Pilgrims, Puritans, and Thanksgiving

A Brief History

On December 11, 1620, the Pilgrims arrived in what would become Plymouth, Massachusetts. They suffered a painful and debilitating winter in which many settlers died of starvation. When spring arrived, Native Americans such as Squanto and Samoset miraculously befriended the settlers and helped them learn to plant crops. The Lord blessed them with an abundant harvest. They responded by inviting the Native Americans to celebrate the first Thanksgiving in 1621. This story has been passed down through generations of American schoolchildren, and we are probably all familiar with it.

What can we learn from this story? First, and most obviously, we want to be thankful for all that the Lord has done for us. 1 Thessalonians 5:8 tells us, “Give thanks in everything, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (CSB). Reflecting on the past year, some members of the Emmaus family will find this easy and natural to do. They have welcomed new babies to their family; “tied the knot” in marriage; received advanced degrees as the culmination of years of hard work; started new relationships; and enjoyed fruitfulness in ministry. We rejoice with these members of our community and thank the Lord for His good gifts in their lives.
For others, thankfulness will be more of a stretch or even a gut-wrenching act of obedience. Some have lost loved ones; have struggled with lingering effects of Covid-19; have weathered painful family conflict, or have gone through the dark night of depression or anxiety. Although we trust that the Lord will use each situation for good in His own time (Rom. 8:28), sometimes it is difficult to realize that on an emotional level. We weep with these brothers and sisters and yet rejoice in the ways God has shown His presence in these challenging times.

What Is a Pilgrim?

Let’s dive a little deeper into the Pilgrim legacy. The word “pilgrim” means “one who journeys in foreign lands.” The Pilgrims considered themselves such travelers as they discovered the “wilderness” of the “New World.” This is a disputable historical claim (see below), but let’s camp out on that idea for a moment. As they left their home country for the “New World,” the Pilgrims realized something that we all need to come to grips with within our lives: that this world is not our home.

As much as we want to engage in society and make it more just pleasing to the Lord, that is not our primary task. We do not ultimately belong here. It is so easy to hitch our identity to our nationality, or even our political party, rather than to Christ and our heavenly home. We need to be constantly vigilant against this and make sure we are focusing on the Lord and His heavenly kingdom as our first priority. “Dear friends, I urge you as strangers and temporary residents [pilgrims] to abstain from fleshly desires that war against you” (1 Peter 2:11). “But our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20).

The American Puritans

One very common myth about the Pilgrims is that they came to the “New World” to establish a society with religious freedom. That is very much not the case. Their desire was to establish a “Christian commonwealth” in which worship was conducted and society was governed according to their interpretation of the Bible. Many of these Pilgrims were Puritans (a group everyone loves to hate). The Puritans have been very unfairly caricatured over the years, to the point where the word “puritanical” has a very negative connotation in today’s world. But bear with me as we try to understand who the Puritans really were. The Puritans were believers who wanted to “purify” the Church of England of any Roman Catholic elements (such as the wearing of vestments, “high-church” worship, and the episcopal system of church government).

Many Puritans also accepted what has been known as “replacement theology,” in which the church is the recipient of the plans and promises God made to Israel. Unfortunately, this theology was poorly applied and led to some tragic consequences. The Pilgrims soon realized that they were not entering an unoccupied wilderness, but the homeland of various Native American groups who had lived in their lands for hundreds or thousands of years.
Styling themselves as the “Israelites,” the Puritans soon labeled the Native Americans as the “Canaanites.” The iconic peacefulness of the “First Thanksgiving” degenerated into a brutal war within a few decades, and the Puritans damaged their Christian witness among the Native Americans as they treated them with such cruelty. The Puritans also believed that they should directly apply the Mosaic Law. While well-intentioned, the Puritan legacy was marred by sin and hatred. We would do well to keep an eye on our own theology and its results in our lives.

Puritan Positives

But the Puritans were not all bad by any stretch! We tend to think of them as killjoy legalists, but this is an unfair caricature. As evidenced by their prayers, many Puritans enjoyed a warm, emotional relationship with the Lord and earnestly desired to serve Him with their lives. They enjoyed their blessings very much (spouses, children, health, the beauty of nature, etc.). The Puritans were also known for being highly educated and intelligent. Like the Puritans, we should seek to glorify God by enjoying His blessings.

And that brings us back to the first Thanksgiving. The Puritan Pilgrims leave us very much a mixed legacy. But we can still appreciate their strong desire to please God and can learn from their example of thankfulness. Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Recommended Reading on the Puritans

Bennett, Arthur, ed: The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotionals. This makes a wonderful daily devotional and provides a nice springboard for times of prayer.

Bradstreet, Anne: The Works of Anne Bradstreet. Anne Bradstreet’s wonderful poetry not only opens us to the mind of a seventeenth-century Puritan woman but also includes many creative metaphors for the Christian life. In particular, I have been inspired by her submissive trust in the Lord.

Carden, Allen: Puritan Christianity in America: Religion and Life in Seventeenth-Century Massachusetts. This is a great introduction to Puritan theology.

Morgan, Edmund S: The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop. This wonderful old book provides not only an interesting biography of a key Puritan governor but also explains the key problem with Puritanism: the desire to have a pure church that also encompassed the whole of society. This was the “Puritan dilemma,” and their noble effort quickly failed as time passed. But that is another story! 😊

Ortlund, Dane: Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers. I highly recommend this book to every believer, as it illustrates God’s great grace towards us both before and after we are saved, despite our constant (and often subconscious) efforts to earn our own salvation. Interestingly, Ortlund draws heavily on Puritan authors (as well as Scripture, of course) to lead us in that direction.

Kari McDowell

Kari McDowell has been a history professor at Emmaus Bible College since the fall of 2021. She earned a B.A. in Bible/Theology & History from Multnomah University and an M.A. in History from Baylor University.
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