Message 39, Towards a New Thanksgiving: Pilgrim Spirituality

© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved


In the well known and often quoted Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke to a huge crowd of his followers.  His words echo through the centuries because they spoke to the rights of all people but more particularly to the oppressed, the marginalized and the outcast.  His words were a blessing to the poor, to those who mourn, to the humble, to those who hunger and thirst for justice, to the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and the persecuted.  Others will mock you and attack you he said, but Jesus encouraged his followers by comparing them to persecuted prophets.  Finally, Jesus praised his followers by saying they are like a shining beacon or a prominent city on hill to which the whole world looks with respect and admiration.

And Jesus’ famous words have been used by countless groups and individuals to soothe and comfort them in their real or imagined afflictions.  This was the case with the Pilgrims of Plymouth colony.  As they fled England and an oppressive King and ruling church, the Pilgrims saw themselves as a powerless small group of individuals seeking only the right to prosper and practice their religion as they chose.  Using the words of Jesus, John Winthrop, who was Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony – an offshoot of Plymouth Colony, he said in 1630, For we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” This often quoted comment from Winthrop has become an icon of American culture and politics.  From Daniel Webster to John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan, many have used this quote to cast a vision for our nation and way of life.  The quote is used, however, without realizing John Winthrop hated democracy and was strongly intolerant of others different from the Pilgrims and Puritans of early 17th century America.  Quakers, Catholics, women perceived to be witches and, of course, Native-Americans were not only persecuted but cast out of the supposedly perfect city, or colony, on a hill.

And Jesus’ vision of millions of oppressed people becoming a light unto others was combined – in the minds of the Pilgrims – with the other ultimate Bible story of a persecuted, but God favored group, who sought refuge in a new land.  According to the Old Testament story that resonated with the Pilgrims, the Israelites were led by God and by Moses four thousand years ago out of the shackles of Egyptian slavery. They endured countless hardships in wandering the Sinai desert for forty years.  Just prior to entering Palestine, God reminded them of his favor and that they would inherit a land of milk and honey with abundant water and great opportunities.  Even so, God warned the Israelites not to exalt themselves, to remain humble and to NOT say to themselves, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.”

Our understanding of the Pilgrims – our prevailing myth about them – is that they united at their first Thanksgiving as a courageous people who fought religious persecution, who braved a treacherous Atlantic crossing, who nearly starved to death in a strange new land but who ultimately prospered and thrived.  They gave thanks to God and to themselves for their success.  As a nation and as a culture, we remember them and their apparent ideals each and every Thanksgiving.  But the facts do not support such a continued mythology.  There would have been no Thanksgiving had it not been for the Native-Americans.  90% of the food at that meal was provided by the Natives out of their own storehouses.  The fact that the remaining Pilgrims had even survived to celebrate a Thanksgiving was due in large part to the generosity, sympathy and trust of the Natives.

Indeed, the persecuted Pilgrims became persecutors themselves.  Native-Americans died by the thousands due to European diseases.  Their land was taken from them, fenced in as had never happened before, and they were routinely attacked and killed by the new colonists.  In a final act of defiance, the local Natives, under the leadership of a Native ruler who called himself King Phillip, a war was waged against Plymouth and the surrounding European colonies.  Of course, the Natives lost against the superior technology of the colonists and their local culture was virtually eliminated.  Currently, on every Thanksgiving day, the descendants of those first Natives, the Wampanoag, gather at Plymouth rock in a spirit of mourning for their lost culture and killed ancestors.

Throughout our American history and even today, the Pilgrims are seen as a brave and virtuous people who were blessed by God.  John Winthrop’s words describing his colony as a shining city on a hill still resonate in our nation.  Indeed, this Pilgrim story which ignores all of their sins, is an American heroic myth.  It is the foundation of an American belief that we have been blessed by God to spread our values and ideals across the land and that we are destined to be that city on a hill, shining out to the rest of the world as an example of democracy, justice, and moral standing.  As it is for many of us today, the Pilgrims failed to live up to their own standard of being poor in spirit, humble, merciful or peacemaking.

My intention in this message, as I said last Sunday, is not to account the sins of our ancestors.  Indeed, as I always say, truth is somewhere in the middle.  The Pilgrims were a complicated group of people – much like all of us.  As neither complete sinners or as heroic saints, their history and ideals and that first Thanksgiving should to be examined in a light of complete honesty.  As we looked to Native-Americans last week to find elements of their spirituality that can speak to us, we will look today to find elements of Pilgrim spirituality from which we might learn.

Scriptures, from each of the various world religions, offer unique insights into ourselves and our existence.  For us, the Bible is, by our tradition, a book we primarily look to for inspiration.  This does NOT mean we believe it alone contains all truth or that is infallible.  We find that other Scriptures and writings are just as profound.  From all off my studies in Seminary and elsewhere, the Jewish and Christian Scriptures we call the Bible were written by fallible people who sought to make sense of life and challenges in their own time and place.  It has survived for thousands of years not because of its claim to Divine status but because it has offered to millions of people, over thousands of years, ideas and words that are universal and timeless in scope.

And it is in that regard that we see how the story of the Israelites entering a new land or Jesus’ words about a city on a hill could so resonate and appeal to the Pilgrims.  For them, they likely only perceived the world within their own perspective – as an oppressed but moral and faithful people.  Their cause was right and so nothing else mattered.  When God asked the Israelites to be humble as they entered Palestine, such words impacted the Pilgrims only in relation to how they honored God.  The same would hold true for Jesus’ words blessing the poor, meek, and peacemakers.  While we see their arrogant and hypocritical treatment of Native-Americans and others, they saw only their Divine mission and purpose.

Their entering the New World was ordained by God and so anything good or bad that happened to them in their new home was viewed with that in mind.  The Natives were therefore instruments of Divine providence used by God to assist the Pilgrims.  In their view, there was nothing innately good about the Natives – only that God used them to help his chosen people.  Since it is God’s will that Christianity be extended around the world, according to the Bible, forced conversion of the Native was good.  Killing Natives either through conflict or disease was also good and a sign of God’s righteous punishment for heathens and those who were not Christians.

All of this speaks to our need for an open-minded reading and discussion of the Bible and of other topics.  We are all prone to close our minds to other realities and other viewpoints, believing we alone are right.  This holds true for how we might understand Islam, for example or how we might view political opinions different from our own.  One overriding message of the Bible and of Jesus is to seek after the heart of the Divine which exalts the meek and the humble and shows love for the outcast.  As much as I often feel persecuted as a gay man, for example, I can too easily turn into one who marginalizes those who hate me.    Much like the Pilgrims, I fail to live up to the standard I have set for myself.

The legacy of the Pilgrims and the Puritans continues to heavily influence American culture and politics.  A scene depicting the landing on Plymouth Rock is famously painted on our national capital rotunda – a mythic image framing our American heritage.  I have to wonder about that image, however, for it depicts a group of illegal immigrants entering a land that was not theirs and who then take it by force from Natives who had lived on this continent for thousands of years.  And the success of the Pilgrims in establishing a colony and later expanding across Massachusetts and elsewhere is mythically seen as due solely to their hard work.  Once again, they and we fail to hear God’s words.  As God said to the Israelites, we must NEVER say to ourselves, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” We ought to remember the words of Jesus, “Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy.  Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of the Divine.”

As we can learn from the mistakes of the Pilgrims, we can also learn from many of their good intentions.  Just before landing at Plymouth, Pilgrim men drew up what has been called the precursor to our own constitution.  The Mayflower Compact was a simple document containing only one paragraph.  But it outlined that all men of the colony would have an equal voice and all matters of governance would be submitted to councils created by the whole.  While women were prominently excluded, such was in character for that era.  Nevertheless, what was remarkable was that wealth, nobility and status of birth were not factors in who had a vote.  All men were equal.  Seen in the light of the times, this was a revolutionary document and frames one of the ideals of the Pilgrims – equality for all men no matter their position in life.  We here at the Gathering will continue to cling to such an ideal within this congregation – for equality in our community no matter race, age, gender, sexuality, politics, religious belief or economic status.

