Reflections for Thanksgiving Day 2012

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brownscomb_first_thanksgiving-1123x702One of the most important aspects of the shared observance of Thanksgiving Day in our nation is the fact that Americans from many different religious traditions and cultural backgrounds can claim historic ties to the Pilgrim legacy.  All of us, of whatever faith, race or ethnic background, share a common kinship with that small courageous band.  Contrary to the pretenses of some of their family descendents, the Pilgrims themselves were lowly, humble people, from remote country villages – poor and powerless.

They were disenfranchised outsiders in England, despised and persecuted. And they uprooted themselves from their homes, all for a spiritual ideal – seeking freedom of mind and heart, for themselves and their families. They left tiny, impoverished towns in the English countryside, that were very much like the Irish and Italian hamlets, the Russian and Polish ghettoes and shtetls, the rural African, Asian, Central American and Middle eastern villages, that most of our families came from….searching for the same new world of liberty and opportunity.  And while we must confront the dark stains on our national heritage – the displacement and decimation of the native peoples, primarily by those who followed the Plymouth settlers – and the reality that those who came to these shores from Africa were brought here against their will, and were excluded from that spirit of freedom and liberty for far too long – their descendents claimed their rightful place in the continuing struggle to achieve the American dream. This is the Pilgrim legacy that all of us can lay claim to… and this is why all Americans are Mayflower descendents! The hard and dangerous journey that led to Plymouth Rock, in a very real sense began with that earlier migration from Egyptian slavery toward Mount Sinai… and led onward toward Ellis Island, and every other landing place that later generations of pilgrims arrived at on these shores…

The journey continues… for each of us, in our own lives – and for all the people of our country.  The Pilgrims were the first to sense that America had a unique destiny in human history… as Governor Bradford wrote, “just as one small candle may light a thousand others, and loose none of its own light, so too will we – but few in number – become a beacon for all people!”  At this point in our history, we stand at a critical crossroad in our nation’s life.  The challenge of civil rights for all Americans, freedom and justice for all people, and our yearning for a world of security and peace, are dreams still unrealized – even after the almost four centuries years since the Mayflower found its way to a safe harbor. Our nation stands dangerously polarized – politically, socially and economically – at this dawn of the 21st century. We too, may well have some dangerous seas and painful trials ahead of us, before we can gather with all our neighbors of the human family in a global celebration of Thanksgiving. But the example of our Pilgrim ancestors can continue to inspire and guide us… as we reaffirm the noblest ideals they stood for at their best: freedom of conscience… independence of spirit… and the continuing quest for peace…


  • Lewis Shilane
    November 26, 2012, 7:50 am  Reply

    I may be wrong, but from what I understand the Pilgrims were fundamentalists who were persecuted in Europe and came here so they could practice their religion unhindered. However, they did not extend this courtesy to others, and persecuted those who did not follow their doctrines. I don’t think they were proponents of “freedom of conscience” and “independence of spirit.” Consider the depictions in “The Scarlet Letter” and the burning of witches. Of course, from the Biblical account, it is not clear that the Israelites entering the Promised Land were very tolerant of other religions either, especially idolatry. I don’t want to sound completely cynical; I recognize that our Jewish ancestors who passed through Ellis Island were probably more inclined to be tolerant of other creeds.

    • Rabbi Howard Berman
      December 17, 2012, 1:08 pm

      I appreciate Lewis’ thoughtful comments, but it seems that he shares the common misconception that the Pilgrims and the Puritans were the same people – which they most definitely were not! There were major differences in temperament and thought between the tiny Pilgrim Colony of Plymouth and the much larger and more powerful Puritan settlement that was established ten years later to the north, in Boston. There were important theological distinctions between the Pilgrim’s separation from the Church of England, as opposed to the Puritan desire to further reform – or, as their name implied, “purify” – the Anglican Establishment from within. Moreover, most of the negative images of rigidity, superstition, and intolerance that we associate with the New England Puritans, simply did not apply to the Plymouth Pilgrims. The “Scarlet Letter” was set in Puritan Boston, not in Plymouth- and the Pilgrims criticized Salem’s burning of witches.

