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Thanksgiving Day: Pilgrims were a surprisingly worldly, tolerant lot

Pilgrims who braved the Mayflower were profoundly shaped by their 11 years in Leiden, Netherlands, where they arrived 400 years ago this year. Deeply devout, they were also some of the most tolerant among Puritan groups who headed to the new world.

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In Leiden, the Pilgrims lived packed in a warren of houses near the university, amid Gypsies and Jews, refugee French and Poles, exiled Swiss, and other castouts from the turmoil of the Reformation. They were given sanctuary as one of some 19 groups. Eager to explain why they left England, the Pilgrims ran a free press around the corner from where the painter Rembrandt was living.

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The first Pilgrim Thanksgiving likely derives from scripture in Leviticus and Deuteronomy 16 in the Geneva Bible used by Puritans. (The text requests that all within the borders of the community be invited – which Bangs says explains the presence of the native American Indians.)

But the Pilgrim Thanksgiving is also nearly identical to an Oct. 3 Dutch Protestant "thanksgiving." The day, the start of three days of sermons, games, militia exercises, and feasting, celebrated the end of the 1574 Spanish Catholic siege of Leiden, when half the city starved. (It is still commemorated.)

Few religious groups more historically maligned

Thanksgiving may offer an annual moment to reflect on Pilgrims and Puritans, who migrated to America on the grounds that the Church of England was beyond reform. On the eve of their departure from Leiden, Mr. Robinson, the pastor, says in a sermon remembered by pilgrim Edward Winslow that it is time to move past the Reformation. Lutherans will only go so far as Luther, and the Calvinists only so far as Calvin. In the present hour, Robinson says, it is possible to "embrace further light."

This was part of what noted Puritan scholar Perry Miller called the Puritan "errand in the wilderness."

But church historians have complained for decades that few religious groups are more historically maligned and misunderstood than Puritans.

They are ignored as unimportant precursors to the American Revolution: So stripped of their religious nature had US history books made the Pilgrims that one standard text in the 1980s had only one line on them, infamously calling them "people who take long trips."

The Pilgrim-Puritans are also slandered as zealots, the taproot of all America's psychic repressions, phobias, guilt, and drive. Historian Edmund Morgan complained that Puritans were depicted as severe figures whose "only contribution to American culture is their furniture."

The religious essayist and novelist Marilynne Robinson calls the popular hostility "A great example of our collective eagerness to disparage without knowledge or information about the thing disparaged…"

Politically correct Pilgrims

Ironically, one place where the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving have become a model of secular political correctness and revisionism is Plimoth Plantation. The instructional materials for schoolchildren, and for teachers, strip the Puritans of most of their own deeply expressed religious motivations, found in all their written and oral expressions. The plantation's website encourages use of primary materials – then offers few to cull from.