June 22, 2020


What Liberty Meant to the Pilgrims (NATHANAEL BLAKE, June 18, 2020, National Review)

Turner's book, They Knew They Were Pilgrims, alternately affirms and challenges both the popular mythos and its critics. Beginning with the separatist movement in England and continuing until Plymouth was incorporated into Massachusetts in 1691, Turner provides an engaging account of the Pilgrims, from Calvinist theology to colonial politics. While validating some criticisms, he asserts that the Pilgrims matter for more than their legend, and he deftly uses the history of Plymouth to explore ideas of liberty in the American colonies.

This should be of particular interest to conservatives as we debate rival claims about the founding principles of our nation, which the study of colonial life places in context. Though the Declaration of Independence asserts a right to liberty, we do not all mean the same thing by it. Turner demonstrates that colonial ideas of liberty were not uniform, even in Plymouth, though there was a dominant theme. The Pilgrims and their descendants understood liberty not as individual freedom to live as one pleased; when they encountered that kind of freedom at Thomas Morton's Merry Mount settlement, they saw it as "licentiousness and recklessness." Rather, the Pilgrims sought freedom for Christians, redeemed from bondage to sin and Satan, to live in accord with Scripture, covenanting as a congregation free from the dominion of the corrupt Church of England.

In Turner's telling, this understanding was essential to the development of New England Congregationalism. The establishment of Massachusetts did not efface Plymouth but fulfilled it, for "England's transplanted puritans were remaking themselves in Plymouth's image" as new towns formed their own covenant churches. An ocean away from England, the theoretical distinctions between the Plymouth colonists who wanted to separate from the Church of England and the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay, who had wanted to purify it, were negated as the churches of both colonies established themselves as self-governing congregations.

The development of New England Congregationalism alone would suffice to secure the Pilgrims' place in history, but Plymouth also had the distinction of initiating political self-government in New England. The colony held annual elections with a franchise much broader, albeit still limited, than that in England, and trial by jury was a fundamental right. Most adult men could aspire to participation in both the religious and political government of the colony. But this communal liberty did not imply broad personal liberty. The Pilgrims believed that government had a responsibility to constrain individuals to conform to the righteous mores of the community, and they had no qualms about regulating matters from speech to sex to attire.

Posted by at June 22, 2020 12:00 AM