(HOST) Commentator Allen Gilbert spent part of his Thanksgiving reading up on people he thought he knew a lot about – the Pilgrims. He was in for some surprises.
(GILBERT) Thanksgiving is over for another year, and the turkey has been reduced to soup and sandwiches. But I can’t stop thinking about the Pilgrims. Or, to be more precise – about a book about the Pilgrims that I read over the holiday.
It’s a provocative book, one that shows the Pilgrims doing things and facing challenges that sound quite modern. For example, did you know that the first marriage in New England was a civil, and not a religious, ceremony?
It was a civil affair because the Pilgrims found no basis in the Bible for weddings as holy sacraments. Also, the Pilgrims – although English – had lived in Holland before coming to the New World. The Dutch, also, didn’t believe weddings should be religious affairs.
Nathaniel Philbrick writes about this, and many other lesser known facts about the Pilgrims, in his book, Mayflower.
The Pilgrims had a keen sense of separation of church and state. They were, in fact, known as "Separtists." They left England to be able to practice their religion as they chose – not as the Church of England said they must.
Yet the desire to be left alone didn’t always work the other way. Some of the "Strangers" – the non-Pilgrims at Plymouth – didn’t like that the Pilgrims insisted on working on Christmas. They wanted the day off. Governor William Bradford reluctantly granted their wish. Then, when the "Strangers" proceeded to celebrate the holiday in the traditional English way, with games and feasts, Bradford clamped down. If Christmas was to be a regular religious holiday, he said, it must be observed the way that Pilgrims observed holidays – with fasting and prayer.
The Pilgrims didn’t realize the irony of their position. By insisting that they could dictate the religious practices of others, the Pilgrims were denying the very right of religious expression that they cherished so deeply. Four centuries later, this irony remains a central tension in American life. It’s the tension that the First Amendment of the Constitution tries to address. Personal rights of free religious expression are guaranteed, yet we can’t impose particular religious beliefs on others.
Although the Pilgrims embraced a communitarian style of living, circumstances pushed them towards capitalism. Their voyage was sponsored by an organization called The Merchant Adventurers – which today would be known as a venture capital firm. It was the only way that the Pilgrims could raise the capital that they needed for their trip.
The Pilgrims tried to eke a living from the land by farming communally, as was done in other colonies such as Jamestown. But in their third year at Plymouth, when harvests remained meager, Bradford let families farm small plots of their own, and to keep whatever they grew. Harvests soared, and surpluses could be traded for other goods – satisfying their English investors.
A final surprise was learning that the Pilgrims were somewhat violent people. Their military leader, Miles Standish, even ordered "pre-emptive strikes" against Indian tribes that Standish felt threatened the Pilgrims. Sound familiar?
Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher, and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont.