rejected the King James Bible, which had been commissioned by that monarch to counter the Geneva Bible of 1560 — whose marginal notes undermined the “divine right of kings”, and so King James detested the Geneva Bible. They prayed with their eyes opened, looking up. Although they looked on marriage as a divinely ordained institution, they insisted that couples should be married by a civil magistrate not a pastor. Why? Because both Catholics and Anglicans recognized only those marriages that were performed by a priest of that denomination and the Pilgrims protested that God had never explicitly charged pastors with solemnizing the marital relationship. The Pilgrims insisted that it was usurping power that God had given to the civil authorities when any church insisted that marriage was valid only if performed by clergy of that denomination. So truly God-fearing couples would be married only by civil authorities.

In fact, many Americans think that the Pilgrims were “some sort of Puritan”, which they were not. The Puritans thought the Anglican Church could be “purified” (hence the name). The Pilgrims thought the Anglican Church had been so corrupted that true Christians had no choice but to leave it (hence the name). Pilgrims wore brightly colored clothing, danced, and did not wear buckles on their hats, belts, or shoes (nevermind how we dressed them in elementary school projects). And the main reason most Americans do not realize that Pilgrims were not “some sort of Puritan” is because the colony that the Pilgrims established (Plymouth) was soon far surpassed by the colony that the Puritans established (Massachusetts Bay). In fact, for 150 years after 1620, when Americans remembered the Pilgrims at all, they remembered them only as “the first small wave of the Great New England Puritan migration” (James W. Baker, Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday, Lebanon: University of New Hampshire Press, 2009, p.98)

The Pilgrims DID come to America to escape religious persecution and to earn a better living — but they were NOT the first architects of the American Dream. And they DID come here seeking liberty — but their concept of liberty had very little in common with Frank Sinatra’s song “I Did It My Way.” And here is where I think we have much to learn from the Pilgrims.

The liberty that the Pilgrims venerated was the freedom to DO what was right, not the freedom to DECIDE what was right; the freedom to do what God said you were supposed to do, not the freedom to do whatever you wanted. Liberty did not exist apart from your obligation to fulfill your Covenant responsibilities to God and other people. For example, in their view, the persecution that they had experienced in England was NOT wrong because it “violated their right to worship according to the dictates of conscience”. But that persecution WAS wrong because it got in the way of their covenant obligation to worship God according to the dictates of Scripture. Central to their thinking about liberty was their thinking about the responsibility you had to live faithfully within the network of relationships in which God had placed you; the Pilgrims valued responsibility more than rights, obedience more than autonomy, order more than individualism. “It is a Christian’s honor, to give honor according to man’s places; and it is his liberty to serve God in faith and his brethren in love” wrote John Robinson, the Pilgrim’s pastor (as quoted in Governor William Bradford’s Letter Book, Bedford MA: Applewood Books, 2001).

Where we can learn from the Pilgrims is that when we realize that they actually saw the world differently from us, we can begin to reflect on our own ways of looking at it. When we take seriously how differently they understood freedom from the way that understand it, we can look at what might be inadequate about the way WE understand freedom. To say this another way, when we take the strangeness of the past seriously — not simply dismiss it as curious or bizarre but really grapple with it — history has a way of making the present seem strange to us. It repeatedly exposes practices and beliefs that we take for granted, and in making us more aware of them, history presents us with the opportunity to think more deeply about them.

If you want to read more about the Pilgrims, I highly recommend The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History by Robert Tracy McKenzie (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic (c) 2013) There are copious footnotes and a great bibliography. www.ivpacademic.com I loved it.

May your conversation be sparkling.

And may your Thanksgiving be glorious!

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