On COVID-19, Plymouth, and providential history

Many Christians believe in providential history. This is the idea that human beings can understand the will of God in the affairs of men and women as they lived through time. Most providential historians have no place for the mysteries of providence. Instead, they are certain that they know exactly what God has done in the world, especially if such divine action enhances the glory of the United States.

I have roundly rejected providential history on both historical and theological grounds. See my book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past for more.

But after I read a recent piece on the 400th anniversary of the settlement of the Plymouth colony, I thought I would imagine a way of doing providential history that does not invoke the glory of the United States or its supposedly Christian roots.

Based on the methodology (if you can call it that) of providential history, one could make some interesting interpretations of the relationship between COVID-19 and the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Plymouth colony.

What if God brought COVID-19 at this particular time, in this particular year, to remind Americans that the Plymouth settlement may not have been possible if disease had not killed-off most of the local native Americans before the Pilgrims arrived?

Just to be clear, I am not endorsing such a view. But if you are going to invoke God’s providence in founding Plymouth as the forerunner of an exceptional United States, then what is to stop someone from offering an alternative providential reading? This is why providence is not a useful category for historical interpretation.

Here is Allen Breed of the Associated Press:

The year 2020 was supposed to be a big one for the Pilgrims.

Dozens of events were planned to mark the 400th anniversary of the religious separatists’ arrival at what we now know as Plymouth, Massachusetts. But many of those activities have been postponed or canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Historian Elizabeth Fenn finds that deeply ironic.

“Novel infections did MOST of the dirty work of colonization,” says Fenn, a history professor at the University of Colorado Boulder who has studied disease in Colonial America.

Disease introduced by traders and settlers — either by happenstance or intention — played a significant role in the “conquest” of Native people. And that inconvenient fact, well known to the Natives’ descendants, is contrary to the traditional narrative of the “New World.”

Read the rest here.

Plimoth Plantation becomes “Plimoth- Patuxet”

Patuxet

Here is The Associated Press:

BOSTON (AP) — A living history museum in Massachusetts focused on colonial life on the English settlement at Plymouth is planning to change its name to better reflect the Native Americans that long lived in the region.

Plimoth Plantation, in a Facebook post this week, unveiled a new logo bearing the word “Patuxet,” the Wampanoag name for the area, juxtaposed with “Plimoth,” the one later given to it by English colonists.

The museum, which was founded in 1947 and features colonial reenactors replicating life on the Puritan settlement, said the name to be unveiled later this year will be “inclusive of the Indigenous history that is part of our educational mission.”

Read the rest here.

The Pilgrims and the 1625 London Plague

London Plague

Over at We’re History, early American historian Peter Wood writes about the London plague from the perspective of Plymouth Rock.  Here is a taste of his piece:

But in 1625, New England’s “hideous and desolate” isolation suddenly began to seem a God-given blessing in disguise. Captain Miles Standish had been sent back to England, aboard a ship laden with furs and fish, to negotiate with overbearing creditors for their “favour and help.” He went at “a very bad time,” Bradford related, for their home country was “full of trouble.” To his dismay, Standish found “the plague very hote in London, so no business could be done.”

Hot indeed. England’s plague had arrived, apparently from Holland, early in 1625, but it went undetected through most of March. George Wither, a poet who survived the epidemic, recalled how the stealthy sickness first approached London through the city’s “well-fill’d Suburbs” and spread there undetected for weeks…

By the end of 1625, the contagion had claimed nearly 70,000 lives across England. More than half the deaths had been in London. There, the disease had killed well over 35,000, in a city of fewer than 330,000 people. Many more may have been undiagnosed victims. One Londoner wrote that “to this present Plague of Pestilence, all former Plagues were but pettie ones.” Another lamented that no prior chronicle had “ever mentioned the like” for “our famous citie.”

As for Standish, he found the English adventurers who supported the Plymouth Colony were fearful in the midst of an economic collapse and a public health disaster. When the New Englander sought a loan, they could only offer him money at a whopping 50% interest rate.  As Bradford later summarized: “though their wills were good, yet theyr power was litle. And ther dyed such multitude weekly of the plague, as all trade was dead, and litle money stirring.”

In early April 1626, the Plymouth colonists welcomed Standish home safely, but his mission had been unsuccessful, and “the news he brought was sad in many regards.” Numerous English allies had been struck down financially and physically, “much disabled from doing any further help, and some dead of the plague.” Faced with such news and given “the state of things,” Bradford observed of his colonists, “it is a marvell it did not wholy discourage them and sinck them.”

