This year marks the 400th anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims, a commemoration regrettably obscured by the tumultuous events of 2020. But there is a reason that 400 years later we continue to honor and remember our Pilgrim forebears. We give thanks for these seven legacies of America’s Pilgrim heritage.
A legacy of self-government
When the Pilgrims and their fellow travelers on the Mayflower realized they were landing outside the Colony of Virginia, and therefore its English laws, they entered into the Mayflower Compact to “covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick.” Their act affirmed their rights of self-government, their equality under the law, and their responsibilities to the rule of law. Succeeding generations of New Englanders would bind themselves together in Congregationalist churches, eventually expanding their self-determination over spiritual affairs to civil government and sparking the American Revolution. In the Mayflower Compact, the seeds of American independence, liberty and constitutionalism first took root.
A legacy of family life
The English families who disembarked on the rocky soil of New England in the beginning of winter were a very different group than the unmarried, unemployed, young men who came to Jamestown hoping for profits from tobacco fields. While idleness and discord plagued the floundering Jamestown effort, industry and cooperation were hallmarks of Pilgrim communities, as fathers and mothers desperately worked to create homes for their children. Of the 19 Pilgrim women, three of whom were pregnant, a single phrase captures the courage, fortitude and devotion that defined their lives. On the Pilgrim Mother Fountain in Plymouth, it reads simply, “They Came as Mothers.” Only four survived that first winter, but they passed on a legacy of family strength to the 25 children who remained, blessing an estimated 35 million descendants.
A legacy of obedience to conscience
As a 14-year old orphan boy defending his faith to skeptical uncles, William Bradford captured the conviction that would come to define the Pilgrim story, as they endured incarceration, persecution and betrayal in England, a decade of economic hardship as refugees in Holland, and a treacherous journey across the ocean, only to find themselves in a wilderness where half would die during the first winter: “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. ... I am not only willing to part with everything that is dear to me in this world for this Cause, but I am thankful that God has given me the heart to do and will accept me so to suffer for Him.”
A legacy of charitable service
Bradford’s historical account records that as devastating sickness spread among them, the few who remained healthy “spared no pains night or day, but with great toil and at the risk of their own health … did all the homely and necessary services for them; and all this they did willingly and cheerfully without the least grudging, showing their love to their friends and brethren.” They also cared for the Mayflower sailors, many of whom had been contemptuous of the religious fervor of the Separatist pilgrims. As one particularly abusive sailor confessed to his caretakers, “You, I see now, show your love like Christians indeed to one another; but we let one another lie and die like dogs.”
A legacy of individual responsibility
The financiers of the Mayflower voyage demanded that all property be held in common as the Pilgrims worked to pay off the debt. But the Pilgrims believed that each should have the right to own and develop private property for their own good and the good of their community. After two years of struggling under the “collectivist” order demanded by their financiers, the Pilgrims parceled off the land to individual families. Each family was now free to manage its own production on its own land. Within a year, the amount planted went from 26 acres to 60, and then the following year from 60 to 184. As Bradford concluded, “it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been.”
A legacy of consecrating for posterity
Unlike a host of other Europeans who came to the Americas seeking worldly fortune, the Pilgrims came seeking hope for a better future. They sacrificed the familiarity and comforts of their homelands to create a new way of life for their children and for the generations to come, knowing that the fruits of their labors would not be realized in this life. “Just as one small candle may light a thousand,” William Bradford foresaw, “so the light here kindled hath shone unto many.” Millions of descendants are the beneficiaries of the Pilgrims’ consecrated devotion to their posterity.
A legacy of thanksgiving
After reaching landfall, the Pilgrims “fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof.” Even as half their number died during the first winter, they continued to recognize a divine providence, including in the life-saving assistance of Tisquantum (or Squanto) who taught them how to cultivate native crops and where to hunt and fish. As every school child learns, the Pilgrims celebrated the blessings of their bounteous first harvest in a feast with the neighboring Wampanoag tribe. Their humble expressions of gratitude have inspired generations to reflect upon the blessings of God to His children and to give Him thanks.
Jenet Jacob Erickson is a fellow of the Wheatley Institution and a professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. Michael Erickson is an attorney in Salt Lake City.