More than any other, Thanksgiving embodies both religious and political freedoms, and puts them in their proper place. Of the numerous holidays Americans celebrate each year, Thanksgiving is uniquely American, and uniquely Christian.
In the early 1600s a small group of devoutly religious men and women sought to worship God according to the dictates of their consciences. These Pilgrims broke from the Anglican church and were persecuted from England to Holland until they boarded the Mayflower and set sail for the New World. The Pilgrims were separatists, seeking to restore the true nature of the Gospel to Christian practices from what they believed were the pollutants of Catholicism and the Anglican Church.
Upon arrival, before disembarking their vessel they signed an agreement known as the Mayflower Compact. The text of the agreement included a vision for a new government:
“Solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politick, for our better ordering and preservation, and furthering of the ends foresaid: and by virtue to enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony; unto which we all promise all due submission and obedience.”
It was this band of Pilgrims, after having lost half their population to an extreme winter, that stuck to the vision laid out in the Mayflower Compact. They were thankful for more than surviving harsh weather, they were also thankful that God has preserved their society and would see it to its conclusion.
Most interesting about the Mayflower Pilgrims is what they did considering who they were. Essentially, they were normal men and women, devoutly religious, who wanted more than to escape the religious pollutions from the home they left. They wanted to build a new society with a new government founded upon the principles they held dear. Those principles were uniquely Christian, and planted the seeds of what would eventually become American liberties.
The Mayflower Compact stated its purpose for the new colony’s existence: The “advancement of the Christian faith” and formation of a “civil body politick.” If the Compact made anything clear, it was that the new government of the colony proceeded from the religious convictions of the colonists—religious freedom giving birth to political freedom.
In the 21st century we tend to turn things around. We view religious freedom as a guarantee of the State instead of a transformation of the heart. Even under the former regime of the Soviet Union, effective missionary work was viewed as a limited possibility as long as communists remained in power. When the Iron Curtain fell, American missionary activity surged in the former Evil Empire. Yet American Christians working in Russia discovered that the Russian Church was alive and well. Likewise, American churches have discovered that in communist China a revival is taking place that will surely transform millions in that country. Many of those who have been transformed by their freedom in Christ have turned to political activism to try and free the nation from the grip of communism.
The Mayflower Pilgrims did not develop their convictions about religion, society, or government after they came to the New World. They possessed those convictions under the heavy hand of religious persecution in their native land. When they came to the New World they could have refused self-government. Instead they established their society for their own preservation. That government and the ones that followed were built squarely upon the foundation laid in their shared faith convictions. Those that would follow in the wake of the Mayflower and the footsteps of William Bradford and the colony he led, would enact laws and draft constitutions guided by many of those same principles Those early founding documents include, The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, and The Massachusetts Body of Liberties. Most of the first State Constitutions contained language that placed the burden for the survival of America upon the backs of those who lived according to the principles set down in the Bible.
The concept of liberty has changed in the last three centuries. What we think of as liberty today is anathema to the colonists of the Mayflower. Their reasons for declaring a day of Thanksgiving were quite different than the reasons most Americans celebrate the holiday today.
Let us reclaim the holiday’s original meaning. On Thanksgiving take time to read the account that William Bradford wrote of the Plymouth Plantation. For each day after we should let the principles of those first Americans guide our ideas of religious and political freedom.