(Photo: Excerpt from the Mayflower Compact in William Bradford's history Of Plimmoth Plantation)
This Thanksgiving, once again, our oldest son will migrate home from college. As usual, there will be no custom duties on his laundry, and we will hear about his current classes, especially one on immigration. At some point during the Detroit Lions’ annual loss we may review a few theories of border control. And perhaps, just because it’s Thanksgiving, we will recall those famous “illegals”—the Pilgrims.
The Pilgrims were always nervous that they lacked green cards—or, more specifically, a charter. The Mayflower had set its course toward the Virginia Territory, in those days extending as far north as the mouth of the Hudson. If things had gone as planned, Manhattan might be called Plymouth. Thanksgiving might feature tomato chowder.
But something—most likely the Gulf Stream—sent the Pilgrims to Cape Cod, north of their permission. The religious leaders worried about the passengers deserting, especially those who were not members of their Separatist church. Some of these fortune-seekers hinted that landing on unchartered soil freed them from obligations to the spiritual community. The Mayflower Compact, in fact, was an effort to forge unity and stave off dissent before they set their feet on the icy shore. Decades later—after failing to secure a new patent from the crown—Governor William Bradford intimated that the self-made Compact may have been good enough after all to cover title for their homesteads. That had little clout in London, but it may have eased his conscience.
The Pilgrims’ longing for a real estate patent is a forgotten theme in the popular tale about the Mayflower’s journey toward religious freedom. Actually, this is the year—not the Plymouth quadcentennial in 2020—when we should mark the four-hundredth anniversary of the Pilgrims’ flight for spiritual independence. In 1608 many dissident Separatists who were scattered in villages around Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire fled the hounds of King James I and took refuge in the Netherlands, settling in the “fair and beautiful city” of Leyden after one stormy year in Amsterdam. The core of the Pilgrim church, originally gathered in the English village of Scrooby, had endured imprisonments, betrayals, and fearful nights on the North Sea to make their way to the continent, where life among the Dutch offered liberty of conscience.
Holland, in fact, might have planted the seeds for the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving in New England. We actually know little about the affair. The one surviving eyewitness account is a letter written in 1621 by Edward Winslow to a friend in England. Winslow recalls three days of feasting and entertainment, a time of rejoicing after a good harvest and successful fowl hunt. The festivities included gun practice, a visit from Massasoit, and a gift of venison—probably the main course. Some scholars do wonder if the three-day recreation at Plymouth took its cue from a three-day festival held to commemorate Leyden’s independence. Today the church bells in the old center of Leyden often play the 16th-century tune “Kremser,” which celebrates the city’s deliverance from the Spanish in 1579. We know that tune because an American, Theodore Baker, eventually gave it English words: “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing.”
In the end, though, Holland might have offered too much liberty. Leyden provided free reign for Arminians, Calvinists as well as French and English expatriates. Its mercantile economy proved hard for the English farmers and sheepherders. Poverty, truancy and Dutch culture began to erode the loyalty of their youth. So, after twelve years, the Pilgrims hired ships and sought sponsors to replant their lives in Virginia, where they could recover their English ways and spiritual focus.
For much of the nineteenth century, the Pilgrims were viewed as New England’s iconic immigrants—hardy, free-spirited, infused with Anglo-Saxon principles of liberty and law. Each year on Forefathers Day in late December—the anniversary of their arrival at Plymouth—speakers recalled how the Pilgrims escaped the worst of the European feudalism and replanted the best of Anglo-Saxon idealism on new soil. But that grand narrative often sounded like it excluded others. A few abolitionists enlisted the Pilgrims in the crusade against slavery, but far more Forefathers Day speakers urged support for fugitive slave laws in order to save the Union and the Constitution. Many who championed the Pilgrims’ quest for liberty also advocated that freed slaves be relocated and colonized in Liberia.
Plymouth Rock became idealized as the cornerstone of an Anglo-Saxon nation, as many celebrations of the famous landing dwelt more on blue-blood pedigrees than on the Pilgrims’ piety. Mayflower genealogical societies swelled at the turn of the century, when immigration began to wear a different face, often the weariness of Irish, Jewish, and Slavic refugees.
Thanksgiving still matters to Americans. Students enjoy the four-day respite before the final rush of the fall semester. Families still gather together, with varying creeds about cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes, but an enduring orthodoxy about turkey. And American presidents, in the tradition of Abraham Lincoln, still issue Thanksgiving Day proclamations, often finding in the Plymouth settlers a mirror of our nation’s character and aspirations.
It is good to remember, then, that the Pilgrims fled poverty as well as persecution. Despite hopes that they could learn to fish (the Apostle Peter’s profession, they assured themselves), the Pilgrims thrived in America on the transatlantic trade, mostly in beaver skins. Governor Bradford soon learned the mix of British sterling, Dutch guilders and Algonquian wampumpeag. His people were refugees from paucity, dedicated to subsistence farming and buoyed by multi-ethnic commerce, continually frustrated in their struggle to secure proper papers. Perhaps it is in that search for legal standing, as well as in their desire to escape hunger and exile, that they are most readily the mirrors of modern American lives.
And it is good to remember that The Mayflower’s quest was not simply for religious freedom but for religious flourishing, something closer to the Hebraic notion of shalom than modern notions of individual license. They sought independence to create a spiritual community of discipline, self-denial and care. Uncertain of their legal standing on a new continent, they remained grateful for the love of one another and that “the Spirit of God and His grace” had sustained a remnant of their congregation, however drained by disease and death. True, they often stumbled. The excesses of the Pilgrims—like other separatists in our own time—get ample press. But that vision for a trusting spiritual community, as rich in generosity as rigid in its tenets, also anticipates something of an American philanthropic spirit that is often greater than government largesse.
Our modern Thanksgiving is sustained largely by the premise that we ought to be grateful for our national prosperity and freedom. If the Pilgrim story remains at the center of the holiday, it may help remind us that we need to be most thankful for “His grace.” In many ways, the modern heirs of the Pilgrims are not their blood relatives but their moral descendents: the imprisoned believer overseas, the disenfranchised Americans in our own cities, all those bleakly separated from the national bounty but still mindful of God’s presence.
In this respect, the Thanksgiving story can be best told by narratives like Jonathan Kozol’s Amazing Grace, which records the persistent faith and gratitude of African-American mothers and children in the drug-rich and service-poor neighborhoods of South Bronx. Not far away is New York’s Church of the Pilgrims, once home to Pastor Henry Ward Beecher and his sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who lauded the settlers of Plymouth and yet joined the cry to relocate former slaves to Africa.
Perhaps one day, Kozol speculates, we will “feel the grace of God” and abandon our tendency to “quarantine the outcasts.” Thanksgiving should nourish our hope that freedom will not suffocate charity, either for the friends who share our creeds or for the neighbors who have been displaced.
*Note: This essay blends “Gratitude and Grace” (Stillpoint, Fall 2000) and an editorial for the Salem News (“Lacking Papers or Prospects,” November 26, 2008).