LIFE IN THE NEW WORLD
In the spring of 1621 the Pilgrims began to plant crops. One day a native Indian walked into their midst speaking English. How astonishing that must have been! His name was Squanto and he had been kidnapped from the area years earlier. Squanto had traveled far away to North Africa, lived in Spain with Christian monks and learned to speak fluent English while visiting England. He was also familiar with the Scriptures. Squanto was part of an Indian tribe that had lived where the Pilgrims landed, but had died out years before from a plague during his absence. Squanto taught them how to fish and plant corn, and was a liaison between them and the surrounding Indian tribes. According to Bradford, Squanto had been prepared by God for fifteen years to help this band of Pilgrims get established in the new world.
As had been reluctantly agreed upon with the Merchant Venturers who financed their voyage, the Pilgrims’ arrangement of economics was to be in essence a system of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”[v]
This communal system, however, turned out to have crippling drawbacks, according to Bradford. Those from the upper classes in England simply would not work the dirt. People would pretend to be sick. Attempting to force women and children to labor seemed tyranny to all. Some who actually worked felt it unfair. Then, when the fields had been planted, no one felt responsible to water, nurture and protect the crops from the wild animals through the summer.
The result was that when harvest time came in the fall of 1621, it was virtually non-existent.
That year, fall and winter were extremely difficult for them. The Pilgrims spent their time foraging for sustenance, and some became servants to the Indians or sold them their blankets and goods, what little they had, for food.
A NEW ECONOMIC SYSTEM
In their distress again that winter they sought God for answers. They came to the conclusion that “they should set corne every man for his owne perticuler.”[vi] In other words, each should govern his own life in the economic sphere as well.
When spring 1622 came they did something new. They divided up the land and gave a piece of property to each family. Each single person was assigned to work with one of the families. They then gave each family a portion of the seed they had left. They said, in effect, “Here is your seed and there is your land. Do what you like with it.”
The Pilgrims decided they should govern themselves under God in the area of economics as in all other areas.
Bradford wrote that since they were again facing starvation, everyone went directly to work. Along with the able-bodied men the English upper classes, the women, the sick, the children and even the pregnant were all out hard at work preparing their fields and planting seed. Each family nurtured its own piece of property through the summer. The result was that there was a plentiful harvest that second autumn. Each family had enough to eat, store, replant and trade.
This was the seed of an individual enterprise system of economics, the application of Christian self-government in the economic sphere.
Bradford believed that the problem had been the system, not the people. He wrote,
“The experience they had . . . may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato and other ancients, applauded by some of later times; that the taking away of property, and bringing in community into a common wealth, would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For this community (as far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort . . . And would have been worse if they had been men of another condition [non-Christians]. Let none object this is men’s corruption, and nothing to the course [system] itself. I answer, seeing all men have this corruption in them, God in His wisdom saw another course fitter for them.”[vii]
DEPENDENCE ON GOD
Bradford also notes, however, that lest they become dependent on their new system, “God seemed to intervene against their hopes of a crop –
By a great drought which continued from the third week in May, till about the middle of July, without any rain, and with great heat (for the most part), insomuch as the corn began to wither away, part whereof was never recovered. Upon which they set apart a solemn day of humiliation, to seek the Lord by humble and fervent prayer, in this great distress. And He was pleased to give them a gracious and speedy answer, both to their own and the Indian’s admiration, that lived among them. Though it was hot through the morning and most of the day, toward evening it began to grow overcast and then rain gently in abundance without wind or thunder or violence.”[viii]
It was an answer to their prayer, “as was wonderful to see, and made the Indians astonished to behold.” God then gave them just the weather and rain they needed the rest of the growing season. That fall they had an abundant harvest.
Bradford wrote, “For which mercy (in time convenient) they also set apart a day of thanksgiving.”
We must acknowledge our dependence on God both for the system and for the working of the system.
This first Thanksgiving Day of theirs in the new world was celebrated specifically for this answer to their prayer for rain as they humbled themselves before God. It was recognized as a feast of gratitude to God, who was sovereign in their experience.
Though they recognized that they had a system from God that could bring fourth abundance, it became evident to the Pilgrims that they still needed to recognize their daily personal dependence on God, just as the children of Israel had done in the wilderness they had faced, thousands of years before. We must acknowledge our dependence on God both for the system and for the working of the system.