Read the entire piece here.

1619 or 1620?

They Knew They Were PilgrimsHistorian John Turner, author of a new book on the Plymouth Colony, helps us sort this out. Here is a taste of his piece at The National Review:

Some of the critics have gone so far as to propose alternative “birth years.” Last fall, the National Association of Scholars launched a 1620 project, a series of videos and essays rebutting the Times project. Why 1620? It was “the year in which the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock and the Mayflower Compact was signed,” explains the organization’s president, Peter Wood. Similarly, The Federalist has solicited essays celebrating the “anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival at Plymouth Rock.” This year is, after all, the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s arrival on our shores. To those who place religious and political liberty at the heart of the American experiment, that event makes an attractive starting point.

The 1620 proposals are a throwback to 19th-century views of American origins. On the 200th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing, Massachusetts senator Daniel Webster rhapsodized that they had arrived with “intelligence,” “the inspirations of liberty,” and “the truth of divine religion.” Politicians and historians pointed to the Mayflower Compact, a makeshift political agreement forged before the Pilgrims stepped ashore. Once Americans associated the Pilgrims with an annual Thanksgiving feast, their pride of place in the story of the nation’s origins became assured.

Even as Webster lionized them, though, many historians knew that the Pilgrims could not bear the weight of the historical significance placed on them. To begin with, they weren’t first: The less pious and more contentious colonists in Jamestown had arrived in 1607. Even more to the point, the Pilgrims were fewer and more inconsequential than their subsequent place in history would suggest. Plymouth Colony never really thrived. Its settlers eked out a living on land of dubious fertility, and other colonies came to dwarf it in terms of population, economic clout, and military power. Ready to tell new stories about the American past, academic historians eventually kicked the Pilgrims to the scholarly curb.

Nevertheless, there are good reasons to pay attention not just to the Mayflower, the rock, and the feast, but to the chain of events that preceded and followed 1620. Before the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth, an epidemic brought by European fishermen and traders had wiped out a previously thriving Wampanoag community there. Like English colonists elsewhere, the Pilgrims and their descendants then stripped Native populations of their land through dubious property transactions and episodic wars. Many Americans have spoken of slavery as the nation’s “original sin,” but conquest and displacement of Natives are just as original to the early history of English colonization — and Plymouth is one of many starting points for these grave sins.

Read the entire piece here.

Kudos to The National Review publishing Turner’s piece. But they could not let it stand alone without a rebuttal.

Read David Randall’s response here. Now that’s more like it. 😉

The Author’s Corner with John Turner

They Knew They Were PilgrimsJohn Turner is Professor of Religious Studies at George Mason University. This interview is based on his new book, They Knew They Were Pilgrims: Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty (Yale University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write They Knew They Were Pilgrims?

JT: A few years ago, I had finished writing the second of two books about the Latter-day Saints. I wanted to write about a new topic, but one that had some continuity of themes, namely religious persecution, exile, a quest for the true church. Obviously, the Mayflower, the Pilgrims, and the founding of Plymouth Colony are well-worn subjects. But I discovered that most historians neglect the story of Plymouth after the first Thanksgiving, perhaps returning to the colony with the advent of King Philip’s War. I found that there was a great deal more to the story.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of They Knew They Were Pilgrims?

JT: Beginning in the early nineteenth century, Americans inaccurately have praised the Mayflower passengers for planting the seeds of republicanism that bloomed at the time of the American Founding. I argue instead that we need to examine the debates about liberty–religious liberty, political liberty, and the enslavement–present in Plymouth Colony on their own, local, seventeenth-century terms.

JF: Why do we need to read They Knew They Were Pilgrims?

JT: It’s not quite as essential as physical distancing during a pandemic, but… we think we know the story of Plymouth Colony. The Mayflower passengers are the most famous colonists in American history, their lives scrutinized by armies of genealogists. I did not realize how poorly I had understood them until I began the research for this book. I begin my book with Robert Cushman, who as of 1603 was an apprentice to a grocer in Canterbury. He was excommunicated for posting “libels” on church doors, dabbled with something akin to antinomianism in Canterbury, became a wool comber in Leiden, had a falling out with the other organizers of the colony, and preached a remarkable lay sermon during his very brief stay in Plymouth. If you think you know the Pilgrims, think again. I promise that what you’ll learn in this book will surprise you.

