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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This was part of what noted Puritan scholar Perry Miller called the Puritan "errand in the wilderness."Skip to next paragraph
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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.
Among the materials on the website, which Bangs's raising of primary texts hopes to reverse: That the Pilgrims were English colonists not migrating on primarily religious grounds. That Thanksgiving is a secular "English harvest festival," not a religious event, giving it the patina of an agricultural or pagan ritual. That Pilgrims did not call themselves Pilgrims. That there is no evidence that Thanksgiving included turkey.
As Bangs and many other Puritan scholars note, it is impossible to conceive the mind and the soul of the Puritan as something other than biblical and religious. The Puritan model was to constantly examine the world and oneself in immediate terms of righteousness and sin. The Puritan mind was a blend of intense reason and piety; church was a place where God's word dwelt among the gathered, who were equal in His eyes.
"The Pilgrims call themselves Pilgrims, and they see life on earth as a temporary stop on the way to heaven," Bangs notes in an interview. "You can't talk about Thanksgiving as something secular. They don't think in those terms. So the Pilgrims are experimenting. They will not draw from Anglican or Roman Catholic tradition. They aren't doing the English harvest festival, but a religiously formed appropriate day, using Deuteronomy and the 3rd of October in Leiden."
On a less profound note, William Bradford writes about "a great store of wild Turkeys" captured in the weeks around Thanksgiving, and Edward Winslow writes about "wild fowl" that was used on Thanksgiving Day.
Bangs's reappraisal is part of his effort to reverse an older take, by scholar George Willison, that the Mayflower group was divided between "saints" and "strangers" – the Puritans and the secular voyagers – which Mr. Willison says creates an epic and profound division. Bangs argues the division is illusory and exists mostly in Willison's analysis, done in the 1940s, and without enough primary research.
Bangs, who once published the entire colonial archives of the city of Scituate, Mass., notes that Willison has Miles Standish, the militia leader of the Pilgrims, as a primary "stranger" or secular individual – but that he is later shown to be a member of the Leiden church. Of the 102 Mayflower voyagers, in any event, 80 were from Leiden, and the others were mostly faithful, Bangs says.
"For years scholarship assumed rigid disagreements on the Mayflower … that is solved by the Mayflower Compact. But in fact, the debates among the Pilgrims change and mutate not along church hierarchical lines of authority, but are issue specific," Bangs says. "The debates value a tradition that emphasizes the individual need to bring biblically inspired critique to bear on the issues of the day. Church elders, lay people, ministers, and others have different opinions about different issues – not only on doctrine, but also on the practice of the Scripture."