In Praise of Pilgrims

by Derrick G. Jeter

That old mustachioed rascal, Mark Twain never knew when to leave well enough alone. In a speech delivered to the New England Society of Philadelphia, he brazenly (with tongue firmly planted in his cheek) pronounced:
I rise to protest. I have kept still for years, but really I think there is no sufficient justification for this sort of thing. What do you want to celebrate those people for? Those ancestors of yours of 1620. The Mayflower tribe, I mean. What do you want to celebrate them for?¹
Good question. Why would we want to celebrate the Pilgrims during Thanksgiving? If Mr. Twain will forgive the presumption, I’d like to propose an answer to his question. We celebrate the Pilgrims because they embodied, not just in word, but in deed the kind of character we must neither lose from our vocabulary nor from our souls.
They were steadfast. Persecuted, they were beaten, banished, imprisoned, run underground, and out of England for their commitment to faith alone, in Christ alone.
They were visionary. Seeking religious freedom for themselves and their posterity, they moved to a foreign country—Holland. This far reaching idea would be canonized in 1791 in the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.
They were faithful. Desiring, with “a great hope and inward zeal,”² to obey Jesus’s command in Acts 1:8, they ventured their treasure and their lives to take the gospel to one of the remotest parts of the world—America.
They were courageous. Braving seven week of storm tossed seas in the North Atlantic, they came to America in the midst of a New England winter. Only the truly brave or foolhardy would attempt such a thing.
They were longsuffering. Careworn under the afflictions of privations, bitter cold, disease, and death, they established a tiny settlement on the shores of Plymouth—without complaint or a sense of entitlement, mind you.
They were humble. Befriending and accepting help from natives living in the area—from men like Samoset, Massasoit, and of course Squanto—they lived in peace with the Indians, which would last forty years.
They were grateful. Blessed and protected by the magnanimous hand of God, they gave Him thanks.
So that having these many signs of God’s favor and acceptation, we thought it would be great ingratitude, if secretly we should smother up the same, or content ourselves with private thanksgiving for that, which by private prayer could not be obtained. And therefore another solemn day was set apart and appointed for that end; wherein we returned glory, honor, and praise, with all thankfulness, to our good God, which dealt so graciously with us; whose name for these and all other his mercies towards his church, and chosen ones, by them be blessed and praised, now and evermore. Amen.³
Even Mark Twain would have to agree that these are people worthy of our admiration. And so he does. He concludes his speech with a tribute . . . of sorts.
People may talk as they like about that Pilgrim stock but, after all’s said and done, it would be pretty hard to improve on these people. And as for me, I don’t mind coming out flatfooted and saying there ain’t any way to improve on them—except having them born in Missouri!4
Of course, Texas would’ve been even better!

1 Mark Twain, “Plymouth Rock and the Pilgrims,” in Plymouth Rock and the Pilgrims and Other Speeches, ed. Charles Neider (New York: Cooper Square Press, 2000), 94.

2 William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, ed. Samuel Eliot Morison (New York: Knopf, 1952, 1989), 25.

3 Edward Winslow, Good Newes from New England: A True Relation of Things Very Remarkable at the Plantation of Plimouth in New England (Bedford, Mass.: Applewood Books, n.d., originally published in 1624), 56.

4 Twain, 98.