The Pilgrims are much on folks’ minds this time of year: iconic images of families huddled aboard the Mayflower churning, North America-bound, through the cold Atlantic; a hardy band of pioneers with their belt-buckle hats and muskets; their later feasting with nearby Wampanoag peoples, etc.
That last event, of course — their long-ago celebration of a successful harvest season — has become the archetypal basis of the United States’ annual and beloved Thanksgiving Day commemoration.
I delight in the “Turkey Day” to Christmas Day stretch: its enfolding atmosphere of crackling festivity, the widespread, and increasingly rare, emphasis on transcendent themes like gratitude (to God!), the birth of a Savior (!!), generosity and love of friends and family. It’s ironic our modern end-of-November holiday is now broadly considered the entrée to Christmastime, since the Pilgrims regarded the latter a worldly and pagan abomination.
While I differ, indeed, with our Pilgrim forebears on that score, I’m so glad they determined to pause and formally render thanks to the Creator they worshiped. That choice ended up, eventually, germinating into our lovely Thanksgiving Day tradition. And, it turns out, that’s not all they bequeathed to American culture and society …
Below, a couple other momentous influences the Pilgrims sowed into that inhospitable New England wilderness which would, ultimately, become the United States of America:
Surprisingly, over four centuries ago, the Pilgrims entertained primitive “democratic” inklings. Back in England, their pastor, John Robinson, was deeply committed to the idea of the meaningfulness of the individual: “Little people” mattered. His studies of the Bible convinced him all men, from King to commoner, were important to God and thus, accountable to Him. Every person was, thus, to be regarded as equal, not only before Him but, in the most down-to-earth applications, before the law, as well.
It was this conviction which centrally guided Robinson’s congregation in formulating and ratifying what we know as The Mayflower Compact when they arrived off the coast of Cape Cod in 1620. Signed aboard that eponymous sea vessel anchored in Provincetown Harbor, it became the charter outlining the government which would operate in the soon-to-be-birthed Plimouth Plantation — and, beyond that, the first document establishing a system of self-rule in America. John Carver was then voted in as governor of the new community; another milestone: the first freely elected official in the fledgling nation.
Many historians trace the roots of America’s Declaration of Independence and Constitution to that seminal, Pilgrim compact and accompanying elective act. “[A]ll Men are created equal,” Thomas Jefferson boldly wrote a century-and-a-half later when the thirteen colonies broke with King George III; “[T]hey are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”.
The Constitutional Rights Foundation reflects, “From its crude beginning in Plymouth, self-government evolved into the town meetings of New England and larger local governments in colonial America. … Born out of necessity on the Mayflower, the Compact made a significant contribution to the creation of a new democratic nation.”
“It started us, as a people, on our path toward establishing a democratic republic, and it served as a foundation for our Constitution,” adds the American Center for Law and Justice.
The Pilgrim proclivity for cherishing every human being didn’t fizzle when they encountered those outside of their clan, either. Their interactions with the Native peoples populating the region around their settlement didn’t consist of only a single harvest party. In 1621, Governor Carver brokered a peace treaty with Chief Massasoit which was honored for over fifty years. Despite their ethnic, cultural and even religious divergences, the transplanted Englishmen and their “Indian” neighbors enjoyed a decades-spanning, mutually beneficial relationship, demonstrating it’s possible to treat those who are different from us with heartfelt, work-a-day dignity.
Today, we call that “human rights”; and behaving civilly. John Carver and Co. would have replied it’s simply living like a Christian. (Regrettably, theirs was an example forgotten – or rejected – by too many Europeans who followed thereafter to American shores.)
It’s worth noting, the Puritans, the Plimouth settlers’ theological cousins, supplied their own salutary, nation-shaping trends upon their arrival in what is now the Boston area, circa 1630. Attitudes and practices soaked in biblical ideals revered by both Pilgrim and Puritan alike go a long way toward explaining the shape and tenor of seventeenth-Century Massachusetts and environs.
Three of America’s earliest colleges (Harvard (1636), William and Mary (1693) and Yale (1701)) were established as Christ-honoring schools by those linked to the Puritan (Congregationalist) faith. (In fact, according to some evaluations, all of this country’s pre-Revolutionary War “colonial colleges” and 106 of America’s initial 108 institutions of higher education were founded as expressly Christian.)
Education in general, for that matter, was compelled by America’s Puritan antecedents. A pair of laws codified in the 1640s insisted children be taught literacy. “The law required every town with more than 50 families to set up a reading school”. The second of these statutes was intriguingly titled The Old Deluder Satan Act. Its motivation? Individuals had to be able to decipher the written word because “[o]ne chief project of that old deluder, Satan” was to “keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures.”
As a result of these initiatives, means of schooling multiplied throughout the new world. “Over the next four decades, similar laws to The Old Deluder Satan Act were passed in Plimoth Plantation, New Haven Colony, Connecticut and New Hampshire.”
It’s not fashionable or “sophisticated” to acknowledge it nowadays, but that “religious” piece — more explicitly the Judeo-Christian piece — played an indispensable role not only in America’s budding era, but throughout the centuries which followed. From nascent efforts to abolish slavery, to embryonic measures for helping the physically ill and materially needy, people endeavoring to follow Jesus have offered this nation invaluable contributions.
But back to the Pilgrims: the seeds of our democratic-republican system of government and an active appreciation for every human being as valued creation of God? That’s quite the inheritance, in part at least, from a boatload of religious separatists who originally came to this continent seeking religious liberty and then nearly perished their first winter here.
The yearly excuse they provide us to stuff our faces with poultry, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie ain’t anything to sniff at, either.
Image: Jean Leon Gerome Ferris: The First Thanksgiving, Gemälde von ca. 1912-1915 | Vollständiges Bild und Bildnachweis (Public Domain, Wikimedia): Bild anklicken (https://segu-geschichte.de/thanksgiving/)