The Pilgrims: Forgotten, Remembered, Celebrated: A Review Article

Darryl G. Hart

They Knew They Were Pilgrims: Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty, by John Turner. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2020, x + 447 pages, $30.00.

Most Americans, if they know anything about the Pilgrims, think of this small group of Protestant settlers in connection with Thanksgiving. That may also be true for American Protestants who are as likely to associate the settlers of the colony at Plymouth Plantation with the rest of New England Puritanism. In 1999 residents of Southampton, New York, for instance, objected to the town’s official seal which featured a man in Pilgrim attire and claimed, “First English Settlement in the State of New York.” The chairperson of the town’s Anti-Bias Task Force explained that the seal assumed the area’s history began in 1640 and neglected the presence of native Americans who had lived in the region for thousands of years. The revelation that “our heroes were other people’s oppressors” was more important than distinguishing Pilgrims from Puritans. The real problem was not variety of English Protestantism, according to the New York Times, but the divide between whites and people of color.[1] Nevertheless, a follow up story in the Times returned to the distinction between Pilgrims and Puritans. The newspaper clarified that not Pilgrims but Puritans were the original English settlers in Southampton. The region of Long Island that includes Southampton, Southold, East Hampton, Oyster Bay, and Huntington “was established as an outpost of the New Haven Colony,” a branch of Puritanism.[2]

If Americans pay attention to the presidential proclamations of Thanksgiving as a national holiday—arguably the best of the annual bunch—they will likely hear reminders about courage in the face of adversity, cooperation with native peoples, and a meal of fall produce and wild fowl. In 1961 during his first year in the White House, John F. Kennedy declared, “more than three centuries ago, the Pilgrims, after a year of hardship and peril, humbly and reverently set aside a special day upon which to give thanks to God for their preservation and for the good harvest from the virgin soil upon which they had labored.” He added that “by their faith and by their toil they had survived the rigors of the harsh New England winter” and so rested from “their labors to give thanks for the blessings that had been bestowed upon them by Divine Providence.”[3] In 2010 when President Barrack Obama declared a national holiday, he mentioned both the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe, and asked Americans to “reflect on the compassion and contributions of Native Americans” who helped the English colonists survive.[4] Last year, Donald Trump found a middle way between Kennedy and Obama. He underlined the Pilgrims’ great hardships and tribulations, and their “unwavering” faith and foresight. Yet, through divine providence, the Pilgrims forged a “meaningful relationship” with the Wampanoag that led to a bountiful harvest. The meal the Pilgrims shared with the native people not only captured a spirit of “friendship and unity,” but also “provided an enduring symbol of gratitude that is uniquely sewn into the fabric of our American spirit.”[5]

The irony buried deep in this annual appropriation of the English people who came to North America in 1620 on board the Mayflower is that Thanksgiving honors the Pilgrims, a group that most Americans assume were Puritan, who came almost a decade later. And because the Puritans went on to establish institutions such as Harvard and Yale, most Americans think the celebration of Thanksgiving looks back to the New Englanders who left an important heritage for American politics, intellectual life, and higher education. Even the name, “Pilgrim,” obscures as much as it distinguishes one group of New England Protestants from another. The word derives from William Bradford, Plymouth Colony’s governor, who wrote a history of the settlers. When he asserted, “they knew they were pilgrims,” Bradford was not distinguishing the Protestants in Plymouth from the ones in Boston. He was acknowledging that these Protestants were keenly aware that this world was not their home, that their ultimate residence was a heavenly country.

The study of English Protestants who wanted further reformation in the Church of England has received of late remarkable attention from historians working in the United States. First came Michael Winship’s Hot Protestants, then David H. Hall’s The Puritans, and now John G. Turner’s, They Knew They Were Pilgrims. The latter book is about almost exclusively the Protestants who boarded the Mayflower and landed in 1620 at Plymouth Rock. These “Pilgrims” were responsible for Plymouth Colony, a territory that today comprises Boston’s South Shore and Cape Cod. It was distinct from Massachusetts Bay Colony of John Winthrop fame, though adjustments in Britain’s administration of the colonies in 1691 made Plymouth part of Massachusetts. The key religious difference between Puritans and Pilgrims was separatism. Although “Puritan” did not stand for one coherent set of convictions, Puritans generally sought further reform of the Church of England (in Scotland Puritans desired and had greater success with the Kirk). As such, they mainly stayed inside the religious establishment (until forced out). Puritans could be friendly to Episcopacy, Presbyterianism, or Independency; Congregationalists in Massachusetts Bay still regarded themselves as part of the English religious establishment.

In contrast, Plymouth’s Pilgrims were separatists and refused to tolerate imperfections in the Church of England. They left England as early as 1610 to settle in the Netherlands which had fewer hopes for religious uniformity. The Dutch setting gave the Pilgrims a chance to set up congregations according to their beliefs. Economic considerations and a desire to retain English identity in their young were important factors that prompted migration to the New World. Perry Miller, the Harvard scholar who resuscitated Puritanism in the mid-twentieth century in American studies and history departments, deemed the Pilgrims far inferior to the Puritans. His dismissal has largely been responsible for American scholars’ more general disregard of Plymouth colony.

