As American families sit down to their traditional Thanksgiving feasts they will naturally recall the familiar story of the Pilgrims taught to every school kid and, in the process, distort the true character of the nation’s religious heritage.
Most children learn that the Mayflower settlers came to the New World to escape persecution and to establish religious freedom. But the early colonists actually pursued purity, not tolerance and sought to build fervent, faith-based utopias, not secular regimes that consigned religion to a secondary role. The distinctive circumstances that allowed these fiery believers of varied denominations to cooperate in the founding of a new nation help to explain America’s contradictory religious traditions – as simultaneously the most devoutly Christian society in the western world, and the country most accommodating to every shade of exotic belief and practice.
Concerning the Pilgrims who celebrated the First Thanksgiving in 1621, they didn’t travel directly from their English homes to the “hideous and desolate wilderness” of Massachusetts. They sailed the Atlantic only after living for twelve years in flourishing communities in Holland—the most tolerant and religiously diverse nation of Europe. They left the Netherlands not because that nation imposed too many religious restrictions but because the Dutch honored too few. The pluralism they found in Amsterdam and Leyden horrified the Pilgrims. They were separatists who considered themselves “a people apart” and who preferred isolation on a distant shore that facilitated the building of a unified, disciplined, strictly devout commonwealth, not some wide-open sanctuary for believers of every stripe. The famous Mayflower Compact defined their purpose explicitly as “the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith…”
The like-minded Puritans who followed them (and whose much larger settlement of Massachusetts Bay annexed the Pilgrims’ Plymouth in 1691) showed similar determination to build a model of single-minded religious rigor. The leaders of this idealistic venture were in no sense the victims of oppression back home, but rather counted as wealthy and influential gentleman who wielded considerable political influence. Even after their fellow Puritans won total power (and executed a king in 1649) the Massachusetts colonists chose to remain in their “city upon a hill” in the New World rather than to return to the compromises and complications necessitated by the fractious politics of England. The famous shipboard sermon by which Governor John Winthrop inspired his flock for the challenges of their “errand into the wilderness” declared that “when God gives a special commission he looks to have it strictly observed in every article….to serve the Lord and work out our salvation under the power and purity of his holy ordinances.”
Beyond the four New England colonies (which each began as energetic theocracies representing various strands of Puritanism), other major settlements took shape according to the dreams and dictates of other denominations. William Penn and his fellow Quakers followed their “inner light” to establish Pennsylvania as a “holy experiment,” while the aristocratic Calvert family set up Maryland as a refuge and a base of operations for devout British Catholics. Even the less explicitly religious colonies, where early settlers seemed to care more about finding gold than finding God, received royal charters that declared their underlying mission of spreading the faith. Virginia’s charter described a mandate for the “propagating of Christian Religion as such People as yet live in Darkness.” At the first landing of the original Jamestown expedition (April 26, 1607), Captain Christopher Newport took it upon himself to erect the colony’s first structure: a large cross at Cape Henry to mark their arrival.
How, then, did these enthusiastic true believers with their often uncompromising standards ever manage to join together in a new nation in 1776 – a nation that has been characterized ever since by a religious diversity and inter-denominational cooperation altogether unprecedented in human history?
The Revolutionary struggle forced their hand, with soldiers from more than a dozen Christian traditions and sects (as well as a disproportionate representation of the colonies’ tiny Jewish minority) fighting side by side in the Continental Army. When General Washington ordered “divine services” to build morale among his weary troops, he made some effort to avoid excluding New England Congregationalists or Virginia Baptists or Carolina Methodists or, for that matter, the random Catholic or Mennonite. In the eight year struggle, Massachusetts soldiers served willingly under the brilliant Quaker General Nathanael Greene – even though their Puritan forebears might have been among those who order the occasional hanging of his co-religionists in the previous century.
Violent struggles had broken out from time to time in the past among various faith communities—with Puritans challenging Catholics for control of Maryland, for instance, and fighting the bloody Battle of the Severn in 1655. But for the most part the wide open spaces of the new continent allowed even the most impassioned theological enthusiasts to build their own spheres of influence without confronting or oppressing their potential rivals in far flung neighboring settlements. The constant threat of Indian violence and the even more dire menace of British suppression made some level of mutual respect a practical necessity, even for localities that bitterly disagreed.
The First Amendment to the Constitution ratified this arrangement of uncontested local authority with its careful wording: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” The Constitutional formulation limited the power of the federal government to impose a single national faith, and to provoke the dangerous battles accompanying such an attempt, but did nothing in the eyes of the zealous founders to interfere with the established churches (that received direct government funding and endorsement) on the state level. The esteemed liberal scholar Laurence Tribe of Harvard Law School writes: “A growing body of evidence suggests that the Framers principally intended the Establishment of Religion Clause to perform two functions: two protect state religious establishments from national displacement, and to prevent the national government from aiding some, but not all, religions.” With this understanding in mind, religious voting restrictions (limiting the franchise to Trinitarian Protestant Christians, for instance) continued in several states for more than forty years under the Constitution.
The Pilgrims and their spiritual descendants never had to retreat from religious fervor or Biblical demands to join the new Republic, thanks to the continued existence of more or less autonomous, localized refuges and enclaves. No one can suggest that our Founders embraced secularism or relativism, but they did come to accept the notion of separate faith communities following their own distinctive rules while managing to live side-by-side and to cooperate where necessary.
Thanksgiving in that sense doesn’t celebrate religious freedom, but rather coexistence. We remain a nation of impassioned, fiercely committed, openly competing believers who have nonetheless established a long tradition of letting other faith communities go their own way. We can be pious and uncompromising at our own Thanksgiving tables, without menacing, or even questioning the very different proceedings in the home next door. The limitless boundaries and vast empty land of the fresh continent, plus the challenges of a long Revolutionary struggle, gave the faith-filled fanatics of the founding the chance for a freedom more profound than mere religious tolerance: the right, in their own communities, to be left alone.