We possess an original first-person account by two pilgrims of their coming to America, their miraculous survival, and the first Thanksgiving. It is called Mourt's Relation, after its publisher. Edward Winslow and William Bradford wrote it in 1622 to encourage other Englishman to join them in this "goodly land." It makes perfect reading for Thanksgiving. (You can read it online here or here, or buy it here.)
Everyone knows that the Pilgrims fled to America for freedom of religion. What's equally important and largely unknown is this: the Pilgrims came to America to protect a religion that celebrated and, indeed, required freedom. They knew that without political independence, men could have no moral independence. Men needed political freedom to practice personal responsibility before God. Personal responsibility and political freedom are one. Put them together, and you get a land of opportunity.
So while we thank the Pilgrims for turkey and stuffing, let us pause a moment and also offer thanks to the Pilgrims for launching our country on the right path. They left civilization behind for life in the howling wilderness, risking their lives and, for most, sacrificing their lives. In their conviction that freedom is more powerful than tyranny, more important than comfort, they have given us both the greatest freedom and the greatest prosperity on the globe. From the Pilgrims' landing in 1621 until our own times, we have benefited from a country run by Puritan values we can be proud of -- self-rule through free elections, hard work, education, charity, and personal responsibility. These are the gifts of the Pilgrims to all following American generations.
Now, however, these values are at risk. This November, a slim majority of Americans spurned the Pilgrims' gifts. They are gifts we must rededicate ourselves to, gifts we must teach once more in our public schools, if the great American experiment that we celebrate on Thanksgiving is to survive.
We can begin at no better place than Thanksgiving itself. Let us familiarize ourselves with our cultural ancestors and thereby understand who we are.
For ordinary people to establish their own nation was a completely unfamiliar idea in European history, but it was well-known to the Puritans, for they were a Bible-centered people. In some ways, you could say American democracy began with a book -- the Bible -- for it was the Bible that inspired the Pilgrims to come to our shores.
The broader English Protestant movement first began with the translation of the Bible into English and the ability of people to read it and think for themselves. The very act of being able to read the word of God was electrifying and profoundly anti-authoritarian. It was ordinary people's first opportunity to read the words of Moses and Jesus and learn that God was not in favor of pomp and wealth and power of ruling elites in government or church.
The new biblical understanding of equality was truly revolutionary. The secular classical authors, often mis-credited as the foundational thinkers for American democracy in the 18th century, taught a republican ideal retaining fixed hierarchical social orders, albeit with an elected Parliament. Almost two centuries earlier, the Pilgrims and the Puritans established different roots for our Republic. What they discovered in the Hebrew Bible introduced them to an idea of human equality that later generations call "the truths we hold self-evident."
The Pilgrims and their grandsons, the generation of the American Revolution, based their arguments for liberty on three books of the Hebrew Bible. First is Genesis: God creates man in his image. One God, one original man. All men are equally created by God, equally have a soul, are equally in God's image, are equal.
Second, Exodus: Jews were plucked from slavery in Egypt as God's chosen people. The Pilgrims and later the founding generation often used both these elements -- that God chooses freedom, and that God can choose one people to be the moral leaders for freedom. They identified with the ancient Jews as the chosen people, and it gave them great courage -- to come to America in 1620 and, in 1776, to defy the most powerful nation on earth to win their political independence.
Lastly, in the Book of Judges, the Bible explicitly contradicts the divine right of kings, saying that God's laws are superior to the power of any tyrant.
The Pilgrims took these ideas and applied them to religion by rejecting church authority. Each congregation had the right to choose its own minister. On the tiny Mayflower, they wrote the Mayflower Compact, in which they decided that once here, people would be self-governing. From that day to this, New England towns have elected their officials and vote as an entire town on all their laws. So by the time of the Revolution, New Englanders, and other Puritan and Presbyterian sects throughout America, had experienced 150 years of pure democracy in their churches and towns.
They also learned the dangers of pure democracy -- that it can lead to intolerant majority rule -- which was corrected by subsequent Puritan generations and by our founding fathers when writing the United States Constitution.