Turner’s account pushes back against Miller and company but is not an attempt to show that the Pilgrims are intellectual and institutional rivals to the Puritans. Not only did Plymouth eventually become part of Massachusetts, but the Pilgrims did not come anywhere near the Puritans in establishing institutions that could transmit their convictions. That was even true for Pilgrims’ church history where their quirky beliefs posed a challenge to calling ministers and starting congregations. The colony’s first minister, John Lyford, arrived in 1624 but under the warning that ordination required a call from a congregation (even though he had already ministered in Ulster). After receiving approval, Lyford ran afoul of the colonists for not being willing to renounce his former attachment to the Church of England. The pastor retaliated by sending negative reviews of the colony to authorities back in England. In turn, he started his own parish within the colony which attracted some of the settlers but also merited the disapproval of Plymouth’s leaders. The colony finally banished Lyford who settled and began to minister in Massachusetts. (He finished his career in Virginia.)

That challenge of finding pastors and creating structures to nurture “the Pilgrim way” was repeated throughout the colony’s seven decades. Roger Williams ministered for a time as an unpaid assistant in Plymouth. His tenure came in between a rocky pastorate at Salem where he first challenged Massachusetts’ established church and his later banishment and establishment of Rhode Island. Another instance of the Pilgrim’s difficulty in cultivating a reliable ministry was Samuel Gorton, a layman from London, who migrated in the late 1630s and began his own congregation. His reason was that the Pilgrims had departed from their own religious principles. He too ran afoul of Plymouth’s authorities and wound up in Rhode Island with Williams and other spiritual rejects from both Massachusetts and Plymouth. Charles Chauncy (not to be confused with the eighteenth-century opponent of the Great Awakening) was a pastor who arrived in Plymouth and ministered at Scituate. He was well trained with degrees from Cambridge and also taught at the English university. But he also had odd views about the sacraments—such as only administering the Lord’s Supper after sundown and immersing candidates for baptism rather than sprinkling. His departure from Pilgrim expectations prompted him to start a rival congregation in Scituate to the one that Pilgrims had founded. For Chauncy all ended well. His academic qualifications earned him a call in 1654 to be Harvard College’s second president. But his time in Plymouth was typical of the colony’s religious instability thanks to high standards, few followers, and no institutional support.

Piecing together the church history of the Pilgrims is a challenge not only because the colonists themselves were demanding but also because Turner’s book is a broader history of the colony. That voyage and its resulting settlement did begin as an explicitly religious enterprise. But the early colonists knew that they could not live by piety alone, hence the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving fame for enduring the first winter, enjoying their first harvest, and dining with native Americans. Turner organizes his material around changing conceptions of liberty—religious, political, economic, soul—throughout the seventeenth century. But his narrative extends to biographies of most of the colony’s leaders, settlement patterns, the economic conditions that sustained the English colonists’ existence, and especially their contested relations (and wars) with native American tribes. In many ways Turner’s book is as much a history of the place and its people as it is of a religious movement. Beliefs may have inspired the original Pilgrims, but work, politics, and warfare sustained Plymouth.

Of course, this is a similar narrative to that of many “hot” Protestants—from Puritans in Boston to Quakers in Philadelphia—who looked to the New World as a place to implement their beliefs and create a society based on them. In one sense, all of these stories are narratives of declension or secularization. The demands of physical existence (including how to assimilate younger generations that did not make the original step to be part of a godly community) soon overwhelmed religious ideals. Pilgrims did not abandon their Protestant convictions. But they maintained them (usually awkwardly) in the context of creating and nurturing a society that could last beyond the initial settlement.

What that part of North America (southeastern Massachusetts) became was distant both economically and religiously from what Plymouth Colony was originally. As it happens, this reviewer was reading Joseph E. Garland’s history of Boston’s North Shore while also reviewing They Knew They were Pilgrims. Garland’s book, published in 1978 and a New York Times bestseller, follows the development of resorts and vacation properties during the nineteenth century as Bostonians looked for escape from the city’s heat, congestion, and disease.[6] Of course, locals know that the North Shore (and Cape Ann) is distinct from Boston’s South Shore (and Cape Cod). At the same time, the terrain is similar on both sides of Boston and the proximity to the sea dominated economic development, real estate, and recreational activities such as sailing, swimming, and horseback riding. What Garland’s book shows is that the original English Protestant settlers in Massachusetts and Plymouth grew up to be sufficiently prosperous to build any number of resort properties that later turned into year round communities.

Although Garland devotes only a few pages to religious institutions, in a sense his book is an extension of Turner’s. The Pilgrims did not intend to become middle-class Americans who were nominally Protestant. But that is what became of most of the original English settlers in North America. The religious enterprise was an activity that settlers performed alongside hard work which in turn generated economic conditions that attracted other immigrants and allowed the United States to develop into a prosperous society. To be sure, America’s wealth also sustained a vigorous church life for its citizens. But as states such as Massachusetts matured, religion played less and less a role in ordinary affairs. That was already becoming true for the Pilgrims in the seventeenth century as Turner indirectly shows. That reality became obvious, however, when in the nineteenth century towns from Nahant to Gloucester (north) and Quincy to Chatham (south) became summer homes for the descendants of Puritans and Pilgrims.

