The image of Thanksgiving includes food, football, family, and this strange group of people many call The Pilgrims. By “The Pilgrims” we mean those early settlers of North America whom we revere for their courage, generosity to the natives, and seemingly relentless quest for freedom. Like any history, the story of the Pilgrims has been told in a way that fits the ethos of America. The Pilgrims are often seen as freedom fighters setting out to start a community without the burden of any tyranny impeding their will.
The truth is that the heart and soul of these Europeans of the 17th century can teach us about an aspect of the Christian’s identity that is often lost today. It is this:
We are Pilgrims, too!
As a side note, much of the information in the rest of this article is from Robert Tracy McKenzie’s excellent analysis of the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving in his book, The First Thanksgiving: What the real story tells us about loving God and learning from History.
Buy it and read it. Its excellent for anyone who loves world and church history.
Why the Pilgrims came to the Americas
To summarize the journey of the Pilgrims, as a group of Englanders who were extremely dissatisfied with being a member of the Church of England, they were not simple Puritans (those who wished to purify the Church of England by enacting reform), but were thoroughly Seperatists. They saw the only acceptable course of action to be leaving the Church of England; which meant leaving England. So they first escaped to Holland, a country known for its tolerance of differing religions and groups. There they enjoyed what pilgrim Edward Winslow described as “much peace and liberty”.
There was no state religious persecution like they had experienced in England. Rather, there was a myriad of other consequences that forced them to reconsider their religious haven. William Bradford, who would serve as the governor of the Plymouth Colony, wrote about the conditions that made it equally as prohibitive to a practicing community of faith. For example, in contrast to their farm life in England, he saw fast-paced life of city living as a burden. The life of “great labor and hard fare” threatened the church by discouraging members from remaining a separatist, keeping new members away, and tempting members to give in to their carnal desires. He also described a “great licentiousness of youth in that country” that he attributed to Dutch parents giving their children too much freedom; who would also reproach Pilgrim parents for correcting their own children.
For these and other reasons, the group in Leiden, Holland felt it necessary to leave in search of a location more conducive to the communal life they envisioned for their group. We learn from this that the threat to our communities of faith is often not as heavy-handed as a government crackdown. It appears that for those sensitive to their spiritual condition, it becomes noticeable that one’s environment is a powerful force to uphold or thwart one’s efforts in faithfulness.
This speaks to the point of our mission here at Post-Christian Era. We hope that it becomes noticeable just how antithetical to Christianity our culture is, and how effective it is at discouraging faithfulness.
Contrary to popular depiction, the Pilgrims had no sense of pursuing a free society or liberating the conscience of each one’s heart. They wanted a scenario which would allow them the freedom to bind themselves more fully to practices and values they deemed essential to the Christian faith. It shouldn’t surprise us that the environment they established in the Plymouth Colony is not the Western liberalism we usually think our country was founded on. They enacted everything from communal property, to strict commercial regulation, and moral regulations on things like alcohol, tobacco, playing cards, observing the Sabbath, and even punishment for a man proposing marriage without asking the bride’s father.
If we see anything heroic in these figures it is not simply the hardships and tragedies they endured in their pursuits, but that they were bound by their faith to take such extreme measures to ensure the spiritual well-being of their members. And it is their identity as pilgrims that reveals the powerful motivation of these heroes.
Why the Pilgrims were Pilgrims
Did the Pilgrims know they were pilgrims? What an interesting and funny question, but a serious question nonetheless. The answer is yes. And this description paints a portrait of a group of faithful men and women who saw themselves as more than just Separatists. A pilgrim is one on a religious journey, and while we may think of Pilgrims as people with silly clothes seeking religious freedom, to those Pilgrims it meant they were “temporary travelers in a world not their own”1
Bradford described in book 1 of his book Of Plymouth Plantation the scene as they left Holland for America, they left:
“that goodly and pleasant city which had been their resting place near twelve years; but they knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lift up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits.”2
Robert Cushman, a deacon of the group, notes this:
“But now we are all in all places strangers and pilgrims, travelers and sojourners,…having no dwelling but in this earthen tabernacle.”3
This idea we find in Hebrews chapter 11 (v. 13-16); the idea that the world is not ours, but that we belong to the Kingdom of God. Many times the Gospel message erodes into a belief that the Kingdom of God is established by a nation such as the United States. American culture is often seen as aligned with Christian holiness; so much so that its often hard to point out the difference between a Christian and a really moral American atheist.
