Puritans and the First Thanksgiving
Last updated 11/16/2021 at Noon
This year marks the 400th anniversary of the First Thanksgiving — the harvest feast in which the people we know as the Pilgrims celebrated survival (barely) of their first year in the Plymouth settlement on the coast of what would become Massachusetts.
The Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving have been as heavily mythologized as anything in American history. The happy legend extolls the Pilgrims as pioneers of religious freedom, marking an early foothold of English civilization in the American wilderness, celebrating the bounty of the land in harmony with helpful natives. The dark legend casts the Pilgrims as harbingers of religious and social intolerance, and the destruction and dispossession of the indigenous peoples of North America. Both legends are, in some measure, true; both are, in some measure, false.
The historical “truth” is, as always… complicated.
Where previous generations tended to see the Pilgrims as pioneers of American democracy and providential destiny, nowadays we tend to look on them as repressed, joyless bigots with blocky hats and bad fashion sense.
The American journalist and satirist H.L. Mencken bitingly defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
Not really. The Puritans did frown on frivolity. They didn’t like Christmas — not because they hated any kind of happiness, but because they thought that the drunken revel it had become in England corrupted the meaning of Christ — much as many Christians today feel that consumerism overshadows “the reason for the season.”
Blaming the Puritans as the source for a uniquely American form of sexual repression is way off the mark. They did come down hard on adultery and fornication – but physical intimacy and passion within marriage was celebrated, a fact that is readily discerned in the correspondence of husbands and wives.
So, what makes a Puritan a Puritan?
Nathaniel Philbrick’s excellent narrative history, “Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War” describes their theology this way:
“A Puritan believed it was necessary to venture back to the absolute beginning of Christianity, before the church had been corrupted by centuries of laxity and abuse, to locate divine truth… If something was not in the Scriptures, it was a man-made distortion of what God intended. At once radical and deeply conservative, the Puritans had chosen to spurn thousands of years of accumulated tradition in favor of a text that gave them a direct and personal connection to God.”
Ardent Calvinists, they believed in an elect of the saved. Salvation of that elect was predetermined — no one could achieve salvation through good works, or any other form of intercession. One might think this would lead to a certain degree of fatalism, but instead the Puritans lived in a heightened state of anxious awareness, constantly examining their lives and the lives of their neighbors for evidence that they were among the saved.
Some Puritans sought to “purify” the established Anglican Church, which to them was idolatrous, and, in 17th century England, that also meant taking on the state and the monarchy. They engaged in politics so fiercely that in 1642 the nation plunged into a brutal civil war. Others thought reform a hopeless task and they sought separation from the Church of England and the monarchy. The Puritans we know as the Pilgrims were prepared to take unfathomable risks to decouple from Europe and construct a community of worship in the New World that conformed to their austere and rigorous standards.
As Philbrick writes: “The First Thanksgiving marked the conclusion of a remarkable year. Eleven months earlier the Pilgrims had landed at the tip of Cape Cod, fearful and uninformed. They had spent the next month alienating and angering every Native American they had happened to come across. By all rights, none of the Pilgrims should have emerged from the first winter alive.”
The death rate was, in fact, grotesquely high — everybody lost a loved one, and in a couple of cases, whole families were wiped out by malnutrition and illness. But the colony made it, in large part because the Wampanoag sachem (political and spiritual leader) Massasoit made a strategic calculation that his people — beset by an apocalyptic die-off of their own, brought on by an undetermined form of plague — could use these newcomers as allies to stave off aggression by the neighboring Narragansett.
The Wampanoag gave the Pilgrims direct aid, and taught them how to raise and gather food in the alien “New England” climate — and saved their lives.
They would share together in a joyous feast that fall of 1621, a moment we’ll explore in next week’s edition of The Nugget.