What a summertime delight it is to visit the quaint towns on Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard with their history and lovely shops surrounded by cool summer breezes. It is a wonderful respite from the oppressive heat in the South. The historically preserved buildings and the museums that distinguish each town give the tourist an appreciation for the early history of our great nation.
Yet the real story of places like Plymouth and Provincetown, Massachusetts, tells a story not just about the venerable Pilgrims, who we all respect and remember fondly on Thanksgiving. The real story leads us into a battle for the soul of not only the Puritans but also for the soul of the Christian faith and religion in America that would ultimately become the country’s predominate Protestant faith.
After reading Nathaniel Filbrick’s book “Mayflower,” the challenges the Pilgrims and Puritans faced after they arrived in Plymouth would test their faith and convictions. They saw themselves as a modern day chosen people of God charged with settling this virgin land with Scriptures in their hands and faith in their hearts. They worked to create a covenant community as a body politic - one that would recover the pure essence of Christianity and allow all to worship freely.
Philbrick’s book narrates several topics that depict the Pilgrims making difficult choices in how they would survive in a new world as religious ideologues who faced a sometimes hostile and at other times cautious allied Indian population.
The history of the Pilgrims goes back to an ideology of being separatists in England who completely gave up on the Church of England. Many of them were considered traitors to the Church and the King of England. They left their country for towns like Leiden, Holland, where they studied and prayed under the leadership of Pastor John Robinson. He guided and prepared them for their trip to the New World in 1620. The Pilgrims had given up trying to reform their church. Instead, they wanted to start over and recover the pure Christianity without ecclesiastical control.
If the Pilgrims were called separatists then the Puritans would be better called reformers because they stayed loyal to the Church of England as they emigrated to the New World to form the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Ultimately it became the dominate colony and years later absorbed the Plymouth Colony. Yet it was the Pilgrims who created the Mayflower Compact - America’s first document of democratic principles - in forming a community and government.
So if religious freedom was the first challenge for the Pilgrims and surviving the harsh elements of the first winter the second, then the next major challenge was learning how to work with and live beside the Native American tribes. It is one thing to hold fast to one’s religious faith in a like minded community, but it is another matter altogether to compromise those beliefs when one religion must share the same space with another people of completely different religion, culture and theology. In the case of the Pilgrims and their Indian neighbors, the results were mixed over the course of the rest of the 17th century.
Philbrick weaves together the story of their relationship with the Sachem Massasoit of the Pautuket tribe and the personal relationships that Edward Winslow built with him. The author writes of how the two groups maintained a fragile peace for the first fifty years of their existence. It is a story that some would call American colonialism and subjugation of an indigenous population. Christian faith against survival of the fittest.
Belief in God’s providential presence versus a desire to take over the land and its resources became the overarching tension in their relationships with the Indians. Alliances were made between Pilgrims and Indians against other Indian tribes as well as the French and even the Dutch traders in New Amsterdam. The Pilgrims through out it all that no matter what they had to do to survive, God was on their side through times of both war and peace.
The tragic history of the Pilgrims led to what became known as King Philip’s Wars in1675-76, in which Indians and settlers, including Puritans from Massachusetts Bay Colony, fought a regional war with a death toll in the thousands. What can we learn today from this experience?
Sadly, not much has changed today when it comes to different groups learning how to co-exist and how to not succumb to greed in owning natural resources or to the belief that one religion is superior than the other.
It is true that there were moments of cooperation and respect between Indians and Pilgrims but we see that one generation’s ability to find peace does not always secure the next generation’s commitment to peaceful co-existence.
Today, we live in a nation with so much diversity where different racial and ethnic groups have had to learn to live next to each other in neighborhoods and in cities.
We have had to learn the hard way that making peace requires a mutual respect from all sides. We are learning that lesson every day.
I cannot help but wonder what God thinks about our history and whether He still has hope for us as Americans to live in peace together.