Thank the Pilgrims for progress

Sunday, November 22, 1998

As every school kid learns, the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth Colony was a joyous occasion. The harvest was bountiful and the Indians friendly. But what we probably don't learn is that the joy was short-lived. The peace with the Indians would soon be broken. And the worldliness that the Pilgrims traveled so far to escape would gradually overwhelm and finally eclipse their holy experiment.


Far from the new Israel they sought to establish, Plymouth became like all
other colonies — a place plagued by human greed and conflict. What are the lessons in the Pilgrim story of triumph and failure? First, escaping the corruption of the world (and human nature) is difficult, if not impossible. And second,
uniformity of belief in any society can't be sustained for very long. (These lessons we don't learn in school.)


Remember that the Pilgrims were not simply reformers, they were purists —
Separatists seeking to break completely with a Church of England they
viewed as irredeemably corrupt. Their uncompromising zeal for “purification” provoked persecution from the King. They were forced to flee England for a more tolerant Holland. But once there they discovered that the permissive and worldly society of the Dutch threatened the purity of their ideal and the morals of their youth.


A momentous decision was made. Only by traveling across the ocean to a
new world could they be free to establish the new Israel — the true church —
that God required. Thus it was that the famous Mayflower set sail from
southern England in 1620 with 102 passengers aboard. But the source of future problems sailed with them. There were “strangers” in the midst of the “saints.” In fact, fewer than half of the passengers were true Pilgrims — the rest came to seek their fortune. Soon the motives of the strangers would dilute the vision of the saints.


Consider the famous Miles Standish. More a stranger than a saint, Standish
was a military man with a short fuse. In 1623, he provoked a fight with the
Massachusetts Indians and killed their chief in an ambush. Though hailed as
a hero by many, others — including their pastor John Robinson — knew that
the bloodshed had polluted the colony. Dissenters — found among the strangers and the saints — also disturbed the harmony of the colony.


As new colonies sprang up nearby bringing more trade (and more strangers), the Pilgrims themselves began to divide on questions of faith and morality. But no provision had been made for religious dissent. Yes, the Pilgrims came here seeking religious freedom; but only for themselves, not for others. Without protections for individual rights of conscience, the colony faced division and conflict. Even among the saints, religious conformity couldn't be enforced.


More than 150 years later, this lesson wasn't lost on our nation's founders
— some of them theological descendants of the Pilgrims. Faced with the
question of how to deal with religious differences in a diverse society,
they adopted the religious liberty clauses of the First Amendment.
In taking this bold step, they sought to reverse the tide of history — to stop the rivers of blood shed in the name of religion.


Now, under the First Amendment, the government may not coerce anyone in matters of faith. All citizens may practice their faith openly and freely without governmental interference. If we have heeded the harsh lessons of our Pilgrim ancestors, we have also gained from the many gifts of the Pilgrim spirit — the willingness to sacrifice in service of the common good; the love of independence; the inner strength to face great trials and even death in order to create a
better society that would be a light to the world.


Beyond the ritual feast, Thanksgiving should remind us of both the lessons
and the gifts of Plymouth colony. From their struggle to our own, we have much to he thankful for in the “land of the Pilgrims' pride.”