This month marks the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims landing in Massachusetts. I’m sure the Coronavirus curtailed the many celebrations that were planned for 2020. With all the overshadowing goings-on of this crazy year, I’ve seen very little acknowledgment of this critical foundational event in our nation’s history.
You can read the details of these people for yourselves, so I won’t recount a lot of it here. However, my formal education in what happened and why was sadly lacking during my formative years. I will lift up a few thoughts that I hold as important “take-aways” regarding the voyage of the Mayflower and the establishment of Plymouth settlement in the new world.
Foundation of Religious Freedom
The Pilgrims were also called Puritans. They were denigrated as religious separatists and non-conformists with the established beliefs and rituals of the state sponsored Church of England. As staunch Protestants, they felt the Church was still too closely aligned with the Catholic Church and were viciously persecuted for worshipping according to their own conscience. So the motivation for the Pilgrims to leave their home and extended families was religious freedom.
The Mayflower Compact, a social contract to govern the establishment of the new settlement, was signed on November 11, 1620. It stated that the Plymouth Colony was “for the glory of God and advancement of the Christian faith.”
Yes, I know other ventures into the new world used similar language but were also motivated by gold and greed and were pursued through violent, disastrous methods. But these were not adventure-seeking conquistadors. They were mostly individuals or small families of faith who were looking for a better life.
Failed Socialist Beginning
My second point has to do with their commitments to the Plymouth Stock Company investors who sponsored the trip. Their contract’s terms of agreement outlined expectations of repayment and profit sharing obligations and also stipulated that they were to hold all property in common. The fruit of their labors was to be shared equally among the colonists.
As with all socialist experiments, the results were terrible for the community’s first couple of years. Those men who labored hard to grow the crops and build the necessary structures became resentful of those who shirked their duties, depending on the efforts of others. The wives felt it was an injustice to cook, wash clothes, and clean for families other than their own, when some women weren’t doing their share and feigning weakness. In Bradford’s words, “They deemed it a kind of slavery.”
Why work when you know you will get the same share as everyone else? Why work when your energies offer no additional benefits than those received by those who avoided doing work? The result of this system was there was never enough food or goods produced to sustain the population. All suffered because of the premise of a naïve view of sinful human nature.
So a new model was put into place with private ownership of property and each person working for the benefit of his/her own family, controlling their own means of production. The outcomes changed dramatically, with more than enough crops in the third year. What appeared to be a failed attempt to establish a colony became a successful foundation of what would become a great nation.
Giving Thanks to God
Finally, the role of the hand of Providence cannot be overstated. About one hundred people started the nine-week voyage from Plymouth, England. By the end of the first year, more than half of them had died from starvation, disease, and exposure. Nevertheless, they maintained faith in Almighty God and thanked Him for His provision and blessing in their lives. These were tough, courageous people who weren’t perfect, but whose heritage of dependence on God with a heart of gratitude has been passed down to us.
Their day of celebrating thanks to the Almighty with a shared meal with the indigenous people of that area has come down to us, in part as myth and legend, but also in the truth of its principles.
This year, when we celebrate Thanksgiving Day, maybe we can offer thanks for those who came before us who persevered hardships and overcame adversities to lay the groundwork for the blessings we share today. Thanks be to God!