Vast Early America

John Turner on Pilgrims and Plymouth Colony

Historian John Turner discusses the religious legacy of the Pilgrims and Plymouth Colony.

Historian John Turner has written about evangelicals, christology, and even the Latter-day Saint prophet Brigham Young. He turns his attention to early American concepts of liberty in They Knew They Were Pilgrims: Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty (Yale University Press, 2020).

Who is John Turner?

I’m a historian who teaches writes about the history of religion in the United States. Specifically, I’ve written books about evangelicals, Latter-day Saints, and now the Pilgrims and Plymouth Colony.

Let me just add that I count my lucky stars all the time. Many of your readers will know that it’s tough getting permanent and decently compensated work in academia. I’m incredibly fortunate that I get paid to do things I love doing and especially lucky that I have time to research and write about things that interest me.

My two previous books were about the history of Mormonism, first a biography of Brigham Young, and then a study of the ways that Latter-day Saints have understood, experienced, and depicted Jesus Christ over the last two hundred years.

After those, I wanted to write about a new subject but one with some continuity of themes: religious persecution, exiles and refugees, questions about religious liberty, and the idea of apostasy and restoration.

Why have academic historians largely ignored Plymouth Colony?

Back in the nineteenth century, politicians such as Daniel Webster and historians like George Bancroft entirely overstated Plymouth’s significance. They drew straight lines from the cabin of the Mayflower to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitutional Convention.

Then, in the mid-nineteenth century Americans began linking the Pilgrims to an annual Thanksgiving holiday. Genealogists have made the Mayflower passengers the most-studied colonists in American history.

Historians have pushed back against this Pilgrim-mania for good reasons. Plymouth Colony was tiny, especially compared to Massachusetts Bay to its north. It lacked economic, political, and military clout.

But lest you stop reading at this point, Plymouth’s history is rich, colorful, and instructive.

What was life on the Mayflower like?

Awful, of course! Seventeenth-century writers compared ships to coffins, monasteries, and prisons. And the company was even worse on ships, they would say. The Mayflower crossing took more than nine weeks. For the passengers, that meant nine weeks mostly below decks in cramped quarters, with bad air and worse food and drink.

Also, when the Pilgrims departed England, there were two false starts that required putting into ports for repairs (a second ship was abandoned, and some passengers had to remain behind).

And once the Mayflower reached Cape Cod, it took the group more than a month to choose a place for their settlement. All told, some individuals lived aboard a ship for many months.

What was the Mayflower Compact?

The Mayflower Compact was a makeshift, on-the-fly political agreement signed by at least nearly all adult male passengers on the ship. The reason for it was simple. It wasn’t clear who would govern the colony and by what authority. The ship had missed its intended destination, the mouth of the Hudson River, so the patent the passengers brought with them was invalid.

Also, while we tend to think of the Mayflower refugees as a cohesive religious group, they were actually a more motley crew. Most were separatists, radical puritans who had rejected the Church of England as a false, Antichristian church. But others were not. And some of those others were grumbling about how to proceed now that they had reached land.

When they signed the Mayflower Compact, the men formed a “body politic” with the authority to pass laws and elect leaders, and they promised to obey those laws and leaders. Then they elected a governor.

Even though it was a hastily devised arrangement, there were some key principles here, namely the necessity of consent for laws. Annual elections were the norm at Plymouth from the start as well.

And the Pilgrims and the descendants clearly valued the agreement. They considered it the fundamental basis of their laws.

Why did Mayflower passengers think of themselves as pilgrims—but not “the”pilgrims?

Simple. Drawing on the Epistle to the Hebrews, the separatists on the Mayflower understood themselves as “strangers and pilgrims on the earth” with heaven as their ultimate destination.

Longtime Plymouth governor William Bradford drew on this text when he looked back on his group’s departure from Leiden (where they had spent a dozen years after fleeing persecution in England): “They left that goodly and pleasant city which had been their resting place near twelve years; but they knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lift up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country.”

I used a phrase from that quote as the title for my book. Only around the turn of the nineteenth century did Americans begin referring to the Mayflower passengers as the Pilgrims.

