The Pilgrim Story: Communism Rejected

The financiers who provided the funds for the Pilgrims’ voyage to America had as one of their requirements that the farming in the new settlement be set up communally. No individual or family was to have their own land. Rather, everyone had to work on communal land and receive an equal share of the crops. This wasn’t the Pilgrims’ idea, but they felt bound to the arrangement. For a while, at least.

William Bradford 2As governor, William Bradford had to make a decision at a critical point. It was becoming obvious this communal farming was far from ideal. He had difficulty convincing people to take responsibility for their allotted work time. There was no equivalency between how hard one worked and what one received in the end. A hard worker got no more than the person who decided to lean on his hoe half the time. Incentive was non-existent.

So Bradford, trying to stay within the guidelines to some extent, altered the rules to allow a certain portion of the fields to be given over to individual families to see if that made a difference. It certainly did. Bradford commented in his History of Plimoth Plantation that now people went out willingly to work, knowing that whatever effort they put into it, they would receive as a reward. He even noted that some of the women, who had previously found many excuses not to farm, now grabbed their children and took them to their private plot of land to labor.

The conclusion Bradford reached is instructive, not just for the Pilgrims’ circumstances, but for us today as well. He wrote,

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe failure of this experiment of communal living, which was tried for several years, and by good and honest men, proves the emptiness of the theory of Plato and other ancients—that the taking away of private property, and the possession of it in community . . . would make a state happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God.

Let none argue that this is due to human failing, rather than to this communistic plan of life in itself. I answer, seeing that all men have this failing in them, that God in His wisdom saw that another course was fitter for them.

So here we have, in the early 1620s, a prime example of the failure of communism, more than two centuries before Karl Marx penned his Communist Manifesto. Private property, and the sense of personal responsibility that comes with it, is one of those principles with a Biblical basis. As I said, this understanding is still important for us today. May we learn from history; it’s foolish to repeat the failures of the past.

The Pilgrim Story: Harmony with the Natives?

One aspect of Pilgrim history that everyone seems connected with is the harmony that existed between the settlers and the natives. Was that the case, or is this another legend that has become supposed fact? Let me provide the best analysis I can on this question.

Pilgrims LandingUpon arrival, as I mentioned in an earlier post, the Pilgrims made a big mistake by taking some buried corn from one tribe. They did so out of their need, and they comforted themselves by promising to themselves that they would repay it someday. Their action was observed, and this caused friction right away with this tribe. Although the Pilgrims didn’t eventually settle where this tribe lived, the natives harbored animosity over what they rightly considered theft of their property. Later, the Pilgrims did indeed restore what they had taken, but it would have been far better to avoid this initial controversy.

The land on which they finally decided to establish their colony was uninhabited, so they didn’t take land away from any tribe by settling there. What they didn’t know was that a massive plague had swept through this entire region a few years earlier, wiping out the tribe that had lived on this particular spot. As a result, no other tribe claimed this land, fearing it was cursed.

Why the plague? What caused it? It could have been the result of the spread of a disease that the natives contracted through contact with passing Europeans. We don’t know for sure. Yet those with a chip on their shoulders today like to point to incidents such as these as some type of genocide on the part of Europeans. While the effects may have decimated the native population, this was hardly a planned genocide. The interactions of two peoples who have not had any contact with each other—and therefore no immunities built up against certain diseases—has often ended with new sicknesses spreading among one or both populations. There certainly wasn’t anything intentional about it.

Whatever the cause, the tribe that used to live on this piece of land was known for its hostility to European explorers’ ships previously. If the Pilgrims had settled anywhere near this tribe, weakened as they were their first winter in the New World, they might have been overcome and wiped out by that tribe. That would have been intentional genocide. Whether providential or not, the absence of this tribe allowed the Pilgrims to survive that first winter.

Massasoit StatueThe closest tribe to them, the Wampanoags, had been the strongest tribe in the region until the plague severely cut down its numbers. The chief, Massasoit, was looking for allies. Here’s another fact that often is ignored: the various tribes were not innocent primitives living in total harmony with the land and each other. They were sinful human beings who often preyed upon and made war against one another. Massasoit, keenly aware of his vulnerability, sought to unite with as many other tribes as possible. These new settlers were simply one more tribe, in his view.

