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The Pilgrims: Our Shared Spiritual Heritage

Howard A. Berman
Winter 2006

(The following sermon was delivered by Rabbi Berman at the Back Bay Interfaith Community Thanksgiving Service held at Trinity Church in Boston on November 22, 2005.)  

This coming week, we will come together with loved ones and friends, and with Americans of every faith, culture and ethnic background, to share once again in our annual reaffirmation of our country’s spiritual foundations. And, above all the popular trappings of Thanksgiving Day in contemporary culture ... the football games, the department store sales ... even the Macy’s Parade and the turkey dinners, it is still the Pilgrim Story, and the mythic legend of the First Thanksgiving, that comprise the major symbolism of this beloved holiday.  

This powerful, inspiring story has always been among the major spiritual influences in my own life, and studying the history of the Pilgrims has long been one of my deepest personal interests. And lest anyone think it somewhat strange that a rabbi be so preoccupied with the Pilgrims of all people, let me explain that there is good reason for this consuming passion on my part. You see, in the course of my research, I have discovered that I am a direct descendant of the Pilgrims!  

Now there are some people who mistakenly think that claiming descent from the Mayflower heroes is the exclusive privilege of a handful of old, self-defined “blueblood” New England families, some of whom can be very smug and snobbish about the whole matter. I am reminded of the story told about the famous early 20th century American Rabbi, Stephen S. Wise*. He was once at a rather elegant dinner party in Boston, and was introduced to an imposing matron who wore the membership pin of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants. When Rabbi Wise remarked about the emblem, the lady, with not a little bit of smugness, replied, “Yes, you know, my ancestors were present at the signing of the Mayflower Compact!” The rabbi, himself an immigrant, sensed the implication of the boast. He replied, “ Madam ... that is very impressive ... but my ancestors were present at the signing of the Ten Commandments!“  

Spiritual Descent  

Well, just as some of us genealogically — and all of us spiritually — can claim descent from those who stood at Mt. Sinai ... so, too, can every American claim spiritual descent from Plymouth Rock! And that claim is not merely a vague symbolic one. Admittedly, even spiritual descent implies some kind of personal historic relationship.  

And my major discovery in my own exploration of the Pilgrim story has been that all Americans do have a personal tie, a particular dimension of the history of the Plymouth Pilgrims, which encompasses all of our diverse religious traditions and ethnic identities!  

Now in terms of religious heritage, the Protestant dimension of the Pilgrim story is taken for granted — although it’s really not as simple as most people think. Perhaps the biggest misconception is 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 didn’t apply to the Plymouth Pilgrims. While perhaps not always the most enlightened or liberal minds by modem 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 Native Americans they lived among, 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 Native Americans. 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.  

Eventually, a number of major traditions of American Protestantism would emerge from the Pilgrim church at Plymouth. Congregationalists and Unitarian-Universalists, Baptists and Presbyterians — the full spectrum of American Protestantism — all have direct roots in the Pilgrim community... particularly the United Church of Christ, and the Unitarian Universalist tradition — both of which had their origins in Plymouth’s First Church — from which sprang the oldest organized UCC and UU Congregations in the country.  

The Jewish Connection  

Now there is also an important Jewish dimension of the Pilgrim story that is obviously of special interest to me personally. While the first Jewish settlers in America did not arrive until 1654, two decades after the landing of the Mayflower, that influence, while indirect, was nevertheless profound. Actually there were no Jews in England during the Pilgrim period. The ancient medieval Jewish community had been driven from the British Isles during the turmoil and fanaticism of the Crusades in 1290 — and was not readmitted until 1655, long after the Mayflower sailed. And it can be argued that, in the absence of Jews as objects of bigotry and persecution in 17th century England, the small Pilgrim sect filled the void nicely.  

Distinctive Faith  

Because of their distinctive faith, which was considered heresy by the Established Church, and treason by the Crown, the Separatists were relentlessly persecuted, imprisoned and tortured — enduring the same kind of torments that Jews had always been subject to. When, in 1608, they fled to Holland, long a haven for religious dissenters and minorities, the Pilgrim exiles had their first personal contacts with Jews, and even held worship services in an Amsterdam synagogue before establishing their own church in Leyden. One of their ministers, Henry Ainsworth, studied Jewish Biblical interpretation with the leading Dutch rabbis. Significantly, like many of the more radical Protestant Reformers, the Pilgrims were deeply grounded in the tradition of the Hebrew Bible. As they studied the Scriptures, they came to see themselves as the “People of Israel”, and saw, in their own experience of oppression and marginalization, deep parallels with Jewish history.  

They believed that they, too, were slaves, fleeing Pharaoh — King James I — crossing the Red Sea of the Atlantic — in a pilgrimage toward the Promised Land of the New World. So great an emphasis was placed on the Hebrew Scriptures that the greatest Pilgrim leaders, Elder William Brewster and Governor William Bradford, became devoted students of the Hebrew language, so that they could read the Bible in its original tongue. Attempting to reclaim a simple, “pure” form of Christianity as close as possible to the early Church of Jesus’ time, the Pilgrims sought a model in the traditions of Jewish observance and worship.  

Most of the legal codes of the Plymouth Colony, as well as its early form of democratic government, were directly based on legislation from the Five Books of Moses, as were many of the Pilgrim’s religious practices. For example, their meticulous observance of Sunday rest and worship was patterned directly on the Jewish Sabbath. They used the term “Meeting House”, a direct translation of the Hebrew word for ‘synagogue’, rather than the term ‘church’. And it is clear that the inspiration for that first Thanksgiving celebration, in the fall of 1621, was the Biblical harvest Festival of Booths — Succot — as ordained in the Torah, in the Book of Leviticus.  

Jesuit Welcomed in Plymouth  

Surprisingly, there is even a Roman Catholic twist to the Pilgrim story as well ... even though the Plymouth Separatists were the most militant of Protestant Reformers! One of the early travelers to visit the Plymouth Colony was a French Jesuit missionary from Canada, Father Gabriel Druillettes. On a journey through New England in 1650, the priest was shunned and driven from most of the Puritan settlements he encountered. However, he was warmly and respectfully welcomed in Plymouth. For a week, he was an honored guest at Governor Bradford’s house ... where Bradford took special pains to serve his guest fish for dinner on Friday ... even though the Pilgrims themselves, ardent Protestants that they were, usually made a special point of eating meat on that day!  

And so we see that Americans from many different religious traditions can claim historic ties to the Pilgrim legacy. And yet, our shared heritage goes even deeper than these links to our major religious traditions. In the end, all of us, of whatever faith, race or ethnic background, share yet another dimension of common kinship with that small courageous band. Contrary to the pretenses of some of their family descendants, 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.  

A Legacy for All Americans  

This is the Pilgrim legacy that all of us can lay claim to ... and this is why all Americans are Mayflower descendants! 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 it’s own light, so too will we — but few in number — become a beacon for all people!”  

Today, as we approach Thanksgiving Day, 2005, 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 385 years since the Mayflower found its way to a safe harbor. 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.  

*While Stephen S. Wise certainly advocated a vision of Jewish identity very different from that of the American Council for Judaism, and was a major opponent of much of the Council’s mission, he was nevertheless a major American Jewish leader of his time. This story, perhaps apocryphal, exists in various versions — and is a personal favorite! —HAB

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