Are we Still the “Land of the Pilgrim’s Pride”?

by Ken McIntosh

I remember when I was a child and Thanksgiving was all about the Pilgrims. At school we watched “Mouse on the Mayflower” and grainy film reels with the Mayflower II sailing past Plymouth Rock. We made conical Pilgrim hats out of different colors of construction paper and big yellow paper buckles that went on our shoes. At home, Mom always made a ceremony of setting out a large wax sculpture Pilgrim couple—the centerpiece of our table.

Now it seems that Thanksgiving weekend is all about ‘Black Friday’ morning sales and college football. Pilgrims? The Mayflower? Meh…not so much (the exception this year being a pair of revisionist histories on TV).

On previous Thanksgivings I’ve thought that the eclipse of the Plymouth Plantation myth was probably good and merited. For Native people, it was another step toward the end of their relationship with the land. Already wracked by European disease, the treaty that Chief Massasoit made with the Pilgrims ended in the time of that chief’s son Philip; the ‘King Philip’s War’ resulted in over 5,000 deaths, and three-quarters of the slain were Natives.

A decade ago I had a strange experience while visiting Plymouth Plantation. Part of that historical recreation is a Native village staffed by Wampanoag tribespeople who dress in 17th century attire. A visitor to the village addressed one of the Native interpreters and said “You look like just like real Indians.” The man replied, with admirable lack of irritation in his voice “I am a member of the Wampanoag tribe, the original people of this land, who met with the European settlers.” And the tourist said, “Oh, I get it. You’re acting like a real Indian.” The Native interpreter continued to educate the man in a polite manner, but the whole exchange was painful to watch.

More recently, in Flagstaff, my wife was away for the Thanksgiving Holiday and I had to stay for a church function, so a Navajo friend invited me to his sister’s house for turkey dinner. I was the only white person at a large gathering of my host’s extended family, and thus the butt end of good-natured white-people jokes. The irony of it all was not lost on me.

So, considering the sad history of my ancestors’ conquest of this country, celebrating Pilgrim pride didn’t seem like such a brilliant idea. At the same time, it was hard to escape the influence of the Pilgrims once I became the pastor of a Congregational church. Of the 102 settlers who came from Holland on the Mayflower, 35 were members of the Puritan Separatist Church. They fled England where the State Church forbade their manner of worship for refuge in Holland where there was broad religious toleration. Fearing that they would lose their cultural ways, they then chose the risk-filled voyage to New England, a region chosen because they mistakenly believed it to be uninhabited.

Perhaps the most abiding aspect of Pilgrim heritage in the UCC today is part of Pastor John Robinson’s farewell message of 1620, in which he said “if God should reveal anything to you by any other instrument of his, be as ready to receive it as ever you were to receive any truth by my ministry; for I am very confident the Lord has more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy word.” He clarified by lamenting that Lutherans proscribed their beliefs to the writings of Luther and Calvinists to the writings of Calvin. Today, the UCC is characterized by the phrase “God is still speaking.”

This year, however, I’ve decide that I do want to re-appropriate the Pilgrim story. It has abiding value—or at least value for 2015 and the foreseeable future. I say this for two reasons. First, the story of the Pilgrims and First Nations people of that land cooperating for their mutual benefit is a true one—albeit short-lived. The Wampanoags showed Europeans how to grow crops and survive; Europeans in turn brought crops and technology that was helpful for the Natives.

That peace was short-lived. I think of it like the 1914 Christmas truce in the trenches of WWI. We know that was followed by the hells of Verdun and poison gas attacks, but at least for a brief time it happened and we can still be inspired by that glimmer of peace. Likewise, we have the example of the daring risk that this Native community took by welcoming strange and dubious-seeming people, and trying to seek a future of mutual benefit. At a time when America seems to be growing more xenophobic, this beginning attempt at mutual trust may still serve as a positive example. Their betrayal by our race can also be an abiding cautionary lesson.

But there’s another ‘Pilgrim lesson’ that I had drummed in during grade school, and I think that is the most important lesson of the Mayflower journey for America today. Countless schoolchildren were taught during the 1960s, ‘The Pilgrims came to these shores seeking religious freedom, and that is why we continue to value everyone’s religious freedom.’ That story can be historically critiqued—it may be that the Mayflower Separatists only valued Christian religious freedom, and we know that the Puritan groups who came in succeeding waves were intolerant of religious dissenters in their own ranks. Yet the elementary school lesson was as clear as it was succinct: our ancestors came here because they wanted to worship freely, and we should pass that privilege on to others.

So when, a few years later, I saw a group of men installing our neighbors’ swimming pool, and they all stopped their work at the same time and bowed down on mats and prayed, I was not shy to approach them afterward and ask “Why did you do that?” And when they told me they were Muslims and they prayed toward Mecca five times a day, I said “Neat!” Up to that point my experience of religious diversity was Methodists, Lutherans, Unitarians…and one Jew. But I was happy to see a new kind of religion in my town…part of an unfolding story of religious freedom that defined us as Americans.

I have to wonder; all these people wanting to refuse new neighbors because they came from another culture and they might follow a different religion: were they not told the story of the Pilgrims? If they were told the same American legend that I received, they somehow missed the whole point.

“Land of the pilgrims’ pride,
From ev’ry mountainside
Let freedom ring!”
…for everyone who wants to live in safety, and to worship as they please. Let it ring!

Photo is with permission of my publisher Anamchara Books