That change in the fortunes of Massachusetts and Plymouth left the religious zeal of Puritans and Pilgrims to take root in denominations such as the Congregationalists (latter the United Church of Christ). Margaret Bendroth’s The Last Puritans (2015) is a study of the way Congregationalists remembered, celebrated, and honored the legacy of both Puritans and Pilgrims.[7] Anyone familiar with the theological liberalism of mainline Congregationalism will not be surprised to learn that the piece of Puritanism (also true for Pilgrims) to which the UCC became most attached was congregational polity. The denomination has constantly debated the creation of national structures that threaten local autonomy of congregations even while showing little resistance to liberal theological trends.

Such loyalty to church polity also facilitated Congregationalist displays of patriotism. Throughout much of its history, the UCC was home to Protestants who tied American ideals of democracy and liberty to the original political and church structures of both Puritans and Pilgrims. Bendroth charts the popularity of celebrations and re-enactments of the Pilgrims’ customs that peaked between 1890 and 1920. “By the time of the Pilgrim Tercentenary in 1920, the trend was reaching an apotheosis of sorts,” she writes, “as Americans everywhere became participants in the historic landing at Plymouth” (123). By 1970, however, even the political significance of the Pilgrims became objectionable to mainline Protestants who wanted to address questions of justice for blacks, women, and pacifists. The past might provide “historical background” or context for the denomination, but as examples of liberty, courage, or piety the Pilgrims and their Puritan counterparts no longer served the interests of the UCC (187).

What is left of the Pilgrims (along with the “hot” Protestants with whom they shared space both in Old and New England) is a society largely indifferent to their beliefs and piety. They do pop up in the nation’s imagination every year in late November while families dine on turkey and pumpkin pies. Tourists go to the town of Plymouth to see Plymouth Rock and other memorials. For Puritans, Salem seems to have cashed in best by turning the witch trials of the 1690s into a vehicle for tourists and merchandise. But the Pilgrims’ major contribution to the United States was to transplant English ways in North America. Their social norms, with their distinct economic, political, familial, and legal structures were significant influences on the society that sprouted from the soil of British colonies. And without the Protestant zeal that motivated the likes of the Pilgrims to seek a home in the New World, the development of the United States would look very different.

In the larger scheme of things, however, Americans remember better the places that Pilgrims settled and the meals that they ate than the churches they formed. That may explain why the best Turner can do in his otherwise masterful “expansive and colorful history of Plymouth Colony,” is to conclude enigmatically. The Pilgrims, he writes, “left behind both a complicated legacy of human bondage and unresolved debates about liberty” (365). Their governor, William Bradford, would likely have been disappointed to hear that this was the extent of the Pilgrims’ contribution. Indeed, Turner’s story is hardly inspiring for Protestants who may look back to the Pilgrims (or even the Puritans) as models of godliness and forming a righteous society. But Turner’s judgment is arguably the correct one. After all, zeal for worship and holiness co-exists with needs to eat, sleep, and rear children. As the later history of Massachusetts shows, sustaining physical existence is arduous but much more manageable than instilling spiritual life.


[1] Elizabeth Kiggin Miller, “Anti-Bias Task Force Says No to a Pilgrim,” New York Times, Oct. 10, 1999, https://www.nytimes.com/1999/10/10/nyregion/anti-bias-task-force-says-no-to-a-pilgrim.html, accessed August 10, 2020.

[2] Parnel Wickham, “Separating the Pilgrims from the Puritans,” New York Times, Oct. 24, 1999, https://www.nytimes.com/1999/10/24/nyregion/l-separating-the-pilgrims-from-the-puritans-080128.html, accessed August 10, 2020.

[3] Kennedy, “Proclamation 3438—Thanksgiving Day, 1961,” https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/proclamation-3438-thanksgiving-day-1961, accessed August 10, 2020.

[4] Obama, “Presidential Proclamation—Thanksgiving Day,” https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2010/11/23/presidential-proclamation-thanksgiving-day, accessed August 10, 2020.

[5] Trump, “Presidential Proclamation on Thanksgiving Day, 2019,” https://www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/presidential-proclamation-thanksgiving-day-2019/ accessed August 10, 2020.

[6] Joseph E. Garland, Boston's North Shore: Being an Account of Life Among the Noteworthy, Fashionable, Wealthy, Eccentric, and Ordinary, 1823-1890 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1978).

[7] Margaret Bendroth, The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

Darryl G. Hart is distinguished associate professor of history at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan and serves as an elder in Hillsdale Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Hillsdale, Michigan. Ordained Servant Online, October 2020.

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Ordained Servant: October 2020

Mayflower 400: Pilgrims

Also in this issue

The First Thanksgiving

Imago Hominis: Our Brave New World: A Review Article

The Puritans: A Transatlantic History by David D. Hall

Churchill: Walking with Destiny by Andrew Roberts

Imputation of the Active Obedience of Christ in the Westminster Standards by Alan D. Strange

A Thanksgiving to God, for his House

When Bradford and Company Landed

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