The Priority of Religious Freedom
If we know anything about the pilgrim fathers beyond their dangerous voyage on the Mayflower it’s usually related to the reason they left their homeland: their search for freedom to worship freely. The pilgrims viewed themselves as religious separatists. Practically, that meant they did not fit in and were viewed at least with suspicion and at worst as a threat by the religious establishment. Refusing to worship as Anglicans submitting to Anglican priests, they were forced to worship in secret, risking persecution for them and their families.
The pilgrims ultimately came to the New World seeking religious freedom: a place they could organize, assemble and worship unfettered. It would be wrong to conclude that religious freedom was an end in itself. The goal was not simply that no one should tell them how to worship! The goal was to be free to seek and serve God, the highest priority of humanity.
Prayer for Today: Lord God of Heaven, may we, like our pilgrim fathers, seek to worship you freely and openly, not only for our sakes but that the world may know that you are worthy.
The Priority of Action
Often in the history of the world we find that oppressed people become paralyzed as victims of forces or circumstances over which they have no control. There was certainly some of that for the pilgrims, first in England, and even after fleeing England for Holland. However, the pilgrim fathers were men of action and would only tolerate so much before they decided it was time to act. This is the second priority instructing us today. At some point the time for waiting and enduring persecution reaches an end and with it comes the time for action. For the pilgrims there were several domains where action was necessary:
· Social Action – Once they immigrated to Holland the pilgrims experienced more religious freedom and were not as fearful of persecution. Their children were also able to integrate into the local Dutch community. However, the parents became concerned that this would mean losing their heritage. Before it was fully lost they decided it was necessary to take some kind of social action.
· Political Action – We cannot take the time to analyze the political views of the pilgrims but it is an important study in its own right, especially because of the implications of their separatism. Many historians believe the pilgrims had distinct views from their denominational cousins, the puritans. Both suffered in England for their faith, however they had different ideas of what to do about it. Pilgrims were less inclined to view political action as an option. The conflicting perspectives remain in the church. Some believe the call of Christians is not primarily to transform the culture but to remain separate from it. This echoes the different views of the pilgrims and the puritans, with pilgrims wanting to stay separate from the culture and puritans wanting to purify it. Even so, both the pilgrims and puritans were oriented to act in the face of their perspectives and their actions resulted in these views determined how they saw their role in society.
· Economic Action – Finally, the pilgrims were men of action in terms of economics. Arising from biblical injunctions to work diligently on six days and rest on the seventh, the pilgrims viewed economic activity as essential to Christian obedience.
Prayer for Today: Father, forgive us for our complacency in the social, political and economic darkness that has descended around us. Move us to action, not just for the sake of doing something, and not just to make our circumstances more tolerable, but to be obedient to Christ’s command to go and make disciples.
The Priority of Private Property
A forgotten priority of the pilgrims relates to their view of private property and how it impacted their early years in the New World. Some modern historians have been fond of describing the first pilgrim colony at Plymouth as an experiment in communism. When the Mayflower Compact was written and signed it did indeed present communal ownership and downplayed private and personal property. What these same historians fail to discuss, however, is how that experiment in communism was a dismal failure within the first three years! Recall that the Plymouth Colony consisted of a mixture of pilgrims and “strangers”—non-pilgrims. The pilgrims were very industrious and willing to share, but the strangers among them became increasingly lazy and demanding. William Bradford, the Governor, knew something must change.
With agreement from the other men of the colony they decided to divide the land into parcels, one for each household, according to its size. A modern historian summarized the immediate results:
So the land they worked was converted into private property, which brought “very good success.” The colonists immediately became responsible for their own actions (and those of their immediate families), not for the actions of the whole community. Bradford also suggests in his history that more than land was privatized.
The system became self-policing. Knowing that the fruits of his labor would benefit his own family and dependents, the head of each household was given an incentive to work harder. He could know that his additional efforts would help specific people who depended on him. In short, the division of property established a proportion or “ratio” between act and consequence. Human action is deprived of rationality without it, and work will decline sharply as a result. (The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity through the Ages, by Tom Bethell. Copyright Tom Bethell. Reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Press, Incorporated)
Prayer for Today: Lord, it seems we as a nation have forgotten the priority of private property and its connection to motivation and responsibility. Forgive us, we pray and help us see private property not as a selfish entitlement to be exploited but as an undeserved gift from your loving hand to use to provide for those for whom we are responsible.
The Priority of Exceptionalism
Ten years after the pilgrims began settling in Plymouth, a puritan named John Winthrop sailed into Massachusetts harbor aboard another ship, the Arabella. He delivered one of the most famous important sermons in American history, laying out the case for America’s unique role on the world stage. The sermon was titled, A Model of Christian Charity, sometimes just called The City on a Hill. Winthrop’s sermon was required reading in schools for a hundred years but is rarely read today and if it is mocked because of its underlying theme of American Exceptionalism. Exceptionalism has come to be demonized as “Americanism” by which is meant simple nationalistic pride (namely, “we are better than everyone else”), however this was not at all how it was presented by Winthrop. Originally, Winthrop and the pilgrim/puritan fathers viewed this special role in the world as a calling from God to be “salt and light” and to be a “city on a hill.”
Prayer for Today: We confess the sinful pride that has often motivated and characterized us as individuals and as a nation, Lord. America is indeed a special land with a special destiny in the world because of our heritage and the principles on which we were founded. However, this is no excuse for arrogance. Lord, help us to give thanks for our special role in the world without forgetting that to whom much is given much is required.
The Priority of Christian Charity
Though Winthrop’s sermon is often demonized or heralded for its emphasis on American Exceptionalism, it is important to remember that this was not its primary theme. The title of his sermon was, A Model of Christian Charity because Winthrop made the argument that the Christian colonies of the New World would become models for all the world to see. As Jesus had said in the end of the Sermon on the Mount, “by this shall all men know you are my disciples: if you have love for one another.” The “model” of love—their thriving community—would provide such a demonstration. Winthrop made three arguments in his famous sermon:
(1) Diversity among people allows for a variety of ways in which God may be honored. Diversity is not a bad thing. It isn’t wrong for some to have more and some less. There are rich and there are poor. This diversity is part of God’s larger providence so that each group can honor God in unique ways. Today, there is a direct assault on this view of diversity. Over the past hundred years there has been a blatant attempt to eliminate this kind of “economic” diversity through the redistribution of wealth. It has been replaced by “special interest” diversity.
(2) Acts of kindness by the rich toward the poor - and a spirit of obedience by the poor toward the rich - further manifest the spirit of ideal public life. In Winthrop’s model, diversity a good thing because it provides each group a way to trust and honor God, the diversity also gives opportunity for each group to show Christian charity to the other. However, in the modern corruption of special interest diversity, acts of kindness initiated by individuals in each group are replaced by government obligation, specifically through taxation and regulation.
(3) Common need among individuals with different qualities is necessary to society. Jesus had noted that in this world there will always be poor people (Matthew 26:11). This was not intended to undermine compassion and charity for them but to remove utopian notions that through human agency alone poverty can be totally eliminated. Utopianism was a dominant theme in Greek philosophy and has been used to justify government control ever since.
Prayer for Today: Lord, you have called us to demonstrate your love to the rest of the world. Whether we are rich or poor, whether we have little or much, the diversity is part of your larger plan. As we go through our days, may we see others as you see them: when we have less than them, may we give you glory for their abundance and not resent it; when we see others as having less than us, may we give you glory for our abundance and not despise those who have little. And whether we have much or little, may we look for ways to use what you have given not simply for ourselves but to show our love and gratitude to you, in Jesus’ Name, Amen.