During the Pilgrims’ first winter, Massasoit sent spies to watch how they were doing. In the spring, he sent one particular man, Samoset, to enter their settlement and speak to them. Samoset was a warrior who had spent time on European ships and had learned some English. This was the first real contact, and it was friendly. Once Samoset reported back, Massasoit decided to go himself and see if this new “tribe” might be useful to him

The result was a treaty mutually agreed upon that lasted more than fifty years. At one point, a few years later, when it seemed as if Massasoit might die from some unknown ailment, Edward Winslow went to his camp and treated him successfully, so that he survived. That cemented the relationship.

One name everyone has heard is Squanto, but most usually don’t know the whole story. Squanto was from the tribe that was wiped out by the plague, but he was spared because he had been kidnapped by a passing ship and sold into slavery in Spain. He eventually made his way to England, lived there a while, and learned English well. A couple of years later, he was able to return to his native land, only to find nearly everyone he knew had died. Squanto was living with the Wamanoags, but since he was not of their tribe, Massasoit didn’t know whether to trust him.

Squanto Helping PilgrimsYet because Squanto had such a command of the English language, he became the liaison between the cultures. He did help the English with some tips on how to plant and fish in his native region, and he and William Bradford became good friends. What most people don’t know, however, is that Squanto apparently had designs to supplant Massasoit as leader. He even told the Wampanoags that the Pilgrims had the plague kept in storage to use against anyone who came against them, and that he alone was their protector to ensure it was not unleashed.

At one point, Massasoit demanded Bradford turn Squanto over to him for execution, but Bradford refused, nearly rupturing the relationship with Massasoit. Squanto, however, died only about a year after the Pilgrims’ arrival. Some think he was poisoned by Massasoit. As he was dying, he asked the Pilgrims to pray that he would go to the English God. Does that mean Squanto became a true Christian, or was he merely hedging his bets at the end? No one can say for sure.

For the rest of Bradford’s life, Massasoit remained an ally. When the first generation, on both sides, left the historical scene, relations soured. But that’s another story for another time.

So what’s the verdict? From all the evidence, I believe we can honestly say that the Pilgrims and their closest neighbors did establish a mutual treaty of cooperation that worked well. Compared to Jamestown, this was a rousing success.

One more thing: about that first Thanksgiving? Yes, it actually happened, and it was a time of “bonding,” shall we say, of these two cultures.

Pilgrim Thanksgiving

The Pilgrim Story: Dealing with Death

The Pilgrims survived the voyage to the New World. They avoided civil disorder by establishing the Mayflower Compact. But they weren’t able to escape the specter of disease and death. How did they handle this new challenge?

First Encounter BeachFirst, they had to search out a place to call home. They sent out a party of men to try to find an opportune piece of land, but the Cape Cod area wasn’t hospitable to farming, and they also had their first encounter with the natives, who attacked them. It didn’t help their cause when they decided to take some corn they found buried at one spot. Bradford recounts that since there was no one around to barter with, they took it with the idea of paying back whoever had buried it there. I believe they intended to do that (which, by the way, they did eventually), but their action was discovered and created a bad relationship with that particular tribe from the start.

Coming back from one of those excursions, Bradford heard the awful news that his wife, Dorothy, had died—the first casualty of the trip. She had drowned falling over the side of the ship. We have to get this information from other sources than Bradford, since he never wrote about it. Many have speculated that she committed suicide, depressed over having to leave their young son back in Holland and now seeing the barrenness of the so-called Promised Land. Massachusetts in winter didn’t look like a promising place. Whatever the reason, her death was just the beginning.

Plymouth-Town BrookThey finally found a harbor, although not as good a one as the Puritans later found that they christened Boston. But no one seemed to be living there and there was a nice brook running through it as a water supply. The brook is still there today, and in summer, it lends a lot to the pleasant atmosphere of the town. Yet it wasn’t summer when they arrived, and their greatest task was to build the town that would become home.

