The Legacy of the Pilgrims
This year marks the 401st celebration of the first Thanksgiving, and the 402nd anniversary of the Pilgrims arrival in the New World. To many Americans, Thanksgiving has devolved into a holiday to spend time with family, eat traditional foods, and watch football games. However, it is important that we remember the history behind this holiday for two reasons. First, we need to remember the many miracles of God that these settlers experienced in establishing their colony: the miraculous saving of John Howland during the voyage across the ocean, the saving of the ship’s broken mast with the Pilgrims’ screw-jack, the saving of the survivors with the arrival of Samoset and Squanto, the Pilgrims’ landing in uninhabited land, and the peaceful relations with the surrounding tribes. Second, and in some ways more important, we need to remember the legacy of those Pilgrims and its impact on the history of our nation, the United States of America. Well, what is that legacy?
First, the Pilgrims (Separatists) believed in the importance of prayer and fasting to find God’s will and to seek Him for mercy. Whether facing persecution, dangerous sea crossings, encounters with Native Americans, drought, or starvation, the Pilgrims always sought God for comfort and relief. This tradition has stayed with us up to the present century. Besides instituting the yearly National Day of Prayer, Christian organizations routinely call for days of prayer and fasting.
Second, the Pilgrims established the idea of covenant with God and with each other. This idea manifested itself in the Mayflower Compact, our first written political document, which established the important American principle of government by the consent of the governed. The concept of government by consent did not start with the Declaration of Independence. It started here with the Mayflower Compact. This compact also established the idea of a written constitution or covenant that bound people into a “civil body politick,” in which they would choose their own leaders in regular elections and obey the laws passed by those leaders.
Based on the Mayflower Compact was the Pilgrim Code, the first comprehensive body of law enacted in North America and one that demonstrated the earliest democratic principles in colonial America, such as the yearly election of government leaders, chosen from among the people; trial by jury in both criminal and legal cases with juries coming from the people themselves, due process in legal proceedings, specified and enumerated duties of elected officers, laws made through the deliberative process, and equal treatment under the law. All of these are principles we operate under today. The Code further stated that no laws could be imposed on the people without their consent. Consequently, it also established a representative assembly with the power to tax, an assembly that the colonists viewed as equal to Parliament, not subordinate to it. This concept stayed with them and explains the vehement objections the later colonists had toward England’s attempt to tax them without their consent. The Pilgrim Code served as a model for all future American law codes, including the Bill of Rights. That’s quite a legacy.
Third, the Pilgrims established a good testimony with the various Native American tribes that lived near them. They paid a fair price for every piece of land that they occupied. They are the only settlers who established a peace treaty, one that lasted about 40 years. They also sought to resolve all conflicts peacefully, and they publicly apologized to certain tribes that had been mistreated by other Englishmen.
Their goal, as stated in the Mayflower Compact, was to spread the Gospel. Indeed, America became the leading sender of missionaries around the world. This is the result of the Pilgrims’ legacy.
Another legacy of the Pilgrims is economic freedom via the free-market economy. Their stockholders required that they hold everything in common and work the land communally, but by 1623, Gov. William Bradford and the other leaders realized that the colony would not survive if that continued. Bradford records the failure of the communal system in his famous Of Plymouth Plantation. They divided up the land and made each family responsible for its own welfare. We need to get back to the free-market principles established in Plymouth.
A fifth very important legacy of the Pilgrims is freedom of religion and the right of conscience. The Pilgrims had no state-supported church. Everyone was allowed to worship as they thought fit. Furthermore, elections for civil leaders were kept separate from those of religious leaders because the civil leaders were not allowed to rule on religious matters. This concept is enshrined in the First Amendment to our Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof. …”
The Pilgrims also left us a legacy in the area of education. They had education for both boys and girls. They had the highest female literacy rate in the world. They saw that the purpose of education was to have an educated, virtuous people that could read their laws and read the Bible for themselves. This legacy has been tarnished in recent years, but it can be refurbished by Christians who take the education of their children in hand like the Pilgrims did.
All of these are important legacies of the Pilgrims, but the greatest legacy that the Pilgrims left us is the spiritual legacy. They were people of prayer who trusted God to lead and provide for them. They were people of the Bible who read, memorized, and meditated on the Scriptures daily. They were people who lived what they believed and had a testimony of power before their Native American neighbors. For example, when the Pilgrims experienced a severe drought in 1623, they called for prayer and fasting. A gentle rain began to fall and nourish their crops, thus saving them from starvation. Hobomok, one of the Native Americans who witnessed this, came to Christ as a result. In spite of severe persecution, betrayals, tragedies, and the deaths of family and friends, the Pilgrims were truly heroes of faith who built a prosperous, peaceful, successful colony because they sought God, obeyed God, and trusted God. Consequently, they left us a spiritual, political, economic, and educational legacy that we need to remember. The question is, will we continue that legacy?
What do you think of the Pilgrims’ legacy? Share your thoughts and prayers below.
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