Public Square & Theology 101

Pilgrims, Prosperity, & Property Rights

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Editor’s Note: Last year, so many of you enjoyed learning this piece of little known American and Thanksgiving history we thought we’d share it again. We at IFWE wish you and your families a blessed Thanksgiving. 

Edward Winslow, a passenger on the Mayflower, when speaking of the first Thanksgiving, said on December 11th, 1621:

And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.

Most historians believe the American pilgrims were deeply religious people who studied the Bible, and whose intent was to create a new community based on biblical teaching.

As they were trying to find a way to express their thanks for their early survival and good harvest, it is quite possible that the Pilgrims looked to the Bible, and Leviticus 23:39 in particular, for an appropriate way of celebrating. It is also possible that they based their first Thanksgiving, in part on the Feast of Tabernacles, a Jewish fall harvest festival.

Yet there had not been much to celebrate during the previous year:

  • The long stormy passage left many of the Pilgrims sick with scurvy and typhus.
  • The first winter was devastating with less than fifty of the original one hundred and two colonists surviving the exceptionally severe winter.
  • By spring, 12 of the 18 married women had died, including Edward Winslow’s own wife.
  • The living had barely the strength to put in the next year’s crop.

We all know the story that with the help of the Native Americans, who showed the Pilgrims how to plant corn, food shortages were resolved, resulting in a great harvest and a Thanksgiving celebration.

But few of us know the rest of the story.

Pilgrims, Property Rights, and Prosperity

In reality, the Pilgrims continued to face chronic food shortages for the next three years. But it was not bad weather or lack of farming skills that caused them.

I suspect that, based on a misunderstanding of the opening chapters of the book of Acts, the Plymouth Plantation was founded in 1620 with a system of communal property rights, not biblical property rights.

The community held everything in common, including food and supplies, distributing them equally and as needed by plantation officials. Everyone received equal portions regardless of their contribution.

In his 1647 History of Plymouth Plantation, Gov. William Bradford wrote (emphasis added),

This system was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. The problem was that young men, that were most able and fit for labor, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense. Because of the poor incentives, little food was produced.

In the spring of 1623, facing potential starvation, the colony abandoned their communal system and each family was given their own land on which they could keep everything they grew for themselves. But now they alone were responsible for feeding themselves, taking to heart Paul’s admonition in II Thessalonians 3:10, “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”

This return to the idea of property rights, a concept taught throughout the Bible, had dramatic results. Food production soared and the Pilgrims prospered.

Bradford wrote,

This change had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been. Giving people economic incentives changed their behavior.

In their new economic system were planted the seeds of our own free market, which offers incentives for us individually as well as for the mutual benefit of all.

What the Pilgrims Teach Us about Freedom and Free Enterprise

This year, when we sit around our dining table with family and friends, we should also remember that what we are really celebrating is the birth of freedom and free enterprise in America. We should be grateful that the founders understood the lesson learned by the Pilgrims: an economic system rooted in property rights and private competition makes bountiful feasts possible.

Yet, it is interesting that Americans in the 21st century seem to have everything but gratitude. As a nation, we are moving away from the God-given biblical and economic principles that made this nation great. There is a growing belief that the government should “fairly” redistribute the wealth and move toward an economic system that nearly doomed the Pilgrims. We no longer appreciate opportunity but instead demand what we think we deserve.

By contrast, the Americans in 1621 had nothing but gratitude and a desire to seek God’s will in their lives. They saw the error of their ways and made the appropriate corrections.

Andree Seu, in an article for World Magazine, suggests a clue to this difference can be found in the name of the first baby born to the colony in America, Peregrine White.

Peregrine was the second son of William and Susannah White (his older brother was named Resolved) and was born before the end of November 1620 while the Mayflower was anchored in Provincetown Harbor. The name “Peregrine” means pilgrim.  Andree Seu writes,

The difference, I think, is the ‘Peregrine White’ factor, the setting of hearts on pilgrimage, the Resolve of forceful men (Luke 16:16) who ‘acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth’ and made it clear ‘that they are seeking a homeland,’ that they ‘desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one’ (Hebrews 11:13-16)…The history books speak truer than they know to call them ‘Pilgrims.’ The pilgrim heart is known by the quality of thanksgiving. But when the Lord returns, will He yet find their like in the land?

Only we can answer that question.

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