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politico – How America Outgrew the Pilgrims

In some ways, the quiet passing of this event right-sized the role of the Pilgrims. The colony they established, Plymouth, was a small, struggling outpost that never achieved the prosperity or influence of its close cousin, the Massachusetts Bay Colony, settled 10 years later by nonseparatist Puritans. It ceased to exist by 1691. Puritanism—both in Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay—fell into a state of decline within a generation of each colony’s founding. Ultimately, the political and religious culture the Pilgrims and Puritans built had little to do with the nation we became—it shaped neither the republican revolution against Parliament and Crown in the 18th century nor America’s evolution into a diverse and boisterous democracy in the 19th century. Unlike 1619 and 1776—the latter, a landmark moment in the nation’s political development; the former, the nation’s original sin—the Plymouth landing was always more durable in memory than in influence.

America’s romance with Puritan New England always had more to do with how Americans wanted to remember the nation’s founding than with its real importance to the country’s evolution. Four hundred years later, not only would the Pilgrims find the country they inhabited completely alien, they wouldn’t understand why we commemorate their Thanksgiving feast of waterfowl, venison, clams and lobster with a standard meal of turkey, stuffing and sweet potato casserole with marshmallows.

It’s possible we’ve outgrown the need for this particular myth—and that’s one of the things we have to be thankful for.

The Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth in December 1620 occupied the extreme edges of the Puritan movement, an opposition strain within the Church of England. Puritans, both separatists and nonseparatists, deplored Anglican forms of worship that departed from original Pauline practices: priests in robes and vestments; a prayer book and liturgy divergent from the Bible; candles, ornaments and holidays—including Christmas—seemingly more pagan in origin than Christian. They also broke with Anglican theology. They were Calvinists who held individuals powerless to determine their destiny in the world beyond, whereas the Church of England had drifted in recent years toward an “Arminian” belief that through good works and faith, Christians could secure their own salvation.

Whereas the Puritans who founded Massachusetts Bay in 1630 considered themselves reformers within the Church of England, the Plymouth settlers of 1620 had already broken with the church. In 1609 they left their home in Scrooby, England, for Leyden in the Netherlands, where Dutch officials permitted them to practice their religion in peace, but where local economic conditions impoverished their community. By the time they set sail for America, the Pilgrims, as they would later come to be known, considered themselves strangers in the world—persecuted dissenters living in opposition to the crown and the church. Their separatism distinguished them from Puritan cousins in Massachusetts Bay, who still hoped for a reformation of the Church of England.

In reality, though, Pilgrims of Plymouth and Puritans of Massachusetts Bay increasingly shared nearly identical religious worldviews and social systems. Their churches were congregational—independent and free of ecclesiastical control. They worshipped in plain, rough-hewn buildings, without the decorative ornaments and trappings of English church architecture. Their prayer services were long affairs—three hours in some cases—combining biblical readings, sermons and the singing of psalms. In Massachusetts Bay, one had to be a church member to be a “freemen” and participate in local government. In both places, the distinction between civil and religious law was blurry at best. Laws against cursing, fornication, “scandalous carriage” and “insolency” often carried official church censure and community penalties.

From the start, the Puritan project faced steep challenges. A large number of Mayflower passengers were “strangers”—servants or craftsmen who were necessary to the settlement but did not share in the separatists’ religious faith. Their participation in the project augured a day when large numbers of Plymouth and Massachusetts residents would fall outside the tight-knit community of pious Christians.

Local conditions were also trying. Arriving at the start of winter, the original settlers were unable to plant crops or build suitable shelter. Disease wiped out almost half of the Mayflower’s passengers within six months of their debarkation. (The first Thanksgiving, of which scant details survive, celebrated the colony’s successful harvest a year later, due in no small part to help the Wampanoags lent the English in learning to plant in local conditions. Until then, it had not been clear the colony would survive.) Whereas the Massachusetts Puritans who arrived a decade later were better funded and built a thriving agricultural colony, Plymouth remained a small and relatively poorer society of fishermen and small farmers.

Nevertheless, by the 1630s, as the population of Plymouth grew, and as the success of nearby Massachusetts opened up new local markets for lumber, fish and other goods, the first and second generation of settlers fanned out and established new towns—Taunton, Rehoboth, Bridgewater, Middleborough. They spread out onto Cape Cod. These signs of growth and economic progress fostered their own problems. The small, corporal nature of the original religious settlement threatened to dilute itself through physical dispersion. “This I fear will be the ruin of New England, at least of the churches of God there, and will provoke the Lord’s displeasure against them,” worried William Bradford, a founder and long-serving governor of the Plymouth colony. Likewise, Bradford and other leaders fretted that some members of the community were no longer “content with their condition” or committed to the Puritan religious project. It was “not for want or necessity so much that they removed as for enriching themselves.” Love of money threatened to overtake love of God.