I also discovered that the seventy-year history of Plymouth Colony contains a host of remarkable episodes about a variety of peoples. If you read They Knew They Were Pilgrims, you’ll learn about an expanded cast of characters: an African American slave who became one of the first “English” casualties in King Philip’s War; the decades-long struggle of Quakers for religious liberty; a female sachem who held her community together for two decades amid war and dispossession. In addition to fresh material about seventeenth-century understandings of liberty, there are a lot of gritty human stories in this book.

JF: You have now written books with subjects based in the 20th century (Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ), 19th century (Brigham Young), and now the 17th century (Plymouth). What are the challenges of writing across such a wide historical spectrum?

JT: The foremost challenge is getting up to speed on the existing scholarship. Let’s face it – there’s a tremendous volume of books appearing on so many elements of American religious history. It’s a golden age for the field, from my vantage point. So many scholars are writing deeply researched and eloquently written books. It’s very hard to keep up! Just think about the deluge of titles published in the last decade on twentieth-century evangelicals or on the Latter-day Saints.

At the same time, though, I’ve found it very refreshing to immerse myself in new places and times. We require our students to study things with which they are unfamiliar, so it’s good for us to do so as well, at least from time to time. I also love meeting new people, both people from past centuries in archival sources and new scholars who work on various subjects.

My research strategy has always been to immerse myself as much as possible in a new subject and its sources. I really marvel at the many people in our field with the ability to trace a phenomenon or group across time and place. Many recent examples come to mind, such as Erik Seeman’s Speaking with the Dead in Early America, David Silverman’s This Land Is Their Land, or to mention some slightly older but even more expansive and synthetic books, Colleen McDannell’s Heaven or Jaroslav Pelikan’s Jesus Through the Centuries.

JF: What is your next project?

JT: I’m writing a biography of Joseph Smith. It seems that despite my penchant and preference for new subjects, I can’t quite get away from early Mormonism.

JF: Thanks, John!

Commemorating the Mayflower

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400 years ago this year the Mayflower landed on present-day Cape Cod. Over at The New York Times, Tanya Mohn writes about how the United States, England, and the Netherlands will commemorate the event later this year. A taste:

Paula Peters remembers the last major anniversary of the historic voyage in 1620 of the Mayflower from Plymouth, England, to Plymouth, Mass. It was in 1970. She was 12. “It did not go well,” recalled Ms. Peters, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag TribeFrank James, whose Wampanoag name was Wamsutta, was invited to give a speech, but was prevented from delivering it because the event’s organizers “didn’t like what he had to say.”

This year’s 400th anniversary promises to be different. “It will include all the things Frank James wanted to say and then some. It’s an opportunity to take our story out of the margins and onto an international platform,” said Ms. Peters, who through SmokeSygnals, a marketing and communications agency, curated and consulted for exhibitions and programs on both sides of the Atlantic. “What’s most important to stress is simply that we are still here.”

The Wampanoag Nation, encompassing the federally recognized Aquinnah and Mashpee tribes, are equal partners in the yearlong commemoration with Plymouth 400 in the United States, Mayflower 400 in the United Kingdom, and Leiden 400 in the Netherlands, umbrella groups for museums and organizations that are hosting Mayflower-related events in their respective regions.

Read the rest here.

What Does a Dead Missionary Have to Do With Thanksgiving?

 

In case you haven’t heard, John Allen Chau, a 26-year-old missionary and graduate of Oral Roberts University, was killed last week trying to spread his faith to North Sentinel, an island in the Andaman Sea.  Read about it here.

Yesterday my friend Kate Carte unleashed a tweetstorm connecting Chau’s missionary endeavors to the story of 17th-century European imperialism, particularly the so-called “first Thanksgiving.”

I am not sure I agree with everything Kate has written here, but I have been thinking about and processing her comments all day and I think they are worth considering.  I present them here for your consideration.  (I apologize for the fact that I do not know how to embed a tweet in my blog without including the previous tweet.  Sorry).

