This week just past saw another Thanksgiving Celebration in the US. The celebration of the founding of a nation that is currently the largest economy in the World.
This event is now marked by a traditional family gathering and a more modern tradition of soul searching about the rights and wrongs of the actions and behaviour of the Pilgrims themselves.
For me, the Mayflower Pilgrims were a fascinating group that should be studied and respected, rather than simply being damned for their actions by contemporary moral standards.
These were a group of brave people that chose to fight for that all important principle, the importance of individual soverignty.
And so, I am pleased to share with you an extract form the excellent novel, Saints and Strangers, in which the author, George F Wilson provides a rare and nuanced description of these Mayflower Pilgrims:
Excerpts from Saints and Strangers
George F. Willison
Reynal & Hitchcock, New York 1945 pp. 7-9
“The Pilgrims were not nineteenth century pietists, or quietists. They were not pale plaster saints, hollow and bloodless. They were men – and women, too – of courage and conviction, strong and positive in their attitudes, prepared to sacrifice much for their principles, even their very lives. Far from being Victorians, they were children of another and a greater age, the Elizabethan, and in their lives reflected many of the qualities of that amazing age – its restlessness and impatience with old ways, its passionate enthusiasms, its eager curiosity and daring speculation in all fields, its boldness in action, its abounding and apparently inexhaustible energies.
Never did the Pilgrims quietly resign themselves to defeat, no matter what the odds against them. They launched themselves upon the most hazardous of ventures not once but many times, and no obstacle or untoward circumstance could stay them or divert them from their course. Far from being humble and soft-spoken, they were quick in their own defense, fond of controversy, and sharp of tongue, engaging in many a high-pitched quarrel with friends and foes alike, even among themselves. Given to speaking their minds plainly, they expressed themselves in the language of Marlowe and Shakespeare, in the torrential and often rafter-shaking rhetoric of Elizabethan England, with no slightest regard for the proprieties and polite circumlocutions of a later day. In denouncing the “whore at Rome” they meant just that.
Pilgrims were Elizabethan, too, in their acceptance of the simpler joys of life. The practiced no macerations of the flesh, no tortures of self-denial. They appreciated the pleasures of the table and of the bottle, liked both “strong waters” and beer, especially the latter, never complaining more loudly of their hardships than when necessity reduced them to drinking water, which they always regarded with suspicion as a prolific source of human ills. They were not monks or nuns in their intimate relations as their usually numerous families and more than occasional irregularities attest. Fond of the comforts of connubial bed and board, they married early and often and late, sometimes within a few weeks of losing a mate. Only on the Sabbath did they go about in funereal blacks and grays. Ordinarily they wore the russet browns and Lincoln green common among the English lower classes from which they sprang.
The Pilgrims played a vital part – and consciously so – in that great conflict of spiritual and material forces which so decisively shaped the world as we know it today. That conflict centered on the fiercely-contested right to freedom of conscience, merely one aspect of the still larger right to freedom of thought and speech. Stripped of theological trimmings, the issue as posed in the Pilgrims’ day was this:
Was it right for the State to demand uniformity of belief? Or were men entitled to independence of judgment in religious matters? Should all their beliefs be prescribed, or could they read the Bible for themselves and come to their own conclusions about its teachings?
In short, was the “true” church a democratic or an autocratic institution?
Men did not go unflinching to the stake or gallows – the Pilgrims did not willfully choose exile and years of almost incredible hardship – Cromwell and his Independents did not lightly court death as rebels-merely for words. They were valiantly engaged, all of them, in a desperate struggle for a better order of things, for a more generous measure of freedom for all men, for a higher and nobler conception of life based upon recognition of the intrinsic worth and dignity of the individual. To understand the Pilgrims and the heroic part they played in that epic struggle, it is necessary to go back with Bradford – and even beyond him – to ‘begine at ye very roote & rise of the same.’ “