Is the story of the Pilgrims a simple one?

Of course not! Americans think it is simple because they learn simple stories in elementary school: a ship, a rock, and a feast. But there is so much more to this story.

The majority of the Pilgrims were separatists, a group about as popular in early seventeenth-century England as the Latter-day Saints were in the mid-to-late nineteenth-century United States.

Furthermore, understanding the Pilgrim story requires understanding the Wampanoag communities of southeastern New England, a tougher task because so much of that information is filtered through sources written by English settlers. Fortunately, a number of historians—David Silverman and Lisa Brooks, to name two recent examples—have written marvelous books about the Wampanoags and other Native peoples in seventeenth-century New England.

Finally, contrary to elementary-school lessons, the Pilgrim story didn’t end with a big meal in 1621. Instead, there’s another seventy years of Plymouth Colony history, and a very expanded cast of English and Native characters.

Does Thanksgiving “lose its significance when stripped of its mythology”?

Partly, I’m afraid. The Pilgrims themselves placed no great significance on what Americans term the “First Thanksgiving.” Our only detailed information comes from a letter by Mayflower passenger Edward Winslow, who describes a time of rejoicing and recreation after the 1621 harvest.

Around 90 Wampanoag men showed up, probably because they heard the Pilgrims firing their guns and wondered what was transpiring.

The Pilgrims would not have understood the resulting feast as a Thanksgiving, which they understood as an appointed day of prayer and worship. Later generations of Americans, moreover, have usually depicted this feast very inaccurately, with the Pilgrims piously sitting around a table and a few Indians in the background. The Wampanoags outnumbered the surviving Pilgrims, according to Bradford.

Still, even with all of those qualifications, the 1621 harvest celebration is a reminder that English settlers and Native Americans enjoyed some moments of concord and fellowship.

How did the Pilgrims understand liberty?

They understood liberty in seventeenth-century ways. This is not surprising, because they lived in the seventeenth century!

For the separatists among the Pilgrims, “Christian liberty” or the “liberty of the gospel” meant worship and church government according to their understanding of the Bible. In particular, separatists believed in congregational church government. Each properly organized congregation was a true church, and its members governed. They selected their officers (a minister, a ruling elder, and deacons), they admitted new members, and they exercised discipline.

This “Christian liberty” did not mean religious toleration as later generations of Americans would understand the term. The Pilgrims did not force anyone to join their church, but Pilgrim leaders—at least some of the time—forced settlers to attend worship, and they persecuted open dissenters and those who tried to organize alternatives to the colony’s established church.

Political liberty was also important to the Pilgrims and the other English inhabitants of Plymouth Colony. In particular, the idea that taxes were only valid with consent. Exactly whose consent was required was a matter of intense political debate in seventeenth-century England, and in English colonies as well.

Are the Pilgrims unique in the way they valued liberty but disagreed about its meaning?

Not at all. As I observe at the beginning and end of They Knew They Were Pilgrims, Americans today also cherish liberty but disagree vigorously about its meaning.

Take religious liberty. Some Americans understand religious liberty as a sacred principle under attack from progressive judges and politicians. Other see talk of religious liberty as a cloak for discrimination.

Or take political liberty. Americans disagree vehemently about which people in the United States are entitled to the rights enshrined in our constitution. 

If you could go back in time to observe the figures and events in your book, what would you most want to see?

Not the Mayflower if I had to live on it. Not Plymouth Colony’s first winter, if I had to live through it.

(It was a terrible idea, by the way, to set sail for even the Hudson River in early September. An analogy for your readers: it was akin to the handcart companies setting out for the Utah Territory too late in the season.)

If I could pick several things, I would want to hear John Robinson preach. He was the Pilgrims’ minister in Leiden. I also would want to attend a worship service in the early Plymouth fort.

In particular, I would love to hear congregational psalm-singing. And I would want to meet the Sakonnet Wampanoag sachem Awashonks. She held her people together for two decades amid war and the loss of land.

What are you working on next?

I am writing a biography of Joseph Smith, also with Yale University Press. I have my hands full!

Plymouth Colony resources

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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