      Of course we must always be careful not to impose modern sensibilities and evolved, progressive perspectives on distant historical periods. To judge 17th century attitudes (to say nothing of the Israelites in ancient Biblical times) in light of later enlightened concepts of “tolerance” is always a problem. While perhaps not always the most enlightened or liberal minds by modern standards and subject to many of the passions and prejudices of their own time and culture, the Pilgrim “Separatists” as they were called, were considered the most radical leftists in 17th century English religious life! A distinctive broadmindedness for their times and circumstances, and an indisputable tolerance, was inspired in the Pilgrims by their remarkable pastor during their years in Holland, John Robinson – regarded as a major figure in the emergence of a progressive, humanistic voice in the Protestant Reformation. He instilled in them their vigorous commitment to individual freedom of conscience, and their openness to new ideas and understandings of truth. From the very beginning, the Plymouth Colony was an oasis of pluralism in the otherwise rigid intolerance of Old Massachusetts. The Pilgrim community included both “Saints” and “Strangers,” as they were called: both members of the Pilgrim Church, as well as Anglicans and others, all of whom had full rights and privileges of citizenship under the terms of the Mayflower Compact – the first democratic constitution of modern times. Plymouth stood in stark contrast to Boston’s exclusive theocracy, which required membership in the Puritan churches as a prerequisite for civil liberties.

      Moreover, in one of the most misunderstood aspects of Pilgrim history, the relationship of the original generation of Mayflower settlers and the Indians amongst whom they lived, was uniquely marked – for the most part – by a mutual respect and trust. The treaties and cooperation they shared were honored until later generations of New England colonists broke and betrayed them. It is so unfortunate that the Mayflower Pilgrims have often been the symbolic focus of otherwise justified protest against the injustices endured by the native peoples of this land. We certainly have much to repent for in the history of our nation – nevertheless, of all the early American colonists and pioneers, Plymouth had the most honorable record of respect and positive co-existence with the indigenous peoples – indeed symbolized by that shared feast at the First Thanksgiving.

  • Lewis Shilane
    December 22, 2012, 10:31 am  Reply

    Thank you for this information. I did not realize there was much distinction between the Pilgrims and the later Puritans. I have been reading a bit about this topic, and some sources mostly agree with what you said above, although others disagree, for instance:

    From (concerning the Pilgrims):

    What is interesting about this, however, is the fact that they were not seeking religious freedom as it is ideally considered in modern America. They were, instead, seeking to establish their own church which would be supported and enforced by their own state. They were, in essence, trying to do unto others what they did not want done unto themselves. This desire for “religious freedom” which ultimately meant the freedom to impose one’s own religion on others has been a common theme in American history.

    From Michael Medved’s blog on

    Concerning the Pilgrims who celebrated the First Thanksgiving in 1621, they didn’t travel directly from their English homes to the “hideous and desolate wilderness” of Massachusetts. They sailed the Atlantic only after living for twelve years in flourishing communities in Holland—the most tolerant and religiously diverse nation of Europe. They left the Netherlands not because that nation imposed too many religious restrictions but because the Dutch honored too few. The pluralism they found in Amsterdam and Leyden horrified the Pilgrims. They were separatists who considered themselves “a people apart” and who preferred isolation on a distant shore that facilitated the building of a unified, disciplined, strictly devout commonwealth, not some wide-open sanctuary for believers of every stripe. The famous Mayflower Compact defined their purpose explicitly as “the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith…”
    The like-minded Puritans who followed them (and whose much larger settlement of Massachusetts Bay annexed the Pilgrims’ Plymouth in 1691) showed similar determination to build a model of single-minded religious rigor.

    I would like to think that the Pilgrims actually did envision a new world tolerant of all beliefs.

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