Who Owns the Pilgrim Fathers? American Protestants and a Contested Legacy

By: Margaret Bendroth

November 17, 2021

Who Belongs at the Thanksgiving Table? Christianity, History, and Immigration

With all of the recent public debate about the Pilgrims’ legacy, it is easy to forget that their story is essentially a religious one, and a contested one at that. From the early nineteenth century on into the twentieth, Protestants competed vigorously, often contentiously, to claim a seat of honor at that mythic Thanksgiving table. To modern ears that conversation may sound antiquated, even a bit petty, as Congregationalists and Unitarians engaged in a historical tug-of-war that (not always accidentally) offended Episcopalians and irritated Baptists. Yet the back-and-forth was important, a regular exercise in religious pluralism. Debates over who “owned” the Pilgrim story set denominational pecking orders and defined differences, in effect fine-tuning an unwieldy system.

The first arguments were between New England siblings, Trinitarian and Unitarian Congregationalists. In the early nineteenth century, the two heirs of the Pilgrim legacy had divided into rival camps, one side claiming the badge of orthodoxy and the other arguing for a “reasonable” faith free of Calvinist metaphysics. And who better than the New England Pilgrims to adjudicate the quarrel? Down in Plymouth, “Forefathers’ Day” celebrations became doctrinal sparring matches, each side claiming—and redefining—their shared past. In 1802, Trinitarian pastor Adoniram Judson, Sr., praised the Pilgrims as “primitive Christians” who adhered to the divinity of Christ and the “total depravity” of humanity. Following their footsteps, said Judson, meant keeping to the “good old way.” Not to be outdone, Unitarians declared ownership of the Pilgrims as quintessential religious seekers, never imagining, as Abiel Abbott declared in 1809, that “they had already attained, or were already perfect.” Abbott, like countless liberals to follow, invoked the Pilgrims’ own pastor, John Robinson, and his parting reminder that God had “more light and truth to break forth from his holy word.” True Pilgrims, in other words, embraced change. 

From the early nineteenth century on into the twentieth, Protestants competed vigorously, often contentiously, to claim a seat of honor at that mythic Thanksgiving table.

For the next several decades, angry exchanges flew across the New England landscape—and then quietly disappeared. By the 1850s, most Unitarians had moved on, consumed with the practical details of denominational housekeeping and tiring of arguments about an “obsolete” past. After all, as the Monthly Religious Magazine reminded its readers, their seventeenth-century ancestors were hardly role models, “converting Indians and whipping Quakers,” “banishing Baptists,” and “hanging the poor old women of Salem.”
On the other side, Trinitarian Congregationalists doubled down, declaring themselves “vestal virgins” of the “Promethean spark” lit by their Plymouth ancestors. The embrace was not just rhetorical: Those Pilgrims provided a unifying symbol, a historical rallying point that allowed them to modernize their polity, upgrading their locally based system into a national one. The denomination’s first statement of belief, issued in 1865, was literally penned on a train trip to Plymouth and accepted by acclimation on the top of Burial Hill, the ancient cemetery supposed to hold the remains of the first settlers. 

As New Englanders negotiated their awkward truce, disagreements were intensifying elsewhere. This time Episcopalians, the heirs of the Church of England, found themselves in the crosshairs. Matters came to a head in 1844, at an anniversary gathering of the New England Society in New York. More of a social occasion than a pious one, it featured orations and toasts—and, apparently, as the evening wore on, alcohol-fueled insults to the Episcopalian clergy in attendance. Massachusetts Whig Senator Rufus Choate concluded his oration with a provocative and familiar poem, raising a toast to a “church without a bishop” and a “state without a king.” From there, the evening went downhill, prompting an explicit complaint from The Churchman about Choate’s rhetorical excess, “blown up…with every flatulent and acrid humor in the system.”

As New Englanders negotiated their awkward truce, disagreements were intensifying elsewhere. This time Episcopalians, the heirs of the Church of England, found themselves in the crosshairs.

Episcopalians fought back, politely. Jonathan Wainwright, soon to become bishop of the New York diocese, issued a lengthy defense of “Episcopacy,” including with it a rejoinder by a Presbyterian colleague, George Potts. Potts’ role, however, was literally marginal: Large portions of each page contained single-spaced, venomous footnotes by an anonymous “anti-sectarian” friend of Wainwright’s. Thus, the churchman stayed above the fray—my “self-respect forbade me to attempt it,” he said—and scored his point. In fact, naming anger without owning it allowed Wainwright to resume his ceremonial obligations, attending the next New England Society meeting in 1846. 

By the three-hundredth anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival, in 1920, the Forefathers no longer belonged to Congregationalists, or for that matter, to churchgoers. Politicians now dominated the Plymouth ceremonies, and the Protestant conversation was genial and optimistic, buoyed by the early twentieth century’s enthusiasm for ecumenism. The Christian Century in fact declared a truce to religious infighting, editorializing that the “Puritan heritage” was “an American possession” and “confined to no one denomination.” The Puritan heritage “has passed into the veins of our national life and belongs to us all,” according to the editorial.

The spirit of optimism extended even to Congregationalists and Unitarians, who joined together in a Forefathers’ Day banquet in Boston. Positively brimming with good will, the two ancestral enemies agreed that the Pilgrims’ story was “so big that it could not be crystallized in any one theology.” It belonged to everyone, as did their message of unity—300 years after the fact it had become easy to forget that the Pilgrims were ardent separatists. 

Yet the Protestant ceasefire was more than just an ecumenical triumph. It also reflected a shift in the mechanisms of cultural memory, a waning of specific ties to historical legacies. In an age of mass culture, the Pilgrims belonged to everyone—and to no one. “No longer relevant as a blanket ancestral legacy for a now-diversified region,” writes Ann Uhry Abrams, “the Pilgrim tale joined such staples as George Washington’s cherry tree and Abraham Lincoln’s log cabin to become an emblem of American patriotism.”

Arguments over polity and history are not the problem. They can even be a sign of health—as long as the acrimony stays safely in the footnotes.

It is telling that in 2020, the specific denominational voices of Congregationalists, Baptists, Episcopalians, Quakers, and on goes the list, were noticeably absent. Though to a degree upstaged by television pundits and politicians, they were also muted by their own memory loss, by the forgetting of their origins and of the historical forces that once made them compelling and distinct—even worth an occasional public battle. In this post-denominational, post-Protestant age, no one should mourn the demise of hardcore competition, the policing of minute sectarian divisions. But we can recognize a loss. The mainline churches, now dwindling in numbers and influence, have served as a moderating force in American society, a role achieved through many years of denominational debate and competition, negotiation and compromise, even a few public shoving matches. Arguments over polity and history are not the problem. They can even be a sign of health—as long as the acrimony stays safely in the footnotes.

This post is adapted from Margaret Bendroth, “Who Owns the Pilgrim Fathers? American Protestants and a Contested Legacy,” The Review of Faith & International Affairs 19, no.3 (2021): 46–54.

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