Building the Common HouseThe men labored from December through March to transform a wilderness into some semblance of an English village. A common house was built first to store goods; midway through the winter, it burned down and they had to start over. But that wasn’t the worst of the experience.

Bradford relates, in sad words, that as the days passed, so did their band of brothers and sisters. Sickness swept the new colony. By March, half of the 102 settlers had died. At one point, only six or seven men were healthy enough to work, and they also had to take care of the sick. During this time, Edward Winslow, Bradford’s closest friend and a key leader of the colony in its early years, lost his wife as well. Frankly, if there had been natives in this area, and they had been hostile to the newcomers, the struggling colony never would have become a colony at all—it would have been wiped out.

The sailors on the Mayflower were dying also. Bradford writes about how they let each other die, afraid of catching whatever their comrades had. Yet the Pilgrims, despite their own trials, showed compassion on the dying sailors and did their best to comfort them. At least one of the seamen, who had before mocked and cursed these passengers, now credited them with being true Christians before he died. In the trial, their faith in God remained strong.

If you go to Plymouth today, you can see the large sarcophagus that commemorates this harsh first winter. But it’s more than a memorial; the remains of those who died are buried beneath it, a lasting testimony to what they endured.


In the spring, the Mayflower set sail for England. Capt. Christopher Jones told the survivors that they didn’t have to be survivors; they could go back with him and give up this venture. No one took him up on the offer. Despite the hardships, every last one of them said, in effect, “thanks for the offer, but we are staying.” Since they believed God had called them to establish this community, they were going to see it through. They remembered their initial commitment, that even if they might all perish in the attempt, they would be true to God’s calling.

I think that’s called faith.

The Pilgrim Story: Trials of the Voyage

In my last post about the Pilgrims, I laid out their rationale for leaving Holland and resettling in America. I hinted at some of the problems they were going to face. First, only a minority of the Separatist congregation would be able to make the trip initially, and their pastor, John Robinson, would have to stay behind with the majority. It turns out he never made it to the New World; he died before he could make the trip. But as they were preparing to leave Holland to go to England to make final preparations, he did give them sound advice for how to conduct themselves as a civil society, focusing on the following key points:

  • No one was to consider themselves better than another due to societal rank (thereby avoiding one of Jamestown’s problems).
  • Their leaders were to be elected by the freemen of the company (this was a feature from the start as opposed to Jamestown’s first decade).
  • Godliness was to be the mark of both good rulers and good citizens, with the corollary that it was necessary for the citizens to be godly if they expected their rulers to exhibit the same character.

There is a famous painting of the Pilgrims leaving Holland on board their ship. You can find it in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, DC:

Pilgrims on Ship

Don’t tell anyone this is a religious painting; they may want to remove it. You know, separation of church and state. I’ll come back to that controversial statement later in our review of American history.

Once in England, they bought all their supplies for the journey, but the financiers who backed the pilgrimage forced a change in the agreement: they would now have to work for those “adventurers” six days a week rather than five. They also were saddled with a communal farming arrangement that would create further problems later. That’s another issue I’ll come back to later.

Mayflower & Speedwell in Dartmouth HarborFinally, they were ready to sail on their two ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell. If you’ve never heard of the Speedwell in connection with the Pilgrims’ arrival in America, there’s good reason. Twice they set off and had to return because that ship sprang leaks. Research has shown that there probably was sabotage at work, but regardless of the reason, they now had to decide what to do.

It was getting late in the year, and not the best time to set off, knowing they would arrive in winter. Yet if they waited until spring, they would have used up their supplies and have to go even deeper in debt. They chose to go forward, albeit with fewer people, since they now had only the Mayflower.

The trip itself was horrendous—terrible storms much of the time. These were not experienced seamen but merely pilgrims on a journey for the Lord. Seasickness prevailed and they were told to stay below decks most of the time. Those were cramped quarters with people sharing the space with animals and having virtually no privacy.

