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Pilgrims, Puritans, and UUs: A Thanksgiving Journeyby Rev. Michael McGee Nov. 21, 2010
Last Sunday immediately after church I flew to Cleveland so that I could see our newly arrived granddaughter, Allison Nicole Buettner. She was still less than a week old, and she was so small it was like holding a cloud in my arms. Our daughter, Jessie, is the mother, and this is the second grandchild she has given us, so I got to visit with Marissa as well, who is almost four. And they are both the most beautiful and intelligent grandchildren anyone could ever want.
I can't help but wonder what their future will be and what Terry and I can do to help them achieve their possibilities. A UU minister and friend, Eugene Pickett once wrote, “We give thanks this day. We pray that we may live not by our fears but by our hopes, not by our words but by our deeds.” That is the wish I have for our grandchildren and all children.
Our Pilgrim ancestors also sought to overcome their fears with hope, even to the point of daring to cross the Atlantic Ocean to settle in an unexplored wilderness, an audacious and perhaps insane thing to do. Averaging only two miles an hour, the Mayflower with its 102 passengers and livestock took 66 days to cross, with many people becoming ill and one dying. Only half of the 102 passengers survived that first winter, and when another ship arrived in the spring with more settlers, many of them died as well, leaving only 50 Pilgrims and 100 members of the Pokanoket tribe to have Thanksgiving dinner together.
Why did the Pilgrims make this dangerous journey? They were certainly not the first immigrants to come to our country; only 12 years before English settlers established a home in Jamestown, Virginia. But the Pilgrims were different. They were hungry for the freedom to worship as they wished without interference from government or church.We owe the Pilgrims a great debt, not only as a nation but as Unitarian Universalists. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not about to claim that the Pilgrims were closet Unitarians. They lit no chalice, nor did they have discussion groups about process theology. In fact, theologically the Pilgrims were about as different from us as you can get.
Nevertheless, they were the fore-parents of a spiritual genesis in this country that evolved into our religious movement. How did that happen?
In the first years of the 17th century, small numbers of English Puritans broke away from the Church of England because they felt that it had not completed the work of the Reformation. Like the early Unitarians in Hungary and Poland, these Separatists, as they were called, committed themselves to a life based on the Bible alone with no priest or pope to interpret it for them.
Most of them were farmers, poorly educated, the riffraff of English society. One of the Separatist congregations emigrated to Holland in 1608 to escape religious persecution by the Puritans. They remained there for almost 12 years, but discouraged by economic difficulties and the threat of absorption into Dutch society, the congregation voted to emigrate to the New World.
Joining with another group of Separatists in England, the voyagers sailed from Plymouth on September 16, 1620. Two months later the Pilgrims finally anchored at the site of Provincetown, but because they had missed their target of Virginia – boy, did they miss it! -- they drew up the Mayflower Compact, creating their own government. The settlers soon discovered Plymouth Harbor, on the western side of Cape Cod Bay and made their historic landing on December 21st.
It didn’t take long for the Pilgrims to be followed by a much larger group of Puritans who established their colony at Massachusetts Bay in the late 1620s. The two groups left each other alone for the most part, but there was tension over their obvious differences.
The Pilgrims and Puritans were similar in that both groups held to the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. They believed that the human state was one of sin and depravity, and that after the Fall all but an elect group were irrevocably bound for hellfire and damnation.
But their differences were significant. Even though they were persecuted in England, Puritans wanted to remain a part of the English establishment, working for biblical reform from within. They affirmed their "Englishness" and saw the main purpose of their new colony as being that of a biblical witness, a "city on a hill," which would set an example of righteousness for the entire world to see.
The Pilgrims, on the other hand, wanted to achieve reform even if it meant separating from their church and nation. While they continued to think of themselves as English, their emphasis was on their new identity as Separatists who would not compromise their passionate commitment to a biblical Christianity.
The Pilgrims were convinced that God guided their every action, and they were fulfilling His purpose. In one instance when a "proud and very profane young man" who "would curse and swear most bitterly" fell overboard from the Mayflower and drowned, it was seen as "the just hand of God upon him". So too the "special providence of God" is disclosed when a member of their party is saved from drowning, or when the initial landing party finds the corn and beans for seed, or with their safe arrival at Plymouth Bay.
The most obvious difference however is that the Puritans considered religion a complex and intellectual affair, and so its leaders were trained scholars. As one writer put it, "Very few Englishmen had yet broached the notion that a lackey was as good as a lord, or that any Tom, D***, or Harry...could understand the Sermon on the Mount as well as a Master of Arts from Oxford, Cambridge, or Harvard.”
