Judd W. Patton, Ph.D. (Biography) Bellevue University Online
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The Pilgrim Story: Vital Insights And Lessons For Today


Dr. Judd W. Patton

      At this time each year America’s school children review the story of the Pilgrims and their first Thanksgiving. You know the story. A group of rugged individuals, seeking religious freedom, set sail from England on the Mayflower, finally reaching Cape Cod in late November, 1620.  Half of the colonists die due to the harsh winter. But with the help of the Indians, especially Squanto, the Pilgrims learn about new crops and farming techniques. They reap a bountiful harvest in 1621 and proceed to celebrate a three day feast – the first New England Thanksgiving – and live happily ever after!

      Surely the Pilgrim experience is a lesson in how a people with courage, perseverance, hard work, and thankfulness established a new home in a hostile new world. But the usual story is not totally accurate. Moreover, the most significant aspects of the Pilgrim experience are ignored altogether!

      Our chief source of knowledge concerning the Pilgrims is the 1647 classic book “Of Plymouth Plantation” by their great governor, William Bradford. Let’s learn the rest of the story as chronicled by Governor Bradford.  In the process we’ll not only get our facts straight, we’ll learn some significant lessons and insights still applicable for Americans today.

Religious Beginnings

       The Pilgrims were not known as “Pilgrims” until after 1669! Originally they were Puritan Separatists. That is, due to the corruption within the Church of England in the second half of the 1500s, there arose a group of people who wanted to democratize and purify its rituals. Most “Puritans” remained faithful to the Church of England, but others could not tolerate it. They left and became known as Separatist, from which the Pilgrims emerged.

       The government of England arrested and persecuted the Separatists for their refusal to belong to the Church of England. By the fall of 1607 the persecution had become so intolerable that one Separatist group at Scrooby, a small village in England, decided to go to Holland. By August 1608 over one hundred men, women, and children had reached Amsterdam even though the king was opposed to all migrations and had ordered all ports closed for those without a royal license.

       Within a year these Separatists moved to Leyden, Holland. But it soon became apparent that their new homeland was far from ideal.  They also feared that a European war was on the horizon. Thus, after much discussion, they voted to go to America.

       But the Pilgrims soon discovered that they did not have sufficient money to rent, equip, and establish a colony. Therefore, they sought financial help for the expedition from the Virginia Company of London and the Virginia Company of Plymouth – two profit seeking businesses.  These adventurers, as they were called, were organized to finance and outfit colonial enterprises.

Agreement With The Adventurers 

      The contract between the Adventurers and the Pilgrims consisted of ten points. The most critical of which stated, “That all such persons as are of this colony are to have their meat, drink, apparel, and all provisions out of the common stock and goods of the said colony.”  Further, it was agreed that during the first seven years. “all profits and benefits that are got by trade, traffic, trucking, working, fishing, or any other means of any persons, remain still in the common stock until the division.”

      Today we would call this a socialist commune. In other words, the Pilgrims accepted the socialist principle, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Each person was to place his production into the common warehouse and receive back, through the Governor, only what he needed for himself or his family. The surplus after seven years was to be divided equally, along with the houses, lands, and chattels, “betwixt the Adventurers and Planters.” Apparently the entrepreneurially-minded Adventurers felt this arrangement was their best means to recover their profits. They saw no inconsistency between their own private profit seeking companies and their denial to the Pilgrims the right to work their own land for the benefit of themselves and their families.

      Frankly, the Pilgrim leaders had expressed their desire to own their own lands and homes and even work two days each week for their own gain. But the Adventurers would not hear of it.  The contract was a “take it or leave it” proposition. The Pilgrims reluctantly took it.

