The Truth, Mainly - 11/16/1998

Celebrate the Pilgrim myth, but praise the First Amendment
by Leon Satterfield

Thanksgiving Day is nearly upon us. That means another megadose of American mythology about how the Puritan Pilgrims found religious freedom in Massachusetts.

The myth goes along these lines penned last November by Marvin Olasky in the Austin American-Statesman: "The idea that propelled the Pilgrims to cross the Atlantic…[was] that God who creates objective truth does exist, and that his cause is worth living and perhaps dying for."

As if Europe in 1620 wasn't up to its neck in the idea that God exists and that his cause is worth living, dying, and perhaps killing for.

A couple of weeks ago there was a letter to the editor in the NY Times quoting a funny letter to the editor of an Australian newspaper. The full text of the funny letter: "Thank God we got the convicts and they got the Puritans."

Q: Why might Aussies gloat because their land was settled in part by British convicts and ours was settled in part by British Puritans?

A: Their convicts were merely criminals. Our Puritans were theocrats.

And theocrats made Europe far more hellish than mere criminals did.

Catholic theocrats killed and were killed by Protestant theocrats. Protestant theocrats killed and were killed by other Protestant theocrats. Christian theocrats of every variety killed and were killed by Muslim theocrats. All in God's name.

Theocracy is government by religious authority not open to question; in 1620 the Old World was a cauldron of religious authority not open to question.

It's true that William Bradford and his band of 100 Puritan Pilgrims were trying to get out of that cauldron. They left England in 1620 to escape persecution by Anglican theocrats. By then, the Anglican church was the state church of England, and the Puritans thought it was still way too Catholic. They wanted to purify it of its Catholic vestiges—hence, they were called Puritans.

The Anglicans, of course, didn't think they needed purifying, and because they were the state church of England, they got to persecute hell out of the Puritans, imprisoning them, confiscating their property, occasionally killing one or two as examples to the others.

But when Bradford and his followers fled England, it wasn't because they opposed the idea of theocracy. They were just fed up with Anglican theocracy. They wanted Puritan theocracy. And that's what they got in Massachusetts.

They were tough cookies. They came to what Bradford called "a howling wilderness" where in the first winter half of them died of exposure, disease, and starvation. They believed New England was a latter-day Promised Land and they were latter-day Israelites reliving the Exodus story. But what they found here was a serious shortage of milk and honey, and no manna in sight.

They also found their Promised Land was already occupied by what Bradford called "savage barbarians"—Native Americans who may have helped the Pilgrims in their first terrible year here but whose theology wasn't even Christian, much less Puritan.

And in a society where only the Elect could vote, our "steeple-crowned progenitors" (as Nathaniel Hawthorne called them) set about doing to non-Puritans what Anglicans had done to them:

•They twice deported Thomas Morton to England because he remained an Anglican, because he traded with Indians, because he made fun of vertically-challenged Miles Standish by calling him "Captaine Shrimp," and because, in Bradford's words, he "set up a maypole, drinking and dancing about it…inviting the Indian women for…dancing and frisking…and worse practices."

•They ran Roger Williams out of Massachusetts because his tolerance for religious diversity undermined their theocracy.

•They ran Anne Hutchinson out for challenging Puritan patriarchy.

•They persecuted Indians, Quakers, Jews, Catholics, even Baptists—anyone with bad theology—occasionally killing one or two as examples to others.

Their theocracy bottomed out in 1692 when it executed 20 Salem citizens for witchcraft, the most grotesque execution being the pressing of poor Giles Corey to a slow death by piling rocks on him until he died.

Our real Founding Fathers, not the Pilgrims but those rationalists who hammered out the Constitution a century after the Salem witch trials, knew how great the threat of theocracy still was, and that's why we have a First Amendment barrier between church and state: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

So if it pleases you, go ahead and put up cutouts of steeple-crowned Pilgrims. When you sit down to your feast next week, give thanks if you want to—it's not a legal requirement—to the Transcendence of your choice.


Lincoln English Professor Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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