They didn’t wear buckles on their hats, run after turkeys with blunderbusses. These details were added much later, by children’s book writers.
Of the 70 grown-ups on the Mayflower, no more than 27 were pilgrims. The rest were “strangers,” trying to make a fortune.
In December 1620, most of them waded ashore at Plymouth. There, they found the ruins of a village, covered in snow. Everyone living there had died of fever, four years before. The fields were empty. Some men said prayers, and set up a camp.
The new settlers were sick already, with pneumonia and tuberculosis. Six died by the new year, eight soon after, 17 in February. By March, William Bradford noted that, “Scarce 50 remain, the living scarce able to bury the dead.”
Wampanoag visitors offered them food and furs.
Pilgrims weren’t the prudish folk we take them to be. Mary Beth Norton, Cornel historian, sees them like us.
“They liked to drink,” she claims. “They liked to sit and talk. They liked to eat well when they had the food to eat. They enjoyed sex.” Sometimes, “they also liked to play games, like an early version of shuffleboard.”
Even so, they have often been caricatured as fanatics.
The great vision that set them apart and made them seem odd to others, perhaps, was their hopes for a simpler church and new kind of community. They had no use for pipe organs, bishops or bells, but they weren’t grim.
In autumn of 1621, those pilgrims feasted with Wampanoag American-Indians. One account says the party lasted four days.
Pilgrims and Indians didn’t, as old textbooks show, sit at long tables, passing the serving trays. It’s more likely they set food wherever they could – on boxes, and log benches, hay bales, and stumps – and people all helped themselves, around a bonfire.
No one used plates or forks.
Contrary cultures, feasting together, gave thanks for good crops.
Pilgrims, in time, lost their hats and built steeples on the village green.
We say “God is still speaking” at our church but need to remember where that catchphrase comes from. Those stubborn pilgrims who landed at Plymouth first sailed to Holland to stay out of jail, and follow a call they claimed they were hearing from God alone. When the English king finally gave them permission to build a colony across the sea, their fiery minister, John Robinson, was too ill to leave.
On the Sunday before they got aboard, he might have urged them, “Don’t change a thing – don’t deviate – follow the rules – don’t mix things up.”
That would be one way to cope with conditions in a New World. Instead, Robinson preached something quite strange: “If God should reveal anything to you by any other instrument, (science, perhaps, or dreams) be as ready to receive it, as ever we were to receive any truth by God’s ministry. For I am confident that God has yet more truth and light to break forth from God’s holy word.”
In plainer speech, “Never put a period where God has placed a comma.”
That was radical stuff in the 1600s, and still is today.
It means the God we worship is still alive and active, crying for healing and and generosity. If God’s speaking today about health care, for instance, maybe we haven’t heard the whole message from all the talking heads on nightly TV. It means we realize none of them has all the answers – whether they take my side or yours. We are still pilgrims, finding our way in this makeshift community we call a church.
It means we as a church as supposed to take risks. We can change what we’ve always done; we can be open to the inspiration and flow of the spirit. We can admit we’ve made mistakes, and dare to break old rules that no longer apply. Our forebears were the first Christians to ordain an African-American – 1785; to ordain a woman – 1853; to ordain an openly gay pastor – not in 2002, but 1972, almost 40 years ago. To profess faith in a God who’s still speaking means we make ourselves vulnerable to distress so we can experience exhilaration.
It means, someday, our children’s church may seem very different from ours.
That’s part of the legacy that we celebrate this holiday.
• The Rev. Joe Gastiger is pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeKalb.