Did you know the Pilgrims in 1620 attempted to operate under a communist order? While they didn’t put their faith in the State or their form of government, they did attempt to have government control their production and division of labor. Though they had forged a bond through years of struggle and were devout in a common faith, they still couldn’t figure out how to produce all they needed for mere survival. This is a powerful illustration of the effects of freedom vs. force but perhaps some background information will fill in the gaps.   

The reformation activities of the “Separatists” unnerved the Church of England in the early 1600s. Unlike, the “Puritans” who called for purification of the Church of England from within, the radical separatist declared it too corrupt to be salvaged. This was dangerous doctrine that threatened both church power and the sovereignty of the king, who was the self-appointed head of the Church of England. This threat to the established order of the day drew a storm of persecution to this group of reformers. William Bradford, a name recognized in our Thanksgiving traditions, found himself in the middle of the turmoil.

Bradford, orphaned at a young age was adopted by his aunt and uncle. At the early age of twelve, he was drawn to the “separatist” doctrine after listening to the teachings of Richard Clyfton. By age 14, his remaining family threatened to disown him if he continued to associate with what they considered to be “heretics.” Bradford’s fearless reply illustrates why he was destined to become a leader in the New World (America):

Were I [about] to endanger my life, or consume my estate by any ungodly courses, your counsels to me were very seasonable, but you know that I have been diligent and provident in my calling… to part from [your company] will be as great a cross as can befall me. Nevertheless, to keep a good conscience, and walk in such a way as God has prescribed in His Word, is a thing which I must prefer before you all, and above life itself(1). 

Bradford’s conviction did not persuade his family who followed through with their threat and disowned him, and so he chose the life of an outcast. In fact, before his eventual emigration from England, he and other likeminded believers would suffer fines, imprisonment, bullying, poverty, and be forced underground in order to worship. 

Persecutions became so great that they eventually sought refuge in Holland where their immigrant status qualified them for the lowest forms of employments and therefore meager income. Over a decade later this band of believers felt compelled to seek better opportunity in the New World for the following reasons:

  1. They could not return to England since the King had ruled that all sects unwilling to conform to Church authority must leave the country.
  2. Their work schedules of 12-15 hours a day was draining their life away.
  3. Their children were too influenced by Dutch tradition and worldly lures.
  4. They had “great hope and inward zeal” to be a stepping stone to bringing the light of Christ to the remote parts of the world. (2)

After great negotiations with shrewd businessmen who agreed to fund their expedition, they mortgaged their passage and indentured themselves to a group of Speculators who were able to secure a grant of land to establish a colony in the Hudson River area. After multiple delays and setbacks, the Mayflower finally set sail for America only to be hampered by fierce storms which pushed the ship north. When at last they arrived in America, they were more than 100 miles off course and weather prevented them from moving south to their legal charter under the Virginia Company. With rations already prematurely reduced and after much prayer and consideration, they determined that God desired them to stay where they were. This dilemma as it turns out would have a profound effect on American government.

Because they had no legal grant to this land, they needed to establish a civil government.  Their written Constitution, known as the Mayflower Compact, organized these pilgrims into a “civil body politic” to be governed as free men by representatives guided by Biblical principles.

Though this civil organization would prove essential to their success in the end, with winter upon them, survival demanded all their attention. Weary from months at sea, limited provisions, back breaking labor, exposure and fear of Indian attacks, the company was reduced by illness and death. At one point only a handful of men were healthy enough to prepare meals, stand guard, bury the dead and administer to the sick. By the end of winter, nearly 50% of the company perished and only four complete families remained intact. In spite of this tragedy however, their hearts remained true to God and they accepted their afflictions and continued to call upon Him and give thanks. 

In this weakened and vulnerable state, the miraculous events many associate with Thanksgiving occurred, starting with their brief encounter with Samoset the Indian who introduced Squanto, a native who had lived in England and spoke perfect English, and the sole survivor of his tribe which had been wiped out by a plague. The Pilgrims were providentially on this now vacated land and Squanto adopted them as his own people.  Squanto helped forge a friendship between nearby Indians and the Pilgrims which would last for 40 years. Most importantly, Squanto remained with the Pilgrims and taught them to plant and to survive on this frontier. This providential friendship saved the Pilgrims from future devastation, but lessons from the school of hard knocks were yet to come and it was none other then William Bradford who was unanimously elected Governor of the colony who would lead them. In all, he would be reelected annually for the next 36 years (expecting 5 years at his request) as he led the establishment of a strong colony in America.  

Before the next winter set in, they would see a good harvest, conduct needed trade with the Indians and in October, Bradford declared a day of Thanksgiving which was celebrated with the Indians. Their celebration was short lived however when a “supply” ship arrived with 35 new colonists who brought no provisions with them. Further, the Pilgrim’s financiers expected their ship to be loaded with goods as an installment payment on the Pilgrim’s debt owed to them. Needing to give them something, this hardship forced them to subsist on half rations for the winter. Though eventually they would be reduced to just 5 kernels of corn a piece per day, miraculously not one soul perished that winter. By April of 1623, Bradford knew they would need twice the yield in corn to sustain them through another winter, but leaders of the colony were dismayed that the settlers half-heartedly approached their cultivating duties and they were not producing enough to survive again.  Up to this point the Pilgrims were working in a *communal fashion, where the governing body ordered work assignments, collected the goods and distributed them evenly. Given the situation, the colonial leaders were dismayed that they would do the bare minimum of work when they all knew the inevitable suffering that would follow if they didn’t produce more. As a result, they decided to parcel out individual lots and grant ownership over not only the land, but the yield as well. After doing so, one observer noted that this decision:


Made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use… The women now went willingly into the field and took their little ones with them to set corn, which before would allege weakness and inability, who to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny & oppression. (3)

Bradford himself commented on their brief experiment with communism:

The experience that was had in this common course… may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato’s and other ancients applauded by some of later times, that the taking away of property and bringing in community… would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For this community (or form of governing) was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. (4)

Amazingly when a free enterprising system was devised, even the pilgrims who were unified by a common faith and years of trial together became more productive. Ownership and individual responsibility motivated them more than any civil system which attempted to manipulate production could. Let us therefore be thankful during this season not only for the belief and perseverance of those that claimed a foothold on this blessed nation, but for the principles of faith, representative government and free enterprise that they passed on to future generations. These were the seeds of freedom planted in America which have produced the most abundant national harvest to date. Today, America is at a planting crossroads again. For very ideas, philosophies and systems represent the type and quantity of seed planted. And we will reap what we sow. The law of the harvest is a principle that cannot be cheated and has everything to do with our future harvest!   

*This communistic approach nearly destroyed the Jamestown colony in 1607, where in their first year roughly 90% of the group perished. They also abandoned communism. 

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