Perhaps because they were not, strictly speaking, separatists and did not identify themselves as dissenters, the founding generation in Massachusetts worried far more about enforcing doctrinal orthodoxy and subjected applicants for church membership to strict interviews to establish their fealty to Puritan doctrine. The colony’s leaders also dealt with dissent from the fringes of their own movement—radicals like Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams, whose predestinarian ardor ran so hot that both were reluctant to worship in the presence of anyone who might be unregenerate, including certain ministers. Bradford regarded Williams, who flitted between both colonies before being banished altogether from Massachusetts, as “godly and zealous … but very unsettled in judgement.” Officials in the nonseparatist colony found Hutchinson equally dangerous, no doubt because she was an outspoken and charismatic woman in an age when women were politically and socially disenfranchised, but also because her countermovement threatened the stability of the religious establishment. If, as she believed, the elect were already bound for salvation, they didn’t need ministers, churches or formal prayer. That was a step too far, even for a stringent Puritan community. Unsurprisingly, the founders banished her for heresy.

These debates, which threatened to fray the fabric of the community, reflected a genuine and abiding concern with which Puritans in these early days grappled. They believed that people were either born with God’s grace, or not. Those born with it were few. Most people were sinful and depraved. Ordinary Puritans worried a great deal about their own condition, knowing they could not change it. Michael Wigglesworth, a tutor at Harvard—the school Massachusetts Puritans built to train ministers—fretted over his “carnal” leanings. “I am often slothful and lay down the weapons of my warfare and do not fight, cry [and] strive as I should against,” he wrote.

If outward signs of sin were likely a sign that one was unregenerate, could an outward show of piety be a sign that one was elect? A person couldn’t buy his or her way to heaven through good deeds or good works. But “invisible saints” probably did lead upstanding lives, as a reflection of their own salvation. How, then, could one distinguish between church members who were truly among the elect, and those who were, even subconsciously, attempting to project the right image in hopes they might be saved? The question seems circular, but it was enormously important to the early settlers. It also proved to be a seed of their undoing.

By the 1660s large numbers of residents of both colonies were not baptized church members—perhaps because (in Massachusetts) they were denied admission for failing to show “God’s dealings” in themselves, or (in both colonies) they were put off by the insular debates that consumed the established congregations. Since only the children of church members could be baptized, this decline in membership snowballed. Some congregations embraced a “half-way covenant” by which the children of nonchurch members could be baptized and made part members of the community. But the writing was on the wall. Shortly before his death Bradford observed mournfully that Plymouth had become “an ancient mother grown old and forsaken of her children.” Whereas upward of 80 percent of Plymouth and Massachusetts settlers belonged to churches in the 1640s, by the 1670s that portion had fallen to as low as 30 percent.

Both colonies were, in some measure, also a victim of colonial expansion. As economic conditions stabilized, a large influx of newcomers—Welsh, Scots, Scots-Irish—who belonged to other religious movements (Baptists, Presbyterians, even Anglicans) diluted the original homogeneity of the New England colonies. War with their Native American neighbors took a steep toll on Plymouth’s residents in the 1670s as well. In the following decade, the crown combined both colonies, as well as several others, into the short-lived Dominion of New England. When that experiment failed, in 1691 the government in London compelled Plymouth to be absorbed into Massachusetts.

While Calvinism and strains of the Puritan worldview would continue to influence religion and politics in colonial New England for many decades to come, the 18th century saw the population grow and become increasingly heterogenous, as successive generations made the transition from “Puritan to Yankee.” The Revolutionary War, and the political events that preceded it, introduced profound changes—a separation of church and state, an end to monarchy, new systems of government rooted in popular consent—that had little to do with, and in many ways broke with, the system that Pilgrims and Puritans had established in their own time. It represented a victory for republicanism, not Christian purism.

By the 1800s, as American popular democracy flourished, so did a new spirit of public religiosity. But the new, dominant theology—evangelical Christianity, prevalent in the rising Baptist and Methodist movements—was Arminian in character. Better suited to an emerging market economy and democratic culture in which individuals felt empowered to determine their own destiny in this life, evangelical revivalism encouraged people to believe they could also determine their fate in the next life, by accepting Christ and choosing to be saved. When confronted by a Calvinist critic, the famous Methodist circuit rider Peter Cartwright (who would later lose a bitter congressional race against Abraham Lincoln), replied that Americans “were a free people and lived in a free country, and must be allowed to do as they pleased.”

