The Thanksgiving story, or mythologized versions of it, once was sacrosanct before targetted by a hyper political correctness anxious to discredit any hint of early American nobility.
But this week there was a welcome corrective. The National Geographic Channel’s dramatization of the Pilgrims’ story, Saints & Strangers, took inevitable liberties with history but admirably captured much of the essence. Among other inspiring narratives, it’s a story of shrewd and inspired Christian and secular statecraft relevant today.
The nub of the drama’s truth is that the Pilgrims were a flawed but earnestly struggling and even heroic people. They coexisted with indigenous tribes with their own conception of honor who also struggled, fought among themselves, feared for the future, and strategized for advantage.
“We are all scheming here,” uttered by Pilgrim Governor William Bradford, is the drama’s most important line, not precisely but broadly historical. A devout Christian separatist and leader of the Pilgrim “saints,” he must cajole, motivate, reconcile, confront, intimidate, wage defensive and preemptive war, and make peace. He is sufficiently savvy to recognize all other parties are similarly triangulating, including the mercurial local tribes, the non-Pilgrim “strangers” among them, another nearby English settlement of morally lax adventurers, their profit-seeking business sponsors in England, and the unseen but feared French.
The “strangers” are the non-Separatists who comprised nearly half the Maylflower contingent that settled Plymouth. Less religiously stringent, as Church of England communicants they celebrate Christmas while the Pilgrims studiously avoid it as unbiblical. The saints provide the moral vision and discipline, while strangers contribute their commercial and military ardor.
Peace with the natives is essential for the colony’s survival, but war and rivalry among the tribes complicate every overture. Squanto is the near mythic Indian hero who, as an English speaker who’s remarkably been to Europe as a captive, providentially appears to guide and interpret for the colony. Himself quite worldly, and having been taught Catholicism and likely much else by Spanish priests, Squanto has his own schemes, and is alternately reverred and distrusted by colonists and natives. He dies mysteriously after only two years with the Pilgrims, perhaps only in his early thirties, yet his decisive role at Plymouth makes him immortal.
Squanto was accompanied by another tribesman, Hobbomack, dispatched by their distrustful chief Massasoit to monitor Squanto. Reputedly Hobbomack, who lived many years, and formed his own strong friendships with saints and strangers, later became a Christian. Massasoit leads his tribe into a 40 year protective alliance with the colonists after a Pilgrim nurses him through illness.
As devout Calvinists, the Pilgrims alternate in seeing the Indians as pagan devil worshippers and providential instruments. No matter who the tribes are spiritually, the Pilgrims know their survival depends on collaboration. Both saints and strangers also realize their survival requires constant political resolve and military intimidation. They are too vulnerable to risk any appearance of weakness. Comity and peace with the tribes require vigilance and strength, including a preemptive attack on a war-minded chief. The defeated chief’s severed head is displayed on a pole at Plymouth, an emblem of political resolve, under which both colonists and friendly Indians celebrate.
The Pilgrim story is so transcendently powerful because it is so Homeric, so approachably human and so providential. The exertions of a few dozen men and women in a howling wilderness 400 years ago are still decisive for hundreds of millions today. Had they failed, where would we be? The famous feast and epic partnerships they share with Indians offer an early model of transcultural, transracial harmony that, however too brief, is still iconic.
Their example is forever instructive. The faith, collaboration and persevering sacrifice of a few can influence countless generations across centuries and well into eternity.