An Exhortation on the Anniversary of Pilgrim Arrival
“Look now at American Saxondom; and at that little Fact of the sailing of the Mayflower, two hundred years ago, from Delft Haven in Holland! Were we of open sense as the Greeks were, we had found a Poem here; one of Nature’s own Poems, such as she writes in broad facts over great continents. For it was properly the beginning of America: there were straggling settlers in America before, some material as of a body was there; but the soul of it was first this. These poor men, driven out of their own country, not able well to live in Holland, determine on settling in the New World. Black untamed forests are there, and wild savage creatures; but not so cruel as Star-chamber hangmen. They thought the Earth would yield them food, if they tilled honestly; the everlasting heaven would stretch, there too, overhead; they should be left in peace, to prepare for Eternity by living well in this world of Time; worshipping in what they though the true, not the idolatrous way. They clubbed their small means together; hired a ship, the little ship Mayflower, and made ready to set sail… These men, I think, had a work! The weak thing, weaker than a child, becomes strong one day, if it be a true thing. Puritanism was only despicable, laughable then; but nobody can manage to laugh at it now. Puritanism has got weapons and sinews; it has firearms, war-navies; it has cunning in its ten fingers, strength in its right arm; it can steer ships, fire forests, remove mountains;—it is one of the strongest things under the sun at present.”
–Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841).
Where did America begin? This pressing question itself actively divides and passively describes much of the American intellectual-political landscape. The 1619 Project, the 1776 Project; barbarous “art” erected in American cities, the cremation of Robert E. Lee’s statue.
American, with no distinct, indigenous, organic creation story—a myth—paradoxically relies on history more than other nations for its identity. Really, we should say, that the history wars are academic myth construction—doing post hoc what Homer and Virgil did for Greece and Rome. For a long time, the founding myth, the ethos myth, was in the Mayflower–which arrived in Cape Cod 403 years ago tomorrow–(or Winthrop’s Arbella), but no longer do the Pilgrims hold pride of place in the national historical consciousness as daring and noble and good.
Even in this late-stage republic, political contests are in part won and lost by historical precedent, narratives, myths. In principle, this is good. Filial piety is an admirable virtue. But that same sentiment can, and often has, succumb to false myths; it may also be placated by formulaic truisms—like an antique tchotchke—rather than the historic virtues lying beneath them.
This has certainly been the case with “religious liberty,” and, by extension, has hampered many evangelicals in the Christian nationalist, and generally post-liberal, discussion from thinking clearly or historically. Their political imaginations have atrophied because their operative myths are stagnant, uninspiring, and, more fundamentally, propaganda—skewed, predatory myths. Myths, to be inspiring and sustaining, must be true even if they are not literal. There must be some historical veracity imbedded in them, of course, but more so they must reflect the people, in an aspirational way, that occupied that history in body, as well as those who still traverse it in memory.
That is to say, the Jeffersonian myth has conquered the Mayflower or Pilgrim-Puritan one. The former aides and abets the egalitarian libertinism that justifies other false myths, ones that degrade American heroes and demoralize their progeny—it is not just about religion qua religion. This despite the fact that Jefferson was a non-representative outlier even in his own day, his myth has triumphed. Continuity, however, the more viable myth, is on the side of Plymouth, not Monticello. As James Hutson has shown, the idea that government is interested in the shepherding of religion was predominant up through the eighteenth century. The status enjoyed by the wall of separation, on the other hand, is of recent vintage. True American myth, its true religious and moral ethos, is not found there. Jefferson and Madison are venerated today, but it is the passengers of the Mayflower, and their later neighbors to the north, that should serve as national heroes. For it was a principled toleration not a principled pluralism that marked America from its first days.
Let me explain.
Principled Toleration, Not Principled Pluralism
Plymouth colony, despite the anachronistic insertion of the ravings of Roger Williams who, as Glenn Moots has recently shown, was not venerated in his own day nor in the century following his death, was a decidedly Protestant, separationist colony. Its famous compact and resultant laws make this clear. Hardly a pluralist project. Thomas Walley’s 1669 election sermon in Plymouth, Balm in Gilead to Heal Sion’s Wounds, is representative of the assumptions and practice that stood behind him for then almost fifty years.
“A well-bounded Toleration were very desirable in all Christian Common-wealths, that there may be no just occasion for any to complain of Cruelty or Persecution; but it must be such a Toleration, that God may bot be publickly [sic] blasphemed, nor Idolatry practiced.
Neither out any Errour to be tolerated, that hath a tendency in its own nature to profaneness, or the disturbing of peace and Order in Church or State. You are to labour to do all things so, that you may keep God and Christ with you.”
A few paragraphs earlier, Walley had insisted that “It would not consist with love to God and Jesus Christ, to tolerate that which would blaspheme the Name of God, or damn the Souls of men.” The concern was to be with the “Fundamentalia in Fide, which are called the Magnalia Dei.” Adiaphora, Protestant sectarian disagreement, could be endured, indeed, might be inevitable. Even then, unity should be pursued. And whilst none should be persecuted, the avoidance of cruelty did not require the acceptance of all belief, much less all practice.
We might say that they, the Plymouth Pilgrims, had “malice toward none, with charity for all,” but this did not mean love toward licentiousness, and indifference for all. A well-bounded toleration did not permit baptized poly-piety or Christianized secularism. Indeed, it did not permit open reviling of God or the Christian religion.
