by William H. Benson
November 22, 2001
Of the 101 people on board the Mayflower, 35 were Pilgrims, those who had separated from the Church of England. Led by William Bradford and William Brewster, they wished to build a colony where they could worship unhampered by the Church’s heavy-handed authority. Mid-way across the Atlantic on November 21, 1620, 41 men signed the “Mayflower Contract”–a social compact to provide for future government and “just and equal laws” based upon church teaching. On December 11, 1620 those Pilgrims landed at New Plymouth.
Ten years later Jonathan Winthrop and his fellow Puritans also landed at Boston Harbor. The previous year Winthrop had sold his estate at Groton in England and had realized 5,760 English pounds that he then devoted to the Massachusetts Bay Company. By 1629 Winthrop had came to the conclusion that England was over-crowded, irreligious, poorly governed, a lost cause, and that a newer version of England was the solution. He wanted to purify the Church of England.
Previous colonies had failed, Winthrop argued, because they were “carnal and not religious”. Only an enterprise governed in the name of the reformed religion stood a chance. He told his fellow Puritans that “we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” And so the colony became England but a better form of England–a New England.
What they found in North America was abundance, indeed a Promised Land, an excellent mix of temperatures and rainfall and soil for growing crops, especially corn, the ideal cheap and easy food for an infant colony. They discovered that the trees were loaded with nuts: chestnuts, walnuts, and hickory nuts. They found wild plums, cherries, and mulberries. And then there were the pumpkins, squash, beans, rice, melons, tomatoes, huckleberries, blackberries, strawberries, black raspberries, cranberries, gooseberries, and grapes, all growing wild.
The sheer quantity of wildlife staggered these colonists. There were turkeys, deer, bear, weasel, sable, badger, skunk, wolverine, mink, otter, sea-otter, beaver, squirrel, and hare. Then, besides the seafood, over 200 kinds of freshwater fish were caught. And then the timber for building homes and for fires astonished these immigrants who had left a continent where wood was scarce. These New Englanders fell upon all this amazing natural inheritance with joy.
What they did in New England, besides work for their livelihood, was read the Bible daily and intensely, both alone and silently as well as aloud and among families and in church. Every home had a King James Version. Constantly they sought direction for their lives and searched for that perfect knowledge of what the Scriptures meant for them individually.
In New England religion became the overriding and powerful force in the colonists’s lives. The Pilgrims and the Puritans were zealots, idealists, utopians, and saints, fanatical and uncompromising in their self-righteousness, immensely energetic, persistent, and courageous.
Two centuries later Alexis de Tocqueville understood the Puritan’s influence and legacy when he said, “Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the greatness and the genius of America. America is good. And if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”
For above all else what those early colonists found in America was the personal liberty to worship as they wanted, no matter how odd or strange or weird. That yearning for the ideal form of worship had prodded them to liquidate estates and transplant themselves across an ocean. They happened upon self-government, a necessary ingredient for political freedom. Then, in a serendipitous stroke of good fortune, they settled upon a land loaded with material abundance.
It was then a quick step from that to gratitude–that inner appreciation of what they believed God had granted personally to them–in a word, Thanksgiving, that gentle virtue that makes life and living agreeable and pleasant.