Randall Stephens: Rebunking the pilgrims





[Randall Stephens is an associate professor and department chair of History at the James R. Cameron center for History, Law and Government in Massachusettes]

As Americans prepare to stuff their faces with turkey, pie, turkey pie, and all manner of bread-related foods, and clock in millions of hours of TV football viewing, it’s worth considering the Pilgrims, originators of America's holiday. (I was just thinking that a Martian would have a very hard time understanding how football and overeating are linked to an otherworldly religious sect.) How do Pilgrims fit into American history and religious history in general?

How low the founders of our national myth have fallen. Nineteenth-century Protestants celebrated the Pilgrims as hearty, pure-of-heart forbearers. Yet even in the 19th century Pilgrims had their share of detractors. Eli Thayer, the Kansas prophet, and the Unitarian minister Edward Everett Hale fussed about the place of Pilgrims in American history. Every lowly Kansan (which I proudly count myself among) had more grit and determination and was more deserving of panegyrics than were the not-all-that-great Pilgrims.

In 1881, Mark Twain delivered an uproarious address, in the form of a plea, to the New England Society of Philadelphia. Why all this “laudation and hosannaing” about the Pilgrims? he asked his audience. “The Pilgrims were a simple and ignorant race. They never had seen any good rocks before, or at least any that were not watched, and so they were excusable for hopping ashore in frantic delight and clapping an iron fence around this one.” “Plymouth Rock and the Pilgrims” was a classic piece of Sam Clemens’ contrarianism. As the whole country went mad with Pilgrim fever, Twain shouted, “Humbug!”...

... Why do the Pilgrims deserve a new look? Their lives and the record they left tell us something basic about the European roots and the hot Protestant context of America’s first English settlers. The Pilgrims later significance, Bangs notes, also reveals a great deal about what future generations wanted to remember (and one might add, forget) about early colonial America. Bangs argues: “No history of the Plymouth Colony, no history of Leiden, no history of the Netherlands so far explains adequately the Pilgrims' defining experience in exile.” Travellers and Sojourners “undertakes the necessary task of starting over, not simply to add incrementally to what is already known about the Pilgrims in Leiden but instead to reconceive the question of who the Pilgrims were and what contributed to the choices that make them interesting historically.”


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