John Howland OverboardOne of the travelers, a servant named John Howland, finally decided he couldn’t take the cramped quarters anymore, and against orders, went on deck, only to be swept into the North Atlantic in November. He was able to grab a rope from the ship as it leaned over in the storm; he hung on, and no one knows exactly how long he was in the icy waters before someone spotted him.

The rest of the story—as Paul Harvey always said—is this: Howland lived into his nineties, with many children and grandchildren. In fact, if you trace the descendants of John Howland, you find some rather interesting people in American history. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, is descended from Howland. In the entertainment world, we have both Humphrey Bogart and Alec Baldwin as descendants (of course that also means the other Baldwin brothers, so it’s a “win”). On the political side, Franklin Roosevelt and both George Bushes can trace their ancestry back to the man who was pulled out of the sea that day.

The storms caused a main beam on the ship to crack, which threatened everyone. The Pilgrims, though, had a giant iron screw with them for use in constructing houses. It was put in place under the cracked beam and allowed the journey to continue safely.

It was an exhausting trip. But their trials were hardly over. They had just begun. More on that in a future post.

The Pilgrim Story: A Faith-Full Decision

William Bradford 2The Separatists/Pilgrims made it to Holland and were left alone by the government to worship as their consciences led. So why not stay there? Hadn’t they achieved what they desired? William Bradford, who became their governor at Plymouth for 35 years, was also the historian of the movement during that era. In his History of Plimoth Plantation, he lays out the reasons they decided Holland shouldn’t be their final destination. They were as follows:

  • News of their hard life working in the factories kept other Separatists in England from joining them. This lifestyle was very different from the pastoral existence they were used to.
  • They were aging prematurely due to this type of work.
  • Their children were being lured away from their beliefs. Since the children also had to work under the same conditions, they were questioning the decision of their parents to stand for what they believed. If their beliefs led to this, some of the children reasoned, maybe there’s something wrong with what they believe.
  • They had a desire to take the Gospel to another part of the world. The first three reasons were the negative aspects of staying in Holland, while this final reason was a positive one: they might be used of God to spread His Word.

Bradford also writes about the debate they had on whether they should commit to the ocean voyage to the New World. He makes it quite clear that the concerns of many were well-founded—sickness on the trip, their dire finances, ignorance of the New World, the savagery of the natives—and they didn’t make the decision without careful consideration and prayer.

Ultimately, they concluded that even though they might die in the endeavor, if God had called them to do it, they should be obedient. They simply wanted to be faithful to God’s calling. The decision to uproot everything once again was a decision based on faith.

In my next American history post, I’ll examine what it was like for them to make that voyage.

The Pilgrim Story: Convictions, Not Preferences

You’ve heard the cliché “actions speak louder than words.” The New Testament book of James puts it another way when it says that faith without works is dead. People may say they believe something, but you don’t know if it’s a real belief until you see if, under pressure, it holds solid. A few days ago, I began an examination of the English Separatists who eventually became known as the Pilgrims when they settled in America. How solid were their beliefs? What indicators show the genuineness of their faith?

Pilgrims Going to HollandDue to their belief that the Anglican church should not speak for everyone, and that they should be free to set up churches apart from the state, they were perceived as traitors to the nation. One simply cannot reject the church without rejecting the head of the church—the king or queen of the realm. Taking that stance put them in peril, so much so that many Separatists throughout England sought to leave the country for Holland, where they would not be punished for pursuing their beliefs.

The little group of Separatists that ultimately found their way to the New World tried twice to leave England. Twice they suffered for the attempt. They had to make arrangements in secret so the government wouldn’t know, since they didn’t have permission to emigrate. On the first attempt, the captain of the ship betrayed them to the government, which paid him for the betrayal. He was in it only for the money. Consequently, they ended up in prison for a time.

Pilgrim Women & ChildrenDiscouraging, right? Why try again? Yet they did. As the men were loading all their goods on the ship, suddenly soldiers appeared on the horizon. Somehow word had leaked about what they were doing. The captain of this ship, not wanting to experience the same fate as his erstwhile passengers, pulled up anchor and took off with the men; the women and children were still on the shore waiting their turn for boarding. Now they were left alone. The soldiers dragged them away, where they suffered in prison, this time without their husbands. Meanwhile, the men on the ship were in the deepest distress as they took off for Holland without their families. To add to the distress, they sailed straight into a terrible storm that almost sank the ship.