In a world where “each pursuing their own interests for their own sake,” as one writer put it, was the transcendent ideal, strict Calvinism no longer made sense. People were empowered to choose their own path. As Daniel Webster wrote: “The public happiness is to be the aggregate of the happiness of individuals. Our system begins with the individual man.”

Far from laying the foundation of American political and religious culture, the Puritan settlers, separatists and nonseparatists alike, built an inward, particular religious community that frayed within three generations of their arrival in the New World. Their influence persisted, and their ideas may have influenced in a lasting way what historian Perry Miller called “the New England mind.” Well into the early 19th century, many Baptist and Presbyterian churches clung to a watered-down form of predestinarian theology. Methodist camp meetings and popular revivals held less interest in New England, where in the year following the Revolution, state governments were slow to disestablish the Congregational Church. But the Puritan legacy had little to do with the noisy democratic and evangelical culture that became so distinctly American in later centuries.

If the Pilgrims and their nonseparatist cousins played a minimal role in shaping American religious and political culture, they became the subject of fascination in the late 19th century, as a rising tide of immigrants—newcomers from Eastern and Southern Europe, Jews and Catholics who spoke in foreign tongues, worshipped in different ways and seemed something less than white—prompted many native-born citizens to stake claim to their roots as original Americans. Popular magazines ran articles and sketches with titles like, “The Puritans’ First Thanksgiving,” “Does the Puritan Survive” or “From Puritanism—Whither?” On Thanksgiving in 1887, the citizens of Springfield, Massachusetts—certainly more than a stone’s throw from where the Mayflower first docked—unveiled a nine-foot bronze statue, The Puritan, the work of August Saint-Gaudens, while two years later, national political leaders gathered to dedicate the Pilgrim Monument at Plymouth itself.

Few artists, writers or politicians bothered to distinguish between the separatists of Plymouth and nonseparatists of Massachusetts, though when the New England Society of Pennsylvania—one of many such organizations that flourished in the 1890s, like the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Mayflower Association—commissioned Saint-Gaudens to replicate a The Puritan for placement in Philadelphia, the sculptor insisted on modifying his original work slightly and naming it, The Pilgrim. At the dedication of a similar Pilgrim statue in Central Park, commissioned by the New England Society of New York, George William Curtis, the editor of Harper’s, implored observers to consider the lasting importance of the nation’s Puritan founders. “We raise the statue of the pilgrim,” he began, “that in this changeless form the long procession of the generations which shall follow may see what manner of man he was to the outward eye, whom history and tradition have so often flouted and traduced.”

That was the essence of it all. At Forefathers’ Day celebrations each year throughout the North and Northeast, on Thanksgiving Day (a national holiday that began after the Civil War and had, at best, tenuous roots to the Pilgrim Thanksgiving of 1621), native-born Americans celebrated the “changeless form” of the Pilgrims and Puritans to brace themselves in a fast-changing nation.

As immigrant communities steadily acculturated—their children, born in the United States, spoke accentless English, learned to love baseball and Hollywood, fought in World War II, settled post-war suburbia and staked their own claim to whiteness—the need to distinguish them from the colonial generation dissipated. Today, Thanksgiving is a blend of the sentimental and the mawkish, combining fragments of the first Pilgrim meal with traditions established in the years immediately following the Civil War.

To be sure, today, and particularly at Thanksgiving time, Americans still remember the Mayflower Compact, the courtship of Miles Standish—some even remember the name Mary Chilton, supposedly the first person to step on Plymouth Rock. But as a country, we’ve become unrecognizable to that first generation of New Englanders, and no longer as invested in mythologizing their world as were Americans 150 years ago. On the contrary, the rigid society the Pilgrims sought to build, based on exclusivity and sameness, and the narrow definition of citizenship that inspired some Americans to excavate their memory more two centuries later, are out of step with the diverse (and often quarrelsome) capitalist democracy we’ve come to be.

In some way, the nonimportance ascribed to the 400th anniversary of the Plymouth landing, in contrast to the spirited debate over 1619, reflects the right priorities. We still grapple with the legacy of slavery in ways both profound and worrying, and the impulse to claim the mantle of “true Americans” hasn’t left our politics. But we can be thankful that the Pilgrim’s world of “invisible saints” and unregenerate sinners, of closed communities and neo-theocracy, has little to do with the America we know, nor has it for a very long time.

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