The Plymouth Separatists, Protestant Puritan believers we now call the Pilgrims, were theologically minded in a way difficult for many of us to grasp. “These were biblical theologians,” write theologians Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones in their book A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life. They were “biblical in the sense that they quarried their theology from the Bible, but also biblical in the more modern sense of understanding and being concerned to expound the unified flow of the story of salvation and to see each element of it in its proper place in the story.”
The Puritans sought to honor the Lordship of Jesus Christ in every area of their lives and worked diligently to bring a Christian understanding of every facet of life, from labor in the fields to the study of Scripture. Writes Leland Ryken in Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were, "Puritanism was impelled by the insight that all of life is God's. The Puritans lived simultaneously in two worlds—the invisible spiritual world and the physical world of earthly existence. For the Puritans, both worlds were equally real, and there was no cleavage of life into sacred and secular. All of life was sacred."
Life lived in Christ was a joyous thing for the Puritans. It was not the gloomy, censorious toil that modern critics ascribe to it. As Ryken notes, George Fox, a leading early Quaker, criticized the Puritans for “their ribbons and lace and costly apparel” and their “sporting and feasting.” The Anglican/Evangelical theologian J.I. Packer writes that “the typical Puritans were not wild men, fierce and freaky, religious fanatics and social extremists, but sober, conscientious, and cultured citizens: persons of principle, devoted, determined, and disciplined, excelling in the domestic virtues.”
For example, the Puritans upheld the biblical teaching that sexual intimacy is reserved for one man and one woman within the covenant of marriage. But within that covenant, the marriage bed should be a place where sexual relations were pursued “with good will and delight, willingly, readily, and cheerfully,” according to Puritan pastor William Gouge.
The Separatists who met on that first Thanksgiving were not a doleful lot in solid black habits. They were a serious but joyous people, men and women who sought to serve their Lord in all things and at all times. They worked to recognize His presence and His sovereignty wherever they were; this gave them the comfort that comes from trusting in a loving Savior and the sense of obligation that comes from being not only His friends but His servants.
In a letter home to England in 1621, here’s how Plymouth Colony founder Edward Winslow described what happened on what we now call the first Thanksgiving:
… God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown, they came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom; our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the company almost a week, at which time amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain, and others. 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.
These were a God-soaked people. The saw His blessing in times of abundance; they rested in His goodness in times of want. As we perform the 21st century equivalent of “discharging our arms” – watching football, playing silly games, snoring in our recliners – this coming Thursday, let’s rejoice not only in the astonishing blessings we presume upon every day but reflect on the true source of enduring joy, the God of the Puritans. And let’s be like them in our pursuit of Him. They, and He, would like that.
The author acknowledges Elesha Coffman’s fine Christian History piece, “Eat, Drink, and Relax,” which provided excellent resources for parts of this article.
Rob Schwarzwalder is the Senior Vice-President of the