Over the Thanksgiving weekend, the children dress up as Pilgrims and we feast on turkey, cranberries and pumpkin pie to commemorate how they (the Pilgrims, not the kids) struggled and survived in the New World. But let's take a moment to really remember those early Americans.
In his masterful volume, “A History of the American People,” British historian Paul Johnson describes the Puritans who landed at New Plymouth on December 11, 1620 this way: “They were the zealots, the idealists, the utopians, the saints, and the best of them, or perhaps one should say the most extreme of them, were fanatical, uncompromising and overweening in their self-righteousness.”
But, he concedes, they also were “immensely energetic, persistent, and courageous.” They and their heirs were to weave one of the most vibrant designs in the American tapestry.
It was a Puritan leader, William Bradford, who first called this community Pilgrims. But “they were not ordinary pilgrims, traveling to a sacred shrine, and then returning home to resume everyday life,” Johnson writes. “They were, rather, perpetual pilgrims, setting up a new, sanctified country which was to be a permanent pilgrimage, traveling ceaselessly toward a millenarian goal. They saw themselves as exceptions to the European betrayal of Christian principles, and they were conducting an exercise in exceptionalism.”
They left Europe to escape religious persecution -- not quite the same as saying they came for religious freedom -- and “to create His kingdom on earth.” John Winthrop, whom Johnson calls “the first great American,” considered Europe “a lost cause,” both irreligious and badly governed. Winthrop said of Europe: “This land grows weary of its Inhabitants.”
In a very real sense, the Puritans were Judeo-Christians. They saw themselves as the spiritual progeny of Moses' tribe, fleeing from Egypt (17th century Europe) to the Promised Land (the New World, in particular New England).
On the Mayflower – a cramped old ship built not to carry passengers across the Atlantic but only barrels of wine between Bordeaux and London – they signed a social compact “based upon the original Biblical covenant between God and the Israelites.” Also influenced by early-17th-century social-contract theory, they drafted “just and equal laws” that were firmly anchored in the teachings of the church.
Their piety did not diminish their thirst for education – quite the contrary. Nor did their faith deter them from a keen interest in science. Indeed, among the most famous of the Puritans was Cotton Mather (1663-1728) who entered Harvard at the age of 12, learned seven languages and wrote 450 books. He popularized the Copernican system of astronomy. He also believed in witchcraft. He was concerned, too, with the rights of slaves and Indians, not big issues in those days.
The Puritans considered it their mission to create a better society than any the world had seen before. Winthrop wrote: “We must consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.”
Boston became the Pilgrim's capital, but by 1638, the Rev. John Davenport concluded that corruption had set in there, so he led a congregation to what is now New Haven, Conn. Among those who went with him was David Yale, “a learned gentleman,” whose descendent, Elihu Yale was to found an institution of higher learning that would educate many future American presidents, as well as many others who merely aspired to that office.
It is tempting to theorize that the Puritan/Pilgrim spirit has, over the past few hundred years, moved further inland, far from Massachusetts and other coastal communities, to what we now call the Red states. But that would be simplistic. As Johnson points out, the Puritans were eventually joined by adherents to other religious traditions, and over time, “the Puritan merged into the Yankee, ‘a race whose typical member is eternally torn between a passion for righteousness and a desire to get on in the world.'”
Besides, the Puritans were hardly conservative in the sense that they favored limited government and rugged individualism. On the contrary, Johnson says, they believed that government “should interfere and direct and lead as much as it could, in all aspects of life.… Puritans saw the individualist as a dangerous loner, meat for the Devil to feed on.”
By the early 18th century, Puritanism was in decline and new American concepts of religion were taking shape. Cotton Mather was among the first to see this, and he regretted it. “There is danger lest the enchantments of this world make them forget their errand into the wilderness,” he wrote.
Yet there are today still those who believe America has a mission, and who see this exceptional nation still aspiring to be a “Citty upon a Hill.” I suspect the Pilgrims would take some satisfaction in that.