Public Square

Religious Liberty Depends on the Family. One of the First Colonial Families Shows Us Why.

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From below deck a newborn infant’s cry pierced the cold November air.

It was November 20, 1620. The new baby’s name was Peregrine White.

He was the first child born in New England of English parents, born on the Mayflower anchored in what is now called Provincetown Harbor.

His parents, William and Susanna White, along with their older son Resolved and two servants, had boarded the Mayflower in England months before like the rest of the Pilgrims seeking religious freedom in the New World.

The Whites, along with the rest of Plymouth Colony, faced an uphill battle.

  • The long stormy passage left many of the Pilgrims sick with scurvy and typhus.
  • The first winter was devastating, with less than 50 of the original 102 colonists surviving.
  • One of the 17 colonist who died in February was Peregrine’s father, leaving his mother with a newborn and a five-year old.

On May 12, 1621 Peregrine’s mother married Edward Winslow in the first wedding in the new colony. Winslow’s wife had died the previous winter.

Winslow went on to serve in a number of governmental positions, including three terms as governor.

He traveled extensively, including trips back to England and to the Caribbean. He and William Bradford wrote the historic Mourt’s Relation, which ends with an account of the first Thanksgiving and the abundance of the New World.

The new family White and Winslow built was fruitful and a good example of the positive outcomes of family. Winslow raised Susanna’s two boys as his own, and together they had four more children.

  • White raised all the children and managed the Winslow’s estate during the long periods Winslow was away.
  • One of their sons, Josiah Winslow, would become the thirteenth governor of the Plymouth Colony.
  • Peregrine became an important person in Plymouth Colony, active in both military and government affairs.

This picture of the White-Winslow family gives us a snapshot of the importance of family to the Pilgrims.

For the Pilgrims and for the many of the Puritans that would follow them to the New World, family was of the upmost importance.

The integration of family, church, and state were the three arenas in which the Puritan vision of bringing about the kingdom of God was made a reality.

In fact, the Puritans viewed the family as the most important of the three arenas. Historian Edmund S. Morgan sums this up in his book The Puritan Family, saying:

If the family failed to teach its members properly, neither the state nor the church could be expected to accomplish much.

Based on the opening chapters of Genesis, the family was seen as a God-ordained institution established for fulfilling the two parts of the cultural mandate: filling the earth with God’s images and subduing the earth.

As one historian writes,

Husbands, wives and children all had specific, God-honoring duties to accomplish in their respective stations in the economy of God’s redemptive plan.

The Puritans saw the Christian family as a little church, a little government, and a little society.

  • Its purpose was to shape the foundation of society.
  • It was in the family that future generations would be trained, learning the values necessary for leading significant, purposeful lives.
  • The family’s goal was to honor God by promoting Christian values in the next generation so they would make a positive contribution to the community.

The Plymouth Colony, unlike Jamestown, which was primarily a commercial venture, holds a unique place in our county’s history as the birthplace of the nation’s democratic culture.

The Pilgrims sought religious freedom, freedom from religious persecution, and a place to settle, live, and worship God in a way they saw fit.

The social, civic, and legal systems they created in order to carry this out were closely aligned with their strong Christian beliefs, which, for the most part, were perpetuated by the family.

Their ideas about religious freedom were not lost on the founders 150 years later. As Matthew Spalding writes,

America’s Founders believed that religion and morality play an indispensable role in the civic and public life of a self-governing people…they advanced religious liberty in a way that would uphold religion and morality as indispensable supports of good habits, the firmest props of the duties of citizens, and the great pillars of human happiness.

Men like Madison and Adams saw religious liberty as our “first freedom,” not only because it is the first article in the Bill of Rights, but because without it, all other freedoms would be severely limited.

Like the Pilgrims before them, they argued that allegiance to God precedes allegiance to the state, and therefore our rights come from our Creator, not the government.

It is on this essential assumption that our whole system of government has been built.

As James Madison once wrote,

It is religion and morality alone which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand. The only foundation of a free constitution is pure virtue.

The natural incubator for the development of this type of virtue is the family.

The early American settlers understood this. So did the founders.

As we gather with family to celebrate the first Thanksgiving, let us not forget the principles they held so dear.

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