Historic Journey Begins 

      Once the agreement was signed, properties were sold, money collected, goods donated, and tools, foodstuffs, and supplies were purchased. Their plans originally called for two ships.  The Holland group was to sail on the Speedwell and an English Separatist group on the Mayflower. The rendezvous was to take place at Southhampton, England. It did. Both ships set sail on August 15, 1620.  However, the Speedwell proved unseaworthy. Repairs were made at Dartsmouth and then again at Plymouth, England – about 150 miles from Southhampton.  But it was to no avail.  Much of the Speedwell cargo was then transferred to the Mayflower.  Hesitant individuals used the opportunity to exit out. One hundred and two individuals used the opportunity to exit out. One hundred and two individuals then crowded onto the tiny Mayflower.  Their journey into history commenced September 16, 1620.

     The ocean voyage took sixty-six grueling days. One person died and one child was born – Oceanus Hopkins.  Finally at daybreak on November 20, they sighted what is now known as Cap Cod. This was not their destination – the mouth of the Hudson River was – but the lateness of the season and rough weather forced them to anchor in what is now Provincetown Harbor.  They decided to forego their patent or claim in the Virginia Company’s territory.

      While still anchored, a crises emerged. In Bradford’s words: “Occasioned partly by the disconnected and mutinous speeches that some of the strangers amongst them {from London} had let fall…that when they came ashore they would use their own liberty, for none had power to command them, the patent they had being for Virginia and not for New England.” The complainers had a point.  But the Mayflower leaders acted decisively by assembling the men into the main cabin. The discussion lead to the historic Mayflower Compact. It was signed by 41 of the 43 men aboard. (It is believed the two non-signers were too sick to be present.  Both died soon afterwards.)

     The Mayflower Compact was the beginning of our American Republic – forerunner of the U.S. Constitution. It was a document by which the Pilgrims established a civil self-government promising to enact “just and equal laws.” Their first order of business under it was to elect John Carver as their first governor. Governor Bradford describes him as “a man godly and well approved amongst them.”  Unfortunately, Mr. Carver died about five months later, whereupon William Bradford (1590-1657) was chosen Governor until his death in 1657.

     Now for a slight digression. Did you ever wonder how these Separatists came to be called “Pilgrims?” The answer is that it was due to a passage in “Of Plymouth Plantation” where Governor Bradford, in paraphrasing Hebrews 11:13-16, referred to his group as Pilgrims – “but they knew they were pilgrims” After this passage was published in 1669, the term “Pilgrim” and “Pilgrim Fathers” came into general use.

      Now to return to the story.  After a month of exploration around the coast of Cape Cod, the sea-weary Pilgrims finally decided to land at what is now Plymouth.  Massachusetts. It was December 21. Their exploration party had uncovered an attractive site that was once an Indian village which had been wiped out in 1617 by a smallpox plague. The area had a stream of crystal clear water, some cleared land, and it contained a hill that could be fortified.

 First Two Years in the New Land

        Most school children know of the Pilgrims’ infamous first winter.  According to Governor Bradford, within “two or three months’ time, half of their company died, especially in January and February, being the depth of winter, and wanting houses and other comforts; being infected with the scurvy and other diseases which this long voyage and their inaccomodate condition had brought upon them.” Of 24 households that arrived, four were wiped out completely and only four families were untouched by death that first year.

      In their desperate straights, help did arrive in unexpected form. An Indian named Samoset walked into their camp in March.  They marveled at his language – broken English!  Soon he introduced the colonists to another Indian named Squanto, who had been in England and could speak English quite well. Again, let Governor Bradford explain. “Squanto continued with them and was their interpreter and was a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation. He directed them how to set their corn, where to take fish, and to procure other commodities, and was also their pilot to bring them to unknown places for their profit, and never let them till he died.”

      Now we are ready to unmask a common myth. Contrary to legend the harvests were extremely poor in 1621 and 1622. It was normal to be hungry. Governor Bradford referred to 1621 as the “the small harvest” year.  Yet he notes that in “the summer there was no want.” Thankful for what God had given them, Governor Bradford declared a three-day feast for the purpose of prayer and celebration. We all know it as the first New England Thanksgiving – apparently observed in late summer.

      It was quite a festival. Apparently ninety Indians attended this special occasion.. They brought wild turkey and venison. The Pilgrims prepared geese, ducks, and fish along with corn meal bread, journey cake, and succotash.