Eventually, everyone arrived in Holland—men, women, and children—but the ordeal had been harrowing. One has to ask why they would go through such stress when all they would have had to do was outwardly submit to the authorities, put on a show of external obedience, and quietly gone their Separatist ways. Why subject themselves to this potential punishment when they could have lived in peace?

The reason they didn’t submit, of course, is that they wouldn’t have been at peace in their spirits. Their reading of Scripture convinced them of the rightness of their beliefs; they would have violated their consciences if they had disobeyed what they felt God was calling them to do.

Conviction vs. PreferenceI like to explain it this way: for some people, their “beliefs” are no more than preferences; they lack the conviction to follow through on what they say they believe. A preference is not a conviction. A preference isn’t even a real belief. These Pilgrims showed integrity in their steadfastness through trial. They were the real deal.

Just getting to Holland, however, did not signal the end of their trials. More hard times awaited them, more instances when they had to make decisions based on their heartfelt convictions. I’ll continue the Pilgrim story in upcoming posts.

The Pilgrim Story: English Separatism

Now that we’ve completed our look at Jamestown in our journey through American history, I’ll give you some posts on the next significant group of settlers. We call them the Pilgrims, but that’s only because they proclaimed they were following God’s leading on their trek to the New World. So “pilgrim” is a later term applied to them. In England, they were known as Separatists, and that name could be dangerous to one’s life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.

Henry VIIIWhen Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558, her nation had been through a real trial with respect to religious beliefs. Her father, Henry VIII, had been a staunch Catholic who had even written against Martin Luther. The pope at that time had honored him with the title of “Defender of the Faith.” Then things went sour.

Henry didn’t have a male heir with his wife, Catherine of Aragon. His concern for the stability of the throne once he passed away led him to ask the pope for an annulment of the marriage on the basis that he had sinned by marrying his deceased brother’s wife. The English clergy found a passage in Leviticus that they used for their argument in favor of the annulment, but it was clearly a twisting of Scripture for personal reasons.

Popes had not been reluctant in the past to grant such annulments, but this time Henry ran into a brick wall. Catherine’s nephew, Charles V, was the Holy Roman Emperor, and the pope was not eager to alienate him. That led to Henry deciding to break from the Catholic Church and set up England’s own church with him at the head. He then appointed bishops that did his bidding. He set aside Catherine and married Anne Boleyn, who became the mother of Elizabeth.

Henry didn’t get his male heir with Anne, so he had her accused of unfaithfulness and executed. He then married Jane Seymour, who finally gave him a son. But that son, Edward VI, didn’t live past his teenage years, so the daughter of Catherine, a queen the Protestants called Bloody Mary, ascended to the throne. She persecuted Protestants and tried to turn the nation back to Catholicism. She reigned only five years, however, so she didn’t accomplish her goal.

Elizabeth IElizabeth followed Mary to the throne, having stayed alive during the former’s reign by a careful balancing act. She continued that act as queen, deciding that the Church of England—the Anglican Church—would be Protestant in doctrine but look very Catholic. She hoped that would unite the kingdom.

There were, though, some Protestants who were not happy with the idea of the sovereign determining the “true” faith. They had read the Bible for themselves and believed God had given them liberty to set up churches apart from the state so they could follow their consciences in how to worship Him. Those were the Separatists.

They were small in number, but very dedicated to their beliefs, willing to suffer persecution for being faithful to their understanding of Scripture. Queen Elizabeth considered them a thorn in her side, working to divide her kingdom. If they tried to spread their ideas via the printing press, they could even be put to death.

It was a congregation of these Separatists who ultimately decided they had to leave England in order to worship God according to what they saw in Scripture. They are the ones we now call the Pilgrim Fathers.

What were they like? What trials did they endure? Did they exhibit the kind of character worth emulating today? When they came to the New World, how did they treat the natives?

Today was the background; we’ll delve more into the precise history of these people next week.