The Pilgrims on the other hand needed a Harvard education as much as they needed the pope or a king. Their theology was a simple one: grace is like the wind; all you need to do is raise your sails to catch it.
But where do the Unitarians come into this picture? Like the Pilgrims, Unitarians came out of the Puritan movement as dissenters, but on the other side of the spectrum, as religious liberals who objected to grumpy Calvinist theology and the fear it engendered. Instead we proclaimed the hope expressed in this definition of our faith: Universalism believes that God is too good to damn humanity, and Unitarianism believes that humanity is too good to be damned. How can you be more hopeful than that!
The reason we were able to kick up our heels against the early Puritans is that our faith had inherited from the Pilgrims an inclination to rebellion. Our nation was founded by a religious group of people who at great expense left their institutional church behind so that they could establish a free church – though to be honest, they did not particularly care if other religious groups enjoyed that freedom.
But by doing so, the Pilgrims opened the door for other rebellious folks, such as ourselves, to separate from an oppressive church and to seek the divine in their own unique way. This permission to determine one’s own spiritual path, to become religious pilgrims, was the great gift of those who landed at Plymouth Rock.
And that's exactly what we did: religious liberals finally got fed up with the pessimism and persecution and prudishness of the Puritans – then incarnated as Congregationalists – and formed their own Unitarian Church in 1825, proclaiming the belief in one God, in the humanity of Jesus, and in the power of reason.
But the Puritans have never gone away; they are still with us today. And they have been with us throughout our history. It was the Puritans who were ruled by fear rather than hope when they burned twenty people in Salem village as witches. It was the Puritans who consistently squelched expressions of joy, including holidays like Christmas. And it has been the Puritans who time after time have sought to control and rule over the human spirit, not trusting people to find their own truth, to encounter their own God, and to grow their own soul.
But let me assure you that the Pilgrims were no saints. For the first fifty years on these shores the Pilgrims were a model of a community living creatively with diversity. But the second generation of Pilgrims, along with their Puritan brothers, carried on a vicious war against Native Americans, leaving them decimated. Overall, the Native American population of southern New England suffered a loss of between 60 and 80 percent of their people. After that war, the claim to be a “city on the hill” could never be authentic.
The mythological Thanksgiving Story told to us today is one suggesting that we are a nation uniquely blessed by God, and that we have reached a level of righteousness unattained by any other country. But the reality is far different.
A terrible legacy of our Puritan history is that even today many of our native peoples as well as our new immigrants are treated as aliens and inferiors. When I was in Guatemala two weeks ago with our UUCA delegation, I saw many babies peeking out from their mother's bright clothing and children running through the streets. They looked so much like my own grand-children, whose mother, Jessie, came to us from India when she was six.
And I wondered how many of them would, out of desperation, end up risking their lives to come to America, how many would be Pilgrims of a new age, and how many would be refused and rejected. What a terrible irony that even though our nation was founded by immigrants and has been built and defended by immigrants, not only their contributions but their humanity is being denied.
I suggest that we separate ourselves from the fear-mongering paranoia of those who claim this land only for themselves. And instead let us sing out that this land is our land, “our” meaning all those who sweat and sacrifice and bleed for it. Let us gather in community with those diverse pilgrims of different religions and faiths and nationalities who wish to sit around the Thanksgiving table of hope and justice.
There is a Puritan within each of us and a Pilgrim as well. And they’re often at battle with each other. That Puritan may speak to you through past religious beliefs or parental harangues or societal prejudices. The black-suited Jonathan Edwards may tell you to relinquish your trust in the truth and to turn away from the beauty of the world. The Puritan within us tries to shut down our joy, using guilt to gag our laughter and shame to nail our shoes to the floor. But the Pilgrim gives thanks for a cornucopia of food and the loving warmth of community.
Certainly the Pilgrims were not exactly the original party people. They were still Puritans at heart, not wanting to unleash the emotional demons within. But at least they were willing to break away from the fear that kept them from communing with the god in their deepest heart.
As we gather around the Thanksgiving table this week, let us not forget to separate ourselves from the dark and drab clothes of Puritan pessimism and prejudice. Instead may we sit with those who need us the most, those who are alone and with little hope. And may we dress ourselves in a rainbow of song and joy, of beauty and gratitude.
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