I’ve loved the Pilgrims ever since I was a child. They feel like family to me, perhaps because my own father fled religious persecution of the Jews by the Communists in the Soviet Union, and my mother’s grandparents escaped for religious freedom from Czarist Russia. Like the Pilgrims, they embraced America as the Promised Land.
As an adult, I love the Pilgrims in a deeper way the more I learn about them. I cling to them with a fierce loyalty because it was their legacy that set America on the right track, this country I revere and love so much, and for which I am so grateful .
One great and obvious gift the Pilgrims gave us was the lesson in gratitude, with this national holiday of Thanksgiving, that unites the entire country.
If you are curious about the Pilgrims—why they came to America, the steps of their journey, their feelings as they approached our shores that first day, how they survived, what the first Thanksgiving was like—ask a Pilgrim. We have the answer to all these questions directly from Edward Winslow and William Bradford in 1622, two years after they arrived on the Mayflower. Their book, called Mourt’s Relation, is available free on the web. I’ve started a family tradition of reading favorite excerpts on Thanksgiving. It makes the holiday deeply meaningful.
We’re often told that America was founded on secular Enlightenment ideals. That answer gets partial credit. The literal founding of the country was centuries before the Enlightenment happened. It is the Pilgrims who planted our deepest roots. Their legacy is political, ethical and characterological as well as religious. These virtues and institutions are all inextricably linked, then as now. The Puritans and other religious separatists formed the bedrock instincts and institutions that have made this country great and good.
Puritan values and political beliefs did not end as their prosperous children relaxed religious strictures on daily life. The legacy was not diluted, but expanded as other religious groups followed the Pilgrims in coming to America for religious freedom.
We can trace the Pilgrim patrimony of civic virtue and charity with precision. Benjamin Franklin’s grandfather came over shortly after the Mayflower in 1635, fleeing King Charles I’s religious persecution. Franklin is considered the most influential American of his age.
Franklin was the essential self-made man. But of course, all the Pilgrims were self-made men. Franklin’s own success was based on his Puritan values, and he dedicated himself to passing their teachings on to all Americans: hard work, literacy, savings, honesty, and self-control.
Franklin’s autobiography was one of the most influential memoirs ever written, and his Poor Richard’s Almanack (“a penny saved is a penny earned”) was read by everybody. His newspaper published every single sermon of the early evangelical minister, George Whitefield, a key player in the birth of the evangelical movement in America in the 1740s. Evangelicals preached spiritual egalitarianism, included black slaves in their congregations, and exhorted people to worship God through good works.
Franklin was a follower of Cotton Mather, an honored family friend and the foremost Puritan preacher of that generation. Mather wrote a book called Essays to Do Good, which preached practical charity by forming voluntary groups. To the Pilgrims and all Puritans, charity was a way of life, not something left to the government.
America today remains the most charitable country on earth. Private charity and our wealth of private civic groups is unknown in Europe. We can trace this directly back to Cotton Mather.
Franklin himself started a volunteer fire company, a charity school, a scientific society, established a militia for the defense of Philadelphia, brought lighting to Philadelphia’s streets, founded the College of Philadelphia, and started America’s first hospital.
This is a living Pilgrim heritage: I spend time every year in a town of 300 souls in the Southwest desert. Our little town has a volunteer fire department, volunteer EMT personnel, a charity group that raises scholarship money for local schoolchildren, a history group, a hiking group, a reading group, a writing group, a sewing group, a nature group, regular lectures on scientific subjects–you get the idea. We have many widows in their 80s and four in their 90s who are able to live independently because of neighbors’ help.
Pilgrim self-reliance had political ramifications. The day before they landed on our wild shores, the people on the Mayflower made a pact to govern themselves by direct democracy. That is how they ran their churches and their New England towns. The lessons they learned about self-rule, its strengths and pitfalls, made their children and grandchildren the leading advocates for rebellion against England and for creating America’s republican form of government.
The late Michael Novak, in On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding, explains that our principles of liberty, progress and individual rights did not come to America from the Greeks, Romans, nor from 18th century Enlightenment thinkers, but from the Bible. That is the book that ordinary Americans owned and read every day.
Colonial Americans learned from their Bible study that time is measured for progress (or decline) by God’s standards; that everything in the world is intelligible; that to inquire, invent, and discover is an impulse of faith as well as reason; that the Creator endowed us with liberty and inviolable dignity, while the Divine Judge shows concern for the weak and the humble; that life is a time of duty and trial; and that history is to be grasped as the drama of human liberty.
Genesis teaches equality: we are all created in God’s image, descended from one man and one woman, and all equally beloved by God. Exodus teaches freedom and nationalism. Establishing their own land, where God would be worshiped instead of idols, was central to God’s covenant with the Jews. The ancient Jews were not given the Promised Land but had to fight for it and earn it.
The Pilgrims saw themselves as Israelites fleeing tyranny and turned the Bible into practical lessons to live by. They arranged to secretly buy the controlling shares in the governing monopoly King Charles I had sold to the Massachusetts Bay Company, to guarantee they would be masters of their own fate, free to worship God according to their beliefs.
Enlightenment thinkers promoted a balance of power between a king and a parliament dominated by aristocrats. The Hebrew Bible taught Pilgrims what Bernard Bailyn calls a radical belief in Biblical equality—that a man’s worth lies entirely in his moral behavior, not his class. In the book of Judges, God explicitly rejects the divinity or necessity of kings. The Pilgrims rejected the European idea that stability required deference to a ruling class.
George Washington, John Adams, and most American patriots likewise ascribed their victory in the Revolutionary War to Divine Providence. “Without this metaphysical background, the founding generation of Americans would have had little heart for the War of Independence,” writes Novak.
For ordinary people to establish their own nation was a completely new idea in European history. It was familiar to the Puritans and their descendants because they were a Bible-centered people.
We wouldn’t be here and the American republic we love and cherish would not exist if not for the blessing that our nation was founded by a generation of courageous moral giants. Take some time this Thanksgiving to remember the Pilgrims.