December 18, 2017

Myths about the Mayflower Pilgrims

David Potter

As Americans, we rightly revere the Mayflower Pilgrims as pioneers of religious freedom and democratic self-government. As with heroes generally, mythology somewhat obscures the true story of the Pilgrim Fathers. Here I want to refute a few of the myths that you may or may not have heard.

Myth #1: the Pilgrims were a mixed group of Christian believers and men who were motivated by money

The myth of the mixed multitude arises in part from the division of the group in the primary source material into Pilgrims and Strangers. According to this view, the need for the Mayflower Compact[1] arose from the fact that some of the members of the community were not Christians, making a secular government necessary.

The more likely explanation is that some among the group were foreign nationals. Being foreigners, they did not owe allegiance to the English monarch, King James: hence the need for an agreement between the Pilgrims and Strangers about how they would govern themselves. The expression Pilgrims and Strangers originates in Hebrews 11:13, where both terms describe the Hebrew patriarchs. Most likely, all of the Pilgrim Company were professing Christians.

Myth #2: the Pilgrims came to America to find freedom of worship

The idea that the Pilgrims sought freedom of worship persists despite plentiful evidence from the original source documents that it was not true. While it is true that the Pilgrims experienced harsh persecution and imprisonment in England, they fled to Holland and found religious freedom there. In Holland, the Pilgrims’ children started to lose their ability to speak English and retain their English identity. Even more alarming, they began to curse and swear and get drunk like Dutch young people. The Pilgrims came to America to shield their children from worldly influences.

Myth #3: the Pilgrims suffered from disease and starvation in their first winter because of the scarcity of food

I bring up the myth about the lack of food to help us guard against idealization of our forebears. Probably they could have found enough food in the forests. Being proper Englishmen, they would rather die than eat certain of the vegetation that was available to them in the winter. And die they did.

Myth #4: the Pilgrims represent an overwhelming number of early settlers in the British Colonies who were devout Christians

The truth is that the vast majority of the early settlers of what is now the United States came for reasons other than religion. Mostly they were either trying to work off debts or seeking fortune or adventure. What was notable about our Christian forebears was their outsized influence.

Myth: #5: we remember the Pilgrims because of their unique dedication and heroism

The Pilgrims were far from the only group of heroic Christians among early American settlers. For instance, the early German Lutherans who settled in New Jersey were equally heroic. The difference between the Pilgrims and the other groups is that the Pilgrims had a William Bradford to write an absorbing history of their adventures.

Thanksgiving is by far my favorite American holiday, because of the special place we give to God as the Source of all good things. As we celebrate the abundance with which God has blessed us, let us also remember to thank Him for the men and women whose exploits made our freedom possible.

David Potter serves as a missionary in Hungary with Baptist World Mission. He traces his ancestry to no less than five Mayflower families.

[1] The Mayflower Compact was a brief document signed by all the men in the Mayflower Company which bound them to live under rules that they would afterward decide on through democratic means. This document is the first in a succession of agreements concerning consensual government which led to the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.

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