THE ESSENTIAL PILGRIM CHARACTER
A few aspects of the Pilgrims’ character should be mentioned since they are part of the spiritual heritage of America. In addition to the faith and steadfastness, self-governing, self-educating and entrepreneurial character mentioned, there were clear expressions of faithfulness, charity and forgiveness to those who met and dealt with them.
There is no clearer example of these latter qualities than how the struggling colony at Plymouth dealt with those who had sponsored them in their quest to America. The English merchant venturers had financed the Pilgrim’s voyage via the Mayflower at a usurious 40% interest. In return for this, the merchants had promised the Pilgrim settlers regular support shipments of food, tools, grain and other survival essentials. The unscrupulous merchants literally sent instead, shiploads of freedom-seeking people, who were completely unprepared to deal with the harsh realities of life in the new world wilderness.
As it turned out, the new arrivals were sent without personal provisions and the merchants neglected to include the support supplies they had promised the needy Pilgrims. Though betrayed by the English company several times, the Pilgrims arrived at the decision that they had contracted their voyage with the merchants in good faith and they must keep their word and honor their end of the agreement. Jesus told them in Matthew 5:37, “Let your yes be yes.”
The Biblical character qualities hammered out by the Pilgrims were the spiritual foundation of the new American nation.
The Pilgrim settlement eventually paid off the entire sum with interest. This demonstration of the character of the American forefathers is to us a precedent when tempted to default on financial agreements due to unjust, or even only irritating, treatment. The Bible instructed the early Americans to honor their word and contracts. The Pilgrims of the Plymouth colony saw this integrity as part of the spiritual roots of the new land.
The Pilgrims took in the new arrivals and helped and taught them instead of turning them out to make their own way in the wilderness. This was at considerable strain to their own inadequate provisions and comfort. The Bible instructed them to love their neighbors as themselves, not mentioning circumstances. Jesus taught, “Whatever you wish others to do for you, do so for them.” The context of this care was an attitude of forgiveness towards those in England who were using the new colony to line their own pockets.
God honored the Plymouth settlers. Over the years, the Pilgrims’ ideas of character, civil government and economics became cornerstone foundations of the American political and economic systems.
It took 150 years of preparing the character of the colonists before God released them to break from England and become a nation. It also took the Great Awakening to unite the colonists. The constitution of a land is first internal then external, first real individual character then the piece of paper.
The first Great Awakening in America took place in the period from approximately 1740 to 1780. Multitudes throughout the colonies came into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ in a true grass roots Biblical revival. It was a sovereign move of God. Along with individual surrender to God and an increase in personal righteousness came understanding of God’s ways in government by moral principle and Biblical principles of civil government.
Rather than a general rebellion, the American Revolution was essentially Biblical self-defense against increasingly unjust oppression by the mother country, as enumerated in the Declaration of Independence.[ix] The American Revolution had purpose and design. It was carefully thought through and not simply anarchy against legitimate authority. In contrast, the French revolution’s lack of this foundation in Biblical principle resulted in a reign of terror, anarchy, great arbitrary bloodshed, and tyranny.
A BACKSLIDDEN NATION
As a nation, America has in our generation turned from God. We have ceased governing ourselves under God in many areas. We have been turning our freedom into license towards anarchy while at the same time becoming more dependent in character. The civil government has stepped in to take up the slack in education, welfare, health care, safety laws and other areas. This strengthens external government, eliminating freedoms and increasing the potential for corruption.
America needs a new spiritual awakening now in order to turn this downward, tightening spiral around, strengthening internal government so external liberty can be restored and maintained.
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STUDY QUESTIONS – The Thanksgiving Story
- Why were the Puritans of Scrooby, England opposed so dramatically by the English church and state?
- Describe the life of the Pilgrims in Holland and their reasons for finally making the voyage to the New World.
- Explain the seed ideas contained in the Mayflower compact and their historical significance.
- Describe the first economic system used by the Pilgrims and its effects.
- Explain why the system of “individual enterprise” brought forth a new mentality of work and responsibility among the Pilgrims.
- Explain the first Thanksgiving and the reasons for this Pilgrim festival. How can you make a tradition of telling the true Thanksgiving story in your family and sphere of influence?
[v] Hall, Verna M. The Christian History of the Constitution of the United States of America, Christian Self-Government, San Francisco, Foundation for American Christian Education, 1966, p. 211.
[vi] Ibid. p. 213.
[vii] Ibid. p. 213.
[viii] Ibid. p. 215.
[ix] Ibid. p. 346B. Declaration of Independence.