Neither does toleration demand a state of perpetual potentia. The Puritans of separationist and non-separationists varieties, both in Plymouth and Boston, were indeed in the wilderness, but they were not aimless. The attitude sketched out all too briefly above defined America in its inception: a generally Protestant country, tolerant of disagreement over things indifferent, patient with doctrinally diverse neighbors, but zealous guardians of the fundamentals of the faith. As I’ve argued before, Cotton Mather, even more than Walley, embodied this Protestant ecumenism. This is the myth that should be promulgated and inculcated, not the one of artificially, Jeffersonian bifurcation of human life, of politics, of the polity. Nor should we accept the castigation of our ancestors, or our rightful heroes, that they were cruel, unthinking, and hopeless ideologues. This is leftist projection. That said, neither were they proponents of an “open society,” uncertain of their fundamentals. For these reasons, this balance inherent in the American Protestant experience that began in earnest with the Mayflower landing, we should harvest our mythical heroes from that same passenger list. Therein, in that obstinate exercise, lies a step toward American renewal, one true to itself and its indigenous myths.
Accordingly, might I suggest a Thanksgiving Day exercise? Namely, a reading not only of the Mayflower Compact, a demonstration of lucid brevity, but select passages from William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation. The purpose of this? Instillation of American myth and hero worship—appreciation of the weak made strong, if briefly, in our true national narrative. How else to stand athwart modern vampiric myths designed to shame us? The only response is resistance, an insistence on stories and prose that make our hearts and imaginations soar and observe our national holidays in a way that transcends the layers of kitsch designed to commodify them—that is, to make them incapable of inducing true memory, feeling, and action. Refusal to accept revisionist myths that contradict the nobility of our national ancestors is, perhaps, the greatest act of counter aggression now available. It cannot be pure negation, this act. A positive vision must be presented, one that presents heroes of nobility and virtue and imbeds them in the national consciousness. If we are no longer allowed to erect visible monuments to these men, then we might still build invisible ones in our imagination, then, one day, we might have monuments proper again.
Of Bradford’s history, Perry Miller reflected, “[In Bradford] we find the innermost being of the Puritan—the mind, the prose style, the conception of providential history, the literalness, the pettiness, and also the strength, the indestructible nobility.”
Such could be said of America itself, of its founding and antebellum generations. Providentialist Biblicists, petty in many ways, but doggedly determined and possessing a certain nobility. We should venerate and practice those indigenous habits of mind and action, those virtues.
Celebrating Christmas is to connect with the church universal; to celebrate the Mayflower, Thanksgiving, Independence Day, and the rest, is to connect with something, perhaps, equally invisible, the American ethos, a people, a nation. Now for the recommended passages.
When the Mayflower reached Provincetown Harbor (“Cape Harbor”), Bradford penned some of the most inspiring American prose about the Pilgrim landing. There you find Providence, Scripture, and that “indestructible nobility”:
“Being thus arrived in a good harbor, and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven [Daniel 2:19] who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof, again to set their feet on the firm and stable earth, their proper element. And no marvel if they were thus joyful, seeing wise Seneca was so affected with sailing a few miles on the coast of his own Italy, as he affirmed, that he had rather remain twenty years on his way by land than pass by sea to any place in a short time, so tedious and dreadful was the same unto him.”
Bradford closes the entry with this:
“Being thus passed the vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before in their preparation… they had now no friends to welcome them nor inns to entertain or refresh their weatherbeaten [sic] bodies; no houses or much less towns to repair to, to seek for succor… And for the season it was winter, and they that know the winters of that country know them to be sharp and violent, and subject to cruel and fierce storms, dangerous to travel to known places, much more to search an unknown coast.
Besides, what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men… For summer being done, all things stand upon them with a weatherbeaten [sic] face, and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hue. If they looked behind them, there was the mighty ocean which they had passed and was now as a main bar and gulf to separate them from all the civil part of the world.”
Quoting Deuteronomy 25:5-7 and Psalm 107:5-8, adds this exhortation:
“What could now sustain them but the Spirit of God and His grace? May not and ought not the children of these fathers rightly say: ‘Our fathers were Englishmen which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wilderness; but they cried unto the Lord, and He heard their voice and looked on their adversity.’ Etc. ‘Let them therefore praise the Lord, because He is good and His mercies endure forever.’ ‘Yea, let them which have been redeemed of the Lord, shew how He hath delivered them from the hand of the oppressor. When they wandered in the desert wilderness out of the way and found no city to dwell in, both hungry and thirsty, their soul was overwhelmed in them. Let them confess before the Lord His lovingkindness and His wonderful works before the sons of men.’”
This is the stuff of heroes, deserving of veneration and inspiration, and repetition. So too were these same transported Englishmen a model of Christian charity, true charity, and true Christianity. Let it be a corrective as we give thanks little more than 20 days hence. National renewal begins in the recovery of myth and aspirations that might animate the national soul yet. It was there, at Plymouth and Boston that the American story began with its distinct but not indifferent localist, Protestant ecumenism combined with all the stuff Weber and Tocqueville noticed but, at times, exaggerated. Weak at first, but by Thomas Carlyle’s day, ignored by no one, a new elevation of that Puritan myth—new filial piety—is indispensable, it seems, to finding a new strength we presently lack.