Giving Thanks: Plymouth Colony and The Families That Sparked The American Idea

The Thanksgiving holiday is upon us and, as usual, Americans have a lot to be thankful for. The idea that America is founded upon should be supreme among those appreciations, along with family, friends, and the good fortune of living in a country founded in recognition of Man’s moral condition.

Indeed, historical first hand accounts of the Pilgrims’s first Thanksgivings celebrated by those in Plymouth Colony represent the moral underpinnings of the American idea. In giving thanks this holiday it is instructive to consider that this distinctly American sense for individual liberty and self-governance might not have been, but for family. Two very distinct paths forward for America existed in those early days of discovery: Plymouth Plantation or Jamestown. In one sense it can be reduced to family and freedom versus the State and it’s authority.

The Pilgrims of Plymouth fleeing religious persecution and State Church dogma to spread the word of God contrast sharply with the first permanent English colony in Jamestown driven by the State and the Church of England. The pioneers in Plymouth experienced an epiphany in recognizing the truth of man’s nature that led to enshrining individual liberties. State interests in Jamestown enforced a socialist scheme that nearly led to it’s ruin.

We should be thankful the Pilgrims’ is the history we celebrate. Unfortunately, the factual accounts of those first Thanksgivings and the reasons for them have been replaced with a simplistic narrative that obscures and warps the ‘reason for the season,’ as so often happens. Luckily the sources are available to reclaim this historical perspective, while also reinforcing an appreciation for the role the family played as an integral part of shaping the American idea.

From the outset, the Pilgrims were committed to religious freedom. The group had become rebels when its leaders insisted that they did not need the dictations of the Church of England, only the Bible, to live by God’s laws.  They were well read, inquisitive and found the State’s authority over their faith and their families to be anathema. The falling out with the Church of England resulted in their first pilgrimage to establish a community in Leiden, Netherlands.

William Bradford, Governor of Plymouth Colony, wrote of the Pilgrims’ (Reformers) cause in his diaries:

“The one side [the Reformers] laboured to have ye right worship of God & discipline of Christ established in ye church, according to ye simplicitie of ye gospell, without the mixture of mens inventions, and to have & to be ruled by ye laws of Gods word, dispensed in those offices, & by those officers of Pastors, Teachers, & Elders, &c. according to ye Scripturs.

The other partie [the Church of England], though under many colours & pretences, endevored to have ye episcopall dignitie (affter ye popish maner) with their large power & jurisdiction still retained; with all those courts, cannons, & ceremonies, togeather with all such livings, revenues, & subordinate officers, with other such means as formerly upheld their antichristian greatnes, and enabled them with lordly & tyranous power to persecute ye poore servants of God.”

Remember, Jamestown is officially founded years before by the Crown and the Church of England with all their dictatorial trappings. This is literally what the Pilgrims are later escaping with their families in their first voyage to Holland. After a while in the Netherlands, though, the Pilgrims’ arrangements for safe co-existence were beginning to fall apart and plans for the fateful trip to the New World begin to take shape.

As opposed to the mostly male excursions of conquest to the New World, the Pilgrims’ voyage was different in that it was made up entirely of families —  meaning lots of women and children on a two months long transatlantic voyage. It was an incredible commitment and risk, but they were confident they honored God with their quest for liberty.

Where the ships heading for Jamestown may have been filled with supplies to find gold, the Pilgrims dedicated precious space aboard the Mayflower to books. They brought over 400 books, a veritable library in that time. Bradford references Plato when describing the ‘vanity of that conceit’ of holding property collectively (socialism). It was with their families that they discussed such philosophy, challenged ideas, and worked toward a more perfect understanding of God’s creation.

It was the freedom to live as families, by their own faith, that made standing against the might Church of England worth it, that made the dangerous crossing of an ocean worth it. It was their families they cared for and mourned for during those first fatal winters in America under a misguided system that arrogantly denied Man’s nature as a sovereign individual. Similarly, it was their families for which they gave thanks to God and shared their blessings when they saw the error of their ways.

The sparks that inflamed the American Revolution some 150 years later were ideas first ignited and hardened within the family unit. The family unit has, ever since, been the building block for successful communities. Though it may have changed considerably in appearance from that of our forefathers, America’s is successful to the extent that it respects and promotes not just family values, but the values of family.

So 400 years later in 2019, we Americans will gather around the table with our families to give thanks. Retail political talk and unsolicited opinions may be the least of what you are looking forward to about the holiday, but there is something to be said for the quintessentially American family discussion around the dinner table, no matter how boisterous. Those conversations — the deep and philosophical, the sentimental, and the trivial — inform who we are as individuals and as a nation. Imagine the family dinner conversations of those Pilgrims as they wrestled with fundamental dilemmas, and the history that would come from them.

All the biggest issues our nation faces, and our responses to them, will be fleshed out around millions of family conversations long before a law is passed or an election decided. With yours is large or small, a hodgepodge, or what have you, be thankful for your family and invest in it with thoughtful, reaching conversations. The dividends of such investments are manifold, as evidenced by the success of the American idea, forged by the precious family in honor of God.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours from First in Freedom Daily.

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