The group from England, and then Holland, chose to become pilgrims (to set out on a journey) because they were pilgrims; Christians unhindered by any attachments to this world and solely motivated by the goal of fostering faithfulness. This aspect of their motivation makes it clear that they had no visions of a new type of society. Rather, their ardent dedication to holiness and faithfulness meant that the risks were worth taking.
For the Pilgrims, the Christian faith is overwhelmingly involved with every facet of life. So much so that liberty was not a freedom to pursue one’s own desires, but to take up responsibility and obedience. To which the Pilgrims had structures of authority for husband and wives, children, church elders, and civil magistrates. Contrary to our modern beliefs, loving one’s self was a sin. It made perfect sense to compel every citizen of the colony to attend church and hear the word of God under threat of punishment. And while these ideas may seem detrimental to the faith when seen through our modern eyes, they stem from the belief that this world is not our home, that our lives are not our own, and our life is a journey that requires rigor and order.
Is there any other way?
For any of us that view our world as one that is as hostile to the faith as the Pilgrims viewed Holland and England to be, I want to ask, “is there any other way to respond?”
In other words, is there any other way to live the Christian life faithfully without detaching our minds and hearts from this world? While I don’t agree with every particular step the Pilgrims took to express their heavenly citizenship (the marriage proposal one I can get on board with), I do agree that every aspect of our lives should be shaped and directed by our allegiance to Christ and His way. That leads me to believe that 21st century American Christianity is much too lax in our approach to submitting to Christ. If our churches’ theologies and our own Christian fluencies allow us to be absorbed in consumerism, mindless entertainment, individualism, and to continue in an ignorance of holiness and spiritual disciplines, how much can we say we are pilgrims forsaking the world for the prize of Christ?
My answer is no, there is no other way to live Christianity faithfully. We are told in many places of Scripture that we should have no affinity to the world; that we are pilgrims in the heavenly sense. That our hearts and minds should be held captive to the beliefs and practices that bind us to the faith. Unfortunately, the modern Christian loves his way of life, his comforts and luxuries, to give them up in pursuit of Christ.
The phrase “city on a hill” has been used to describe the United States’ destiny to be a figurehead in spirituality and liberty. While even presidents have borrowed the phrase, it was first used to describe the colonies by an early Pilgrim named John Winthrop in an address called A Model of Christian Charity. Far from suggesting that the colonies were some exceptional institution ordained by God, he meant that phrase to be a warning. He meant that the Pilgrims must be an exceptional example of love and charity. Otherwise, in their failure:
we deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken . . . we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”
and to would,
“open the mouths of enemies to speak evils of the ways of God.”
In other words, it would be plain to see this city on a hill is no real instantiation of Christ through His church, but a farce. I fear we are running the same risks in our modern Christianity.
The Pilgrim model of the Christian life is one that inspires allegiance, focus, and a profound outlook at the reality of our surroundings. We are not home. We are not to be comfortable in our environment. Perhaps only in participating in the communion of brothers and sisters in Christ, or encountering God through the Word, or the Holy Spirit, do we get a sense of what home is like.
I pray that this Thanksgiving we have an appreciation for the those that brought the Christian faith to this land and that we can learn from them what a life of obedience to Christ may cost.
- McKenzie, Robert Tracy. The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History (Kindle Location 1867). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.
- McKenzie, Robert Tracy. The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History (Kindle Locations 1871-1873). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.
- from an essay published in Mourt’s Relation