      The scarcity continued into 1622. “Now the welcome time of harvest approached, in which all had their bellies filled. But it arose to a little, in comparison of a full year’s supply.” Why? Governor Bradford attributed the poor harvest to “their weakness for want of food.”  He then added, “Also, much was stolen both by night and day before it became scarce eatable and much more afterward.  And though many were well whipped…yet hunger made others, whom conscience did not restrain, to venture. So as it well appeared that famine must still ensue, the next year also if not some way prevented.”

     So what was their proposed solution to overcome famine in 1623? Let’s listen to Governor Bradford at length for he comes to some most significant conclusions.

Socialism Abolished – Free Enterprise Established

      “So they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still languish in misery. At length, after much debate of things, the Governor (with the advice of the chiefest amongst them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves; in all other things to go on in the general way as before. And so assigned to every family a parcel of land…This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise…The women now went willingly into the field, and took the little ones with them to set corn; which before would allege weakness and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.”

       The leaders of Plymouth colony decided to scrap their socialistic agreement with the Adventurers and the philosophy of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Individuals were now able to own their own homes, property, and keep the fruit of their own efforts. What happened?

     In 1621, the Pilgrims planted only 26 acres. Sixty acres were planted in 1622.  But in 1623, spurred on by individual enterprise, 184 acres were planted!  Somehow those who alleged weakness and inability became healthy and strong. It’s amazing what incentive will do to improve bad attitudes!

      Continuing, Governor Bradford chides ancient socialists for their lack of insight: “The experience that was had in this common course (socialism) and condition, tried sundry years and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince (display) the vanity of that conceit of Plato’s 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!

      The Governor here expresses his belief that Socialism is not Godly order or economic system.  Consider his observations and analysis: “For this (socialist) community was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For the young men, that were most able and fit for labour and service, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense. The strong, or man of parts, had no more in division of victuals and clothes than he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalized in labours and victuals, clothes, etc., with the meaner and younger sort, thought it some indignity and disrespect unto them. And for men’s wives to be commanded to do service for other men, as dressing their meat, washing their clothes, etc., they deemed it a kind of slavery, neither could many husbands well brook (endure) it. Upon the point all being to have alike, and all to do alike, they thought themselves in the like condition, and one as good as another; and so, if it did not cut off those relations that God hath set amongst men, yet it did at least much diminish and take off the mutual respects that should be preserved amongst them. And would have been worse if they had been men of another condition. 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 (economic system) fitter for them.”

      Did you grasp the last point Governor Bradford made? He felt their social and economic problems were rooted in an ungodly economic order. Socialism was contrary to God’s laws which sanctify private ownership.

Drought of 1623

      But the Pilgrims had another lesson to learn. From the third week of May until the middle of July there was no rain, just heat. Governor Bradford then set a “solemn day of humiliation (fasting) to seek the Lord by humble and fervent prayer in this great distress.” Their prayers were answered. By evening it began to rain. It revived the corn and other fruits. Even the Indians were astonished. The soft showers continued along with beautiful fair weather. The result was a “fruitful and liberal harvest …for which mercy they also set apart a day of thanksgiving.”

     Concerning that autumn, Governor Bradford concludes: “By this time harvest was come, and instead of famine now God gave them plenty…and the effect of their particular planting was well seen, for all had, one way and other, pretty well to bring they year about, and some of the abler sort and more industrious had to spare, and sell to others: so as any general want or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day. (1647)”

      By the fall of 1624, the colonists were able to export a full boat load of corn! And the Pilgrims settled with the Adventurers. They purchased the Adventurers stock in the colony and completed the transition to private property and free markets.


      The Pilgrim experience dating from 1623 was and is yet a prototype for the United States of America.  They learned the hard way that: (1) Socialism does not work; it diminishes individual initiative and enterprise; (2) Socialism is not a Godly economic system; and (3) Famine and drought can be used by God to humble a people and set them on a proper course.  The Pilgrims responded.  The real question today is:  Can Americans learn these vital insights from the Pilgrims or must we too face famine and drought in the coming years?

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