Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Why Celebrate the Pilgrims?


This Saturday, my church is hosting the Pilgrim Heritage Celebration. It will include a potluck dinner and a program featuring talks by Jeff Hamann, Pastor John Huffman, and myself. You can find more information about it here. But as we approach the event, the question might be asked: why celebrate our Pilgrim heritage? Why make such a big deal over some grim puritanical figures from four hundred years ago? Well, here are a few brief reasons. 

1. The Pilgrims had admirable principles and vision. The settlers of Plymouth, and their Puritan neighbors, have been prone to unfair stereotypes over the years. Men and women of principle in any generation are prone to be accused of being stern, uncompromising, and intolerant. But when you read accounts like Of Plymouth Plantation, you meet with a people who were often generous, forgiving, and long-suffering. They got along not only with the settlers who joined them from England like Myles Standish, but also eventually won the respect of the sailors on the Mayflower and the native peoples in the New World. When they took care of a sick sailor who had ridiculed and cursed them earlier in the voyage, the sailor noted "O! you, I now see, shew your love like Christians indeed one to another, but we let one another lye and dye like doggs." Yet, the Pilgrims were unlike modern Americans in many ways, and they should feel a bit foreign. They had a strong appreciation for God's providential guidance of history and a strong devotion to the supremacy of the Bible over all human authorities. They were willing to suffer for objecting to unbiblical ceremonies in worship and unbiblical government in the church. And while they learned the benefit of giving each family their own land to work, they were not individualists, but cared greatly for the well-being of their church, community, and future generations.

2. The Pilgrims were just and graciously evangelistic to the native peoples. And it was good that they were so, for they owed a great debt to the assistance of Squanto and the Wampanoags. The “first thanksgiving” itself was a celebration of both Pilgrims and Wampanoags for the good harvest that year. Several of the tribes were glad to make alliances with the Pilgrims because they had been weakened by illness and were threatened by the Narragansetts, who had not caught the illness. The Pilgrims made fair treaties with the tribes and treated them as equal civil powers, seeking trade and mutual benefit. They came to Massasoit's assistance when a lower chieftain, instigated by the Narragansetts, rebelled against him. The peace between them lasted until King Philip's War, fifty years later. I have covered some of the Pilgrims' "foreign relations" in their first year here and here. My talk last year, available here, focused on how the Pilgrims and Puritans did not neglect evangelism in their attempt to build a "city on a hill," but rather engaged in culturally-sensitive and biblically-grounded missions towards the native peoples in New England. 

3. The Pilgrims' story is full of God's providential blessing. The story of the Pilgrims gives us another reason to thank and praise God. The Pilgrims were brave, but their success was not due to their bravery, power, or knowledge. They were rather weak and vulnerable at times. But a combination of details beyond their control came together for their good, and they certainly knew who to credit for these blessings. From John Howland's miraculous rescue at sea, to the fact they had a large screw on board to secure the broken main beam, to their unintentional landing in New England where some of the land had become vacant due to a plague, to their connection with Squanto who had lived in England and was willing to help, the Pilgrims had many reasons to be grateful to God, their Savior and Protector. It is helpful for Christians today to realize that God was not only active in history in biblical times, but that He has continued to orchestrate history and advance His kingdom since then. 

4. The Pilgrims set a foundation for future generations. We are their heirs. On Thanksgiving Day we tend to celebrate two things: blessings in our own lives over the past year, as well as the blessings our nation has received in the past, particularly in the events surrounding the "first thanksgiving" in 1621. But these two things are, of course, connected. Prior generations in our country have built foundations of faith, freedom, and prosperity which we benefit from today. God's providential hand in guiding the events of the past not only benefitted the Pilgrims, Puritans, pioneers, and patriots in our country's history, but also those who have come after them, including us. The Pilgrims' vision of society has influenced American culture, with their desire for the liberty produced by biblical restraint on arbitrary authority, as well as a Protestant work ethic. Social life underwent a reformation through the efforts of the Pilgrims and Puritans, as David D. Hall has written in A Reforming People and his article "Peace, Love and Puritanism," available here, and as Daniel J. Ford has written in Liberty and Property and In the Name of God, Amen

So this Thanksgiving season, consider doing something to remember the Pilgrims and to celebrate our rich Pilgrim heritage. Whether you watch the Pilgrims episode of "This is America, Charlie Brown," read Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation, come to our event on Saturday, or simply recount the story at the dining room table, it will be time well spent.


"Great are the works of the LORD,
studied by all who delight in them."
Psalm 111:2

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