Mourt's Relation contains a letter from a Pilgrim leader advising the Pilgrims to elect their leaders, as they are not being furnished with an aristocrat to lead them. He suggests that they choose leaders that will promote the common good, not to be "like unto the foolish multitude, who more honor the gay coat, than either the virtuous mind of the man, or glorious ordinance of the Lord." This is advice we could use in every election.
... you are to become a body politic, using amongst yourselves civil government, and are not furnished with any persons of special eminency above the rest, to be chosen by you into office of government: let your wisdom and godliness appear ... not being like unto the foolish multitude, who more honor the gay coat, than either the virtuous mind of the man, or glorious ordinance of the Lord.
We get to read the actual description in Mourt's Relation, telling us how the Pilgrims chose their leaders "by common assent," the very day they first came ashore in America. It contains the one-paragraph Mayflower Compact, the precedent for the American Constitution.
After many difficulties in boisterous storms, at length by God's providence upon the ninth of November following, by break of the day we espied land which we deemed to be Cape Cod, and so afterward it proved. ...
This day before we came to harbor ... it was thought good there should be an association and agreement, that we should combine together in one body, and to submit to such government and governors, as we should by common consent agree to make and choose, and set our hands to this that follows word for word.
The same day so soon as we could we set ashore 15 or 16 men.
The gifts of the Pilgrims, who merged into the Puritan movement in New England, did not stop with democratic elections. They also wanted national autonomy from England.
In the Bible, nationhood -- that is, occupying the Promised Land, the Land of Israel -- is central to the covenant. The ancient Jews were not given the Promised Land, but rather had to find the courage to fight for it and earn it. The Lord directed them to take the Land of Israel and make it a Jewish state, where God would be worshiped instead of idols. The Pilgrims knew that just like the ancient Jews, without political autonomy, they would never be free to develop personal responsibility to God. The Puritans saw themselves as a living generation of Israelites.
They were practical men. Less than ten years after the first Thanksgiving, when the Puritans came to settle Massachusetts in 1630, they knew that unless they had control over their charter, they would have no religious freedom, whatever sweet promises were being made to them. They came to America to live right by God; to do this, they needed to be self-governing, and to be self-governing, they needed to be independent. Therefore, they arranged to secretly buy the controlling shares in the governing monopoly King Charles I had sold to shareholders, the Massachusetts Bay Company.
For the Pilgrims, as for Americans today, freedom brings the challenge of what to do with personal responsibility. Their answers deeply marked the American spirit: egalitarianism, education, hard work, savings, honesty, temperance, charity, and community spirit. Their values are the foundational requirements for free enterprise and capitalism to flourish. They are essential to America's flourishing philanthropy and civil society.
Many of these values were secularized and popularized by Benjamin Franklin, who grew up in a pious Puritan home. His grandfather was one of the original Pilgrims who celebrated that first Thanksgiving. Franklin is credited as the most influential American of his age, "inventing the type of society America would become."
As religious and freedom-loving people, these first Americans did not look to the government or even the organized church to take care of people. Because of the Bible, they rejected the European ideal of a powerful centralized government, nor did they even rely on the church for charitable works. Here is the line of descent of that core American institution, voluntary charitable associations. Cotton Mather, a prominent Puritan preacher, was a family friend of the Franklins. Mather applied the biblical value of helping one's neighbor by forming voluntary neighborhood improvement groups. He wrote a book about voluntary groups, Essays to Do Good owned by the Franklins. "If I have been," Franklin wrote to Cotton Mather's son seventy years later, "a useful citizen, the public owes the advantage of it to that book."
Franklin founded the first subscription library, an early volunteer firefighting company, the Academy of Sciences, the nation's first hospital, and the University of Pennsylvania, as well as a self-improvement society for himself and his friends to read and debate the ideas of the day.
We are taught to be grateful to Ben Franklin for these good works that started the American character on the right path. We forget to thank his Pilgrim grandfather and Puritan preacher Cotton Mather, who taught him the basic values that still shape our precious country.
On arrival on our shores, the Pilgrims offered up Psalm 100 in praise and thanks: Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands. Our Pilgrim forefathers started the most wonderful country in the history of the world, through their courage, independence, freedom of thought, hard work, and charity. Let us all express our limitless thanks.