 

Thanksgiving “Strangers”

Ask-an-Expert-First-Thanksgiving-631

Over at The New York Times, Irish-American Studies scholar Joseph Kelly reminds us that not all those who celebrated the so-called “first Thanksgiving” were Pilgrims.  Here is a taste of his piece “The Thanksgiving Story You’ve Probably Never Heard“:

But the pilgrims (Bradford called them “saints”) weren’t the only settlers at the feast. Troublesome “strangers” who did not confess the Pilgrim creed were there, too.

One of the strangers was the historical figure you should be thinking about this Thanksgiving. You’ve probably never heard of Stephen Hopkins. He might change the way you think about the national holiday.

We don’t know very much about him. Hopkins was born in 1581, about the same time Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway in Stratford. His family was neither poor nor rich. As a young man, Hopkins leased a farm, married, had children and lost his lease, and perhaps to mend his fortunes in 1609 he joined 500 other settlers headed for Jamestown, Va.

Read the rest here.

 

John Turner’s Forthcoming Book on Plymouth

John Turner

George Mason University historian John Turner is a versatile historian of American religion.  He has written books on 20th-century evangelicalism, 19th-century Mormonism, and is now writing a book on the Plymouth Colony. It is scheduled to be released in 2020, the 400th anniversary of the landing of the Mayflower.

Over at The Anxious Bench he gives us an update:

Certainly, many historians, politicians, and others have mischaracterized the Plymouth separatists over the last two hundred years. They were not sailing to the New World for anything approaching our ideals of democracy or religious freedom. The separatist leaders sought liberty, by which they meant organizing their church according to their understanding of the Bible. They asked kings James and Charles for “liberty of conscience,” but at first only as a means of ensuring their colony’s survival. In a letter written shortly before the colony’s dissolution, Thomas Hinckley explained to officials in New England that residents of New Plymouth enjoyed religious freedom, as long as they were not “Papists” or “Quakers” (whom he defined as not Christians). Those who dissented from the established orthodoxy were left in peace, as long as they helped support the town minister from whom they dissented. One can read the correspondence of Plymouth’s Quakers for a sense of how that went.

In the end, even as historians question everything from landmarks to outdated interpretations, the Pilgrims have retained their importance. It helps to be associated with turkeys and football, for sure. But the Pilgrim myths created in the early nineteenth century have stuck in part because the story itself is so good. A tiny religious minority sets off for “northern Virginia” under incredibly inauspicious circumstances. They cannot finance their voyage on their own. They cannot obtain a royal patent. One of their boats proves unseaworthy. A portion of the group stays in England (a larger portion had chosen to stay in Leiden). They leave too late in the fall and show up on Cape Cod in the midst of winter. Half of them die. And yet the colony survives.

Read the entire post here.

Our Modern Holiday of Thanksgiving is More About the Civil War Than Plymouth

g_burgI just ran across Honor Sachs‘s 2014 Huffington Post piece on Thanksgiving and the Civil War.  It reminded me that the holiday we celebrate tomorrow has less to do with Pilgrims and more to do with the Civil War.

Here is a taste:

But there is an alternative version of the Thanksgiving story, one that might provide better perspective on our currently divided nation. In 1863, in the bowels of Civil War, Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation to establish the first national day of Thanksgiving. He called on his “fellow-citizens in every part of the United States” to “set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving.” Lincoln’s proclamation made no mention of Pilgrims or Indians. He did not mention North or South nor did he speak of founding fathers or national origins. Rather, Lincoln called attention to our desperate need for collective healing. Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to “commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife” that the nation faced. He called for a day in which we might sit down and work to “heal the wounds of the nation.”

Read the entire piece here.

Plymouth Settlement: Found

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Archaeologists from the University of Massachusetts-Boston have uncovered evidence of the original 1620 Plymouth settlement.  Here is a taste of an article at the UMASS-Boston website:

Kathryn Ness is the curator of collections at Plimoth Plantation, UMass Boston’s partner in this project. She says this discovery is huge.

“Finding evidence of colonial activity inside the original 1620 Plymouth settlement is an incredibly exciting discovery that has the potential to change dramatically our understanding of early European colonization in New England. For the first time, we have proof of where the settlement was located and what kinds of items the Pilgrims owned and used,” Ness said. “At Plimoth Plantation, the team’s findings will help us further refine our exhibits, as we use archaeological evidence and historical documents as the basis for our portrayal of the past and to ensure that our buildings, activities, and reproduction objects are as accurate as possible. We are looking forward to learning more about their discoveries and seeing what they find next season!”

Read the entire article here.