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Thanksgiving Day: Pilgrims Were a Surprisingly Worldly, Tolerant Lot

Leiden, The Netherlands The first Pilgrims of the first American Thanksgiving in 1621 were unusually devout – even by Puritan standards. They crossed the ocean on a conviction that “the Lord has more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy Word,” as pastor John Robinson said before they sailed from the Netherlands.

Leiden, The Netherlands

The first Pilgrims of the first American Thanksgiving in 1621 were unusually devout – even by Puritan standards. They crossed the ocean on a conviction that “the Lord has more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy Word,” as pastor John Robinson said before they sailed from the Netherlands.

Yet the Pilgrim band that braved the Mayflower and shared deer and turkey with native Americans were also some of the most cosmopolitan and tolerant among the Puritan groups willing to brave the wilds of a new world.

Before going to Plymouth, the Mayflower group lived 11 years in the Dutch city of Leiden. Those years of exile in Leiden, where the Pilgrims worked, worshipped, and debated – amid hefty clashes of civilizations and belief in Europe – profoundly influenced their sensibilities in ways that have not been widely recognized.

The Pilgrims – unlike British Puritans who wanted to turn Massachusetts into a theocracy – sharply advocated church-state separation. They heretically believed that women should be allowed to speak in church. They were far more tolerant of other faiths and open to the idea that their theology, like all human dogma, might contain errors.

Pilgrim experiences “in the cosmopolitan Netherlands are a reason they are less rigid or dogmatic in their views about what people must and must not do,” argues Jeremy Bangs, curator of the American Pilgrim Museum in Leiden and author of “Strangers and Pilgrims, Travellers and Sojourners: Leiden and the Foundations of Plymouth Plantation,” a 900-page reappraisal published this year on the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival in Leiden.

“The pilgrims didn’t have witchcraft hysteria, they didn’t kill Quakers. These are big differences!” notes Mr. Bangs, a former curator of Plimoth Plantation whose work draws heavily from untapped Dutch and New England archives. “Pilgrim leaders were less prone to persecute…. The possibility that others may be right and they may be wrong is something influenced by their time living in an extraordinary community of other exiles in Holland.”

Living Among Other Castouts

In Leiden, the Pilgrims lived packed in a warren of houses near the university, amid Gypsies and Jews, refugee French and Poles, exiled Swiss, and other castouts from the turmoil of the Reformation. They were given sanctuary as one of some 19 groups. Eager to explain why they left England, the Pilgrims ran a free press around the corner from where the painter Rembrandt was living.

The first Pilgrim Thanksgiving likely derives from scripture in Leviticus and Deuteronomy 16 in the Geneva Bible used by Puritans. (The text requests that all within the borders of the community be invited – which Bangs says explains the presence of the native American Indians.)

But the Pilgrim Thanksgiving is also nearly identical to an Oct. 3 Dutch Protestant “thanksgiving.” The day, the start of three days of sermons, games, militia exercises, and feasting, celebrated the end of the 1574 Spanish Catholic siege of Leiden, when half the city starved. (It is still commemorated.)

Few Religious Groups More Historically Maligned

Thanksgiving may offer an annual moment to reflect on Pilgrims and Puritans, who migrated to America on the grounds that the Church of England was beyond reform. On the eve of their departure from Leiden, Mr. Robinson, the pastor, says in a sermon remembered by pilgrim Edward Winslow that it is time to move past the Reformation. Lutherans will only go so far as Luther, and the Calvinists only so far as Calvin. In the present hour, Robinson says, it is possible to “embrace further light.”

This was part of what noted Puritan scholar Perry Miller called the Puritan “errand in the wilderness.”

But church historians have complained for decades that few religious groups are more historically maligned and misunderstood than Puritans.

They are ignored as unimportant precursors to the American Revolution: So stripped of their religious nature had US history books made the Pilgrims that one standard text in the 1980s had only one line on them, infamously calling them “people who take long trips.”

The Pilgrim-Puritans are also slandered as zealots, the taproot of all America’s psychic repressions, phobias, guilt, and drive. Historian Edmund Morgan complained that Puritans were depicted as severe figures whose “only contribution to American culture is their furniture.”

The religious essayist and novelist Marilynne Robinson calls the popular hostility “A great example of our collective eagerness to disparage without knowledge or information about the thing disparaged…”

Politically Correct Pilgrims

Ironically, one place where the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving have become a model of secular political correctness and revisionism is Plimoth Plantation. The instructional materials for schoolchildren, and for teachers, strip the Puritans of most of their own deeply expressed religious motivations, found in all their written and oral expressions. The plantation’s website encourages use of primary materials – then offers few to cull from.

Among the materials on the website, which Bangs’s raising of primary texts hopes to reverse: That the Pilgrims were English colonists not migrating on primarily religious grounds. That Thanksgiving is a secular “English harvest festival,” not a religious event, giving it the patina of an agricultural or pagan ritual. That Pilgrims did not call themselves Pilgrims. That there is no evidence that Thanksgiving included turkey.

As Bangs and many other Puritan scholars note, it is impossible to conceive the mind and the soul of the Puritan as something other than biblical and religious. The Puritan model was to constantly examine the world and oneself in immediate terms of righteousness and sin. The Puritan mind was a blend of intense reason and piety; church was a place where God’s word dwelt among the gathered, who were equal in His eyes.

“The Pilgrims call themselves Pilgrims, and they see life on earth as a temporary stop on the way to heaven,” Bangs notes in an interview. “You can’t talk about Thanksgiving as something secular. They don’t think in those terms. So the Pilgrims are experimenting. They will not draw from Anglican or Roman Catholic tradition. They aren’t doing the English harvest festival, but a religiously formed appropriate day, using Deuteronomy and the 3rd of October in Leiden.”

On a less profound note, William Bradford writes about “a great store of wild Turkeys” captured in the weeks around Thanksgiving, and Edward Winslow writes about “wild fowl” that was used on Thanksgiving Day.

Bangs’s reappraisal is part of his effort to reverse an older take, by scholar George Willison, that the Mayflower group was divided between “saints” and “strangers” – the Puritans and the secular voyagers – which Mr. Willison says creates an epic and profound division. Bangs argues the division is illusory and exists mostly in Willison’s analysis, done in the 1940s, and without enough primary research.

Bangs, who once published the entire colonial archives of the city of Scituate, Mass., notes that Willison has Miles Standish, the militia leader of the Pilgrims, as a primary “stranger” or secular individual – but that he is later shown to be a member of the Leiden church. Of the 102 Mayflower voyagers, in any event, 80 were from Leiden, and the others were mostly faithful, Bangs says.

“For years scholarship assumed rigid disagreements on the Mayflower … that is solved by the Mayflower Compact. But in fact, the debates among the Pilgrims change and mutate not along church hierarchical lines of authority, but are issue specific,” Bangs says. “The debates value a tradition that emphasizes the individual need to bring biblically inspired critique to bear on the issues of the day. Church elders, lay people, ministers, and others have different opinions about different issues – not only on doctrine, but also on the practice of the Scripture.”

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