On this Thanksgiving Season in 2017, it is easy to think back to the American Pilgrims, Plymouth Rock, The Mayflower, and the first Thanksgiving (which really wasn’t the first–Thanksgiving started in the southern colonies). The pleasant features of the story are ingrained into our culture. Even those times when some tried to divert the message into being a feast where the Pilgrims were giving thanks to the Indians for their help, the religious nature of the Pilgrims has not been erased from our heritage.
Each time I teach American history, I run the risk of foundering my course by getting too lost in the colonial period. 1607-1775 is a long time. Many foundational actions took place in the many (not just 13) colonies in the New World. Besides, I am a Calvinist, so there is lots of rich material regarding the theological roots of American history. Seventy-five percent or more of colonial Americans held to Reformed theology in some form or another. The Great Awakening, with its two key leaders Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, is a vital chapter in America’s history which directly impacted much that followed. I never get to adequately cover the French and Indian War, in spite of my interest in it.
Of course, the landing on the harsh, rocky banks of what was called Plymouth gets notice. The Pilgrims, who are better termed Separatists, play a major role in many aspects of American history. There is the voyage itself, an incredibly risky venture based on certain convictions about church life. Then there is the Mayflower Compact, a precursor of the written constitutions that would form the governments of both colonies and states and then of the United States. Literature was birthed in part at Plymouth with William Bradford’s classic Of Plymouth Plantation. European and Indian relations would be seen in its best light with the aid given by Samoset and Squanto to the settlers. Economics was provided with the greatest example of the failure of socialism when the settlers attempted to share all things in common. The 1621 thanksgiving celebration, of course, then is re-enacted by school children even to this day.
But the Mayflower and Plymouth Plantation or Colony gets a short column or a few paragraphs in our history books. (Of necessity, no history survey can do justice to specific events.) Plmouth’s few hundreds were soon overshadowed by the thousands of Puritans who settled the Boston area and other parts of what became the larger, dominant Massachusetts Bay colony. Massachusett settlers and Plymouth settlers would share and cooperate with each other for a time, but Plymouth soon became just a part of the larger, wealthier, more advanced Protestant community of Massachusetts.
A new book, perfect for today, great for anytime, is titled Mayflower: The Families, the Voyage, and the Founding of America is by Rebecca Fraser. This new book is published by St. Martin’s Press and is available from all major book stores. Rebecca Fraser is well equipped as a historian and writer. She is the daughter of Antonia Fraser who has written quite a few works on English history. Rebecca has previously written The Brontes (about the sisters who were writers) and the very readable Story of Britain.
The story of the hardy band of Pilgrims is a tale worth telling and hearing again and again. Call it audacity, pluck, courage, or even near insanity, the forces that worked in them to commit them to stepping on a west bound ship across the Atlantic were extraordinary. Sure, they survived, but as evidenced by previous ventures into the New World, such as Roanoke and Jamestown, this was a high risk venture. The mortality rates for those who came to Plymouth were exceedingly high. Fraser notes a few souls who went back to England, but the amazing story is of those who literally carved out a home in the wilderness.
Of course, it helped that portions of land had already been carved, or more actually cleared, by the Indian tribes. The interactions between the Europeans and the various Indian tribes plays a large part in the developing story. From some of the early and successful interactions, relationships were often cordial and cooperative. Indian chiefs were quite shrewd in their dealings with these new inhabitants. Trade and diplomacy were both conducted to gain maximum benefits by both parties. Items such as beaver skins provided a means for the colony to thrive economically. Hachets, guns, and cloth from the Europeans were beneficial to the Indians.
Sadly, the whole story is not one of two mutually prospering groups. The increasing numbers of Europeans and superior fire-power enabled them to dominate the story. There were two major wars in the region. The first was the Pequot War and the second was King Phillip’s War. While the numbers of those killed are small compared to later wars on this continent, on a per capita basis, there were real killing fields. King Phillip’s War was perhaps the best opportunity the Indian tribes ever had to drive out the English. Of course, it failed, and with it, the power base of the Indian community was forever diminished.
Religion is a major focus of the book. After all, this is about the Pilgrim Fathers. Add to that, it was the century of religious wars and conflicts that consumed England and much of continental Europe during the 1600s. Furthermore, as the story of Plymouth develops, the Puritans will come to dominate the region. The American colonies were a testing ground, a melting pot, a safe zone for many religious ideas and practices that were challenging Europe and England in particular.
Puritan New England (which we might better call Reformed New England since not all were Puritans) is often criticized, misunderstood, and caricatured. Until Perry Miller decided to study those dreadful Puritans, they were more an object of curiosity or distaste than a subject of study. Miller’s academic pursuit later merged with a theological reawakening of interest in Puritanism and Puritan theology. As with all of history, the simple explanations don’t explain. The Puritan society or religious foundations of New England were complicated.
As Fraser emphasizes, the Mayflower settlers were people of firm, dedicated commitment to living the Christian faith in ways their separatist and Reformation theology demanded. Bradford, Brewster, Winslow, and others were the real deal. So were many of those whose theological differences confuse the outsider. By that, I mean that the Puritans, Roger Williams and his followers, the Mathers, and even the Quakers were people of conviction. Simply put, they would die for their faith commitments.
At the same time, from our distant perspective, the theological worldview was flawed. The problem was not that they were trying to follow the Bible, but rather they did not follow it adequately or correctly. A recurring error of that time was interpreting bad events as judgments of God. A drought or storm, an Indian raid, an unexpected death, and other events were too readily explained as though the New Englanders could read the mind of God in them. (I do believe calamities ought to drive us to self-examination and repentance, but we cannot know God’s purpose in all such tragedies.)
Then there were the outright theological failures. Most saddening was the practice of selling Indian captives into slavery. This was the common practice during King Philip’s War. War rarely brings out our better qualities, but this was quite deplorable. Later, the witchcraft frenzy and trials were another blot on New England. While there were those pastors who warned against abuses, some stupid things were allowed such as allowing for “spectral evidence” in court. This has reference to people claiming to have seen or witnessed a person doing something weird and that testimony being accepted as fact.
Much of this book is centered around the Winslow family. They came on the Mayflower, became leaders in the community, and continued to be influential through the generations. They represented what was the best, most creative, and most worthy of the world that would grow out of Plymouth. Edward Winslow was a great man, but he was still just a man, a success in some areas and a failure in others. He befriended Maasassoit, chief of the Wampanoags, and he worked to make Plymouth prosperous. His son, as is often the story in history, was a man of a different generation. His faith commitment was dim compared to the father, and his actions were more of the enterprising and pragmatic American than that of the commited Pilgrim.
This book is a fine story. It is history as story; therefore, it contains truth, beauty, and goodness, but also reveals falsehoods, ugliness, and evil. It is our nation’s story. We re-enact and remember only a small part, but we need to know the bigger story as well.