In civil matters, the Pilgrims established a governing council presided by an elected Governor.  In their church, the Elders oversaw matters of faith.  Church and state were thus separate entities.  This principle of religious freedom and separation of the secular from matters of faith was at first, a hallmark of Pilgrim society.  They had fled from England where church and state were so entwined that there existed no religious freedom.  Sadly, within only a few years, the lines between church and state were blurred and the governing councils became heavily influenced by religion.  Catholics and Quakers, also immigrants to Massachusetts in the years ahead, were banished from the colony and denied rights by the Pilgrim and Puritan majority.  In England, the Pilgrims were a persecuted minority.  In America, they became an arrogant and exclusive majority.

It was too easy for them, as it might be too easy for us, to allow the opinions and thoughts of the majority to hold sway over the rights and opinions of a minority.  A morally cooperative spirituality calls us to listen, learn and consider the rights of all persons and all creation.  In the same manner that a minority must never presume to tell the majority how it must think or act, so must the majority be gentle, understanding and tolerant of a minority.  For the Pilgrims, for our nation and for our little congregation, in our dialogue about religion, politics, or ANY other matter, moral cooperation and unity are ideals we must never forget.

As theological Calvinists, the precursors to modern day Presbyterians, the Pilgrims believed in absolute predestination of people and creation.  God has foreordained what will happen throughout history.  There is no free will.  Humanity cannot earn or lose God’s grace.  As the Bible says, it is a gift from the Divine.  Thus, according to the Pilgrims and to modern day Calvinists, some are chosen by God to enjoy heaven and some to burn in hell.  Only God knows who the favored ones are.  Humanity does not.

As upsetting and disagreeable as this theology might be, it caused the Pilgrims to constantly, and fearfully, examine themselves for signs of God’s grace in their lives.  According to them, if one has been chosen by God, then evidence of godliness and Christian morality will be evident in one’s life.

For us, self-examination need not be about whether or not we are favored by the Divine One.  But the benefits of self-examination might still be applied in our lives.  I must regularly ask myself uncomfortable questions.  Do I fall short of a morally imagined life?  Am I appropriately humble?  Do I treat all people with respect and dignity?  Am I caring, compassionate and merciful?  Do I forgive?  Do I, as Jesus asked, hunger and thirst for justice?  What subtle forms of racism, sexism, arrogance, homophobia or intolerance do I possess?  Am I self-focused or others focused?  In my heart of hearts, am I loving and understanding towards my enemies and those with whom I disagree?  Are my attitudes towards all creation – like that of Native-Americans – consistent with compassion and respect?  Let me continually examine myself in my refusal to believe I am already perfected…

Much to the contrary, I stand before you an imperfect man.  So often I find myself acting far short of the ideals I profess to believe.  How much do I really help the poor?  How humble am I really?  Do I always act with love?  The answers to such questions are……… “not much.”  We might see in Pilgrim spirituality many examples of arrogance and hypocrisy.  But, as I like to say about any church or any form spirituality, such places are NOT museums of saints but, instead, hospitals for the weak and those in need of growth.  I hope that is what the Gathering is on Sundays – a learning center or hospital – but certainly not a museum.

The myth of Pilgrim heroism and righteousness is false.  But, many of their values are still valid.  Do I wish that history might be changed and European greed and arrogance against the land, the animals, the resources and the Native-Americans might have been different?  Of course.  But history is to be learned from so that it is not repeated.  Each and every Thanksgiving, when we honor our Pilgrim heritage, might we instead reflect on our own values and our own spirituality so that we do not also repeat their sins?

Dear ones, let us be genuinely humble people.  Let us deeply consider others more than we consider ourselves.  Let us never believe our own goodness and our own abilities have made us who we are.  We are the products of so many who have assisted us in the past.  Let us be meek, let us be peacemakers in ALL of our interactions, let us be poor in our lifestyles and sympathetic to those in need, let us seek justice, let us be a small light that shines brightly.  Let us give.  Let us love.  Let us be gentle Pilgrims who daily enter the lives of others with peace and joy…