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What the Pilgrims Were Really Up To

With all the frenzy about the pandemic, and about Covid-45, the infection that just won’t leave, more than a few important news and historical stories have gotten too little attention.

As a religious bigot was just appointed to the Supreme Court, it might be worth remembering that November, 1620, four hundred years ago, the Pilgrims arrived in what is now Massachusetts. Let us acknowledge that which has always been true, but has been too often denied: The Pilgrims did not come here for religious liberty.

The Pilgrims came to the “New World” from a society that had strict laws regulating religious belief. It was common to imprison people who expressed the wrong beliefs, and burning witches and other non-conformers was still seen as a viable punishment for heresy, or dissent, or poverty.

The Pilgrims believed that there was only one true religion. And it was their goal to inflict that belief on the “New World” and anyone they had power over, over here. They left the “Old World” because back there, their religious beliefs were not accepted as the only true beliefs, and they were punished for their beliefs. They wanted to be the punishers, rather than the punishees. They had no interest in the idea of religious freedom of belief. They believed that only those who agreed with them should be allowed to believe at all.

When the Pilgrims arrived, there were people already here. Those people didn’t realize that this was a “New World.”

It was an awkward situation. When the Pilgrims arrived, there were people already here. Those people didn’t realize that this was a “New World.” For them it had simply been “the world” they and their ancestors had lived in since before the Pilgrims’ ancestors had lived in England. Even worse, they had no idea either that they were uncivilized savages or that they were worshiping the wrong god, in the wrong ways.

In 1630, the Puritans arrived in Boston, an hour’s drive north of the Pilgrim’s Plymouth Colony. The Puritans had different religious beliefs from the Pilgrims, and different business interests. For example, the Puritans held witch trials and executed witches, but the Pilgrims never did, even thought they shared the Puritans’ belief that witches and evil spirits troubled the world. The two colonies competed and disputed with each other until 1691, when the Pilgrims were absorbed into the larger Massachusetts Bay Colony, dominated by the Puritans.

In 1621, the Pilgrims held a Thanksgiving celebration, honoring their god who had killed off only 45 of the original 102 who had come in the Mayflower. Such a kind, generous god, killing only 44 percent of the entire colony, to show his love of their devotion to him (and they were sure it was a “him”).

But there were problems even then. The Pilgrims didn’t know how to throw a proper Thanksgiving. They let it run on for three days, and they had no widescreen TVs, no football to bet on and argue about. Because they also didn’t allow different religious views, there was no crazy, loud, drunk uncle ranting on about how everyone else misunderstood. They even let the local non-christian savages participate.

The Pilgrims and Puritans disagreed about a lot of things. But they shared some common beliefs. By 1659, the Massachusetts colonial legislature had passed a law outlawing any celebration of Christmas. Christmas was, according to these devoutly religious people, treating the bible as their greatest text, simply a pagan celebration that undermined the wondrous religious society these settlers had established. Massachusetts wouldn’t legalize Christmas celebrations until after the American Revolution, more than 130 years later.

Ask any good “christian” today, and they will assure you that the Pilgrims and Puritans had no idea of the true, correct meanings of Thanksgiving and Christmas. Any modern evangelical can explain that Halloween and Christmas are the two major commercial holidays of christianity, ordained by god to deliver profits to merchants (note that god’s hymn says “God rest ye merry merchants”). Thanksgiving is ordained by god as a restful meal between those two major commercial religious holidays.

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The Pilgrims were all about fidelity to the bible and its teachings. They wouldn’t tolerate members of their community stealing from each other. But on the second day after they first arrived near the tip of Cape Cod, a Pilgrim exploring party found, and helped themselves to a corn cache, built by the local natives to help those natives get through the winter. Through their first months here, the Pilgrims searched for and stole as many native corn caches as they could find.

For the Pilgrims, any COMMANDMENT against stealing didn’t restrict taking the property of mere native “savages.” And if the “savages,” deprived of their winter food stores, died, that didn’t violate the COMMANDMENT against killing people. The Puritans who settled Boston shared the Pilgrims’ belief about how the COMMANDMENTS related to mere local “savages,” and they helped themselves to whatever land the natives naively believed was theirs.

A tradition in our teachings about the Pilgrims is that the local “savages” had no concepts of private property, or of life beyond foraging for berries and hunting wildlife for their sustenance. We do not teach our school children why the Pilgrims built their colony at Pawtuxet, the site of an abandoned native village.

The Pilgrims chose to build at Pawtuxet because the natives who built that village had cleared the surrounding forest and developed farm fields to sustain their village, until it was destroyed by disease. We are taught that friendly natives taught the Pilgrims how to grow corn and to fertilize their corn plants with dead fish. But at the same time, we cling to the beliefs both that the natives were pre-civilized foragers and that the Pilgrims were the educated ones, sent by god to bring enlightenment to the “savage wilderness.”

We teach such things by ignoring what the Pilgrims wrote in their diaries. They learned from native farmers how to farm, and they confiscated native farmlands. They learned about native governance and alliances, and learned to exploit differences among native groups. Pilgrim diaries and other writings teach us that the natives who were here when the Pilgrims arrived were civilized - civlized enough not only to farm, but civilized enough to conduct wars against other native groups.

But the natives were not “white.” Thus they had no rights or civilizations that white colonists needed to accept, or even acknowledge.

As with so much from American history, from 1620 to the anti-war movement of the 60s-70s, men dominated the planning. But women did much of the work. That first, 1621, Thanksgiving was attended by the 53 Pilgrims who survived, of the 102 who had started out from England, and 90 or more natives, including the chief, Massasoit. The Thanksgiving feast was cooked by four women.

Of the 102 Mayflower passengers, 18 were adult women, three of whom were in their third trimester of pregnancy when the voyage started. 78% of those women died during the first winter in New England. By late spring, 1621, there were four adult women in Plymouth Colony, Eleanor Billington, Elizabeth Hopkins, Mary Brewster, and Susanna Winslow. When they prepared the Thanksgiving feast for 150 men, two of those women, Elizabeth Hopkins and Susanna Winslow, were still nursing the babies they had started carrying before the voyage.

tom hall

So women of the Mayflower, like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Delores Huerta, Stacy Abrams and so many others cooked for, and cleaned up after men, while building new worlds in which their sons and daughters would lead better, easier lives than they had.

I love the roast turkey and vegetables, washed down by cider and followed by pumpkin pie, and Indian pudding. I love the popular imagery of Pilgrims in clothing they never wore, and the symbology of peaceful interaction with natives, graciously receiving food, spiritual and temporal from generous teachers. But the U.S. has always been at its greatest not when it is boasting about and fictionalizing its past, but rather when it has acknowledged and worked to confront and correct its weaknesses, inequalities and inadequacies.

Tom Hall

My Thanksgiving prayer this year is that we are at a point of understanding the need to recognize and address challenges that have been denied and dismissed for too many recent years - that we once again find the strength to acknowledge both our need and our ability, as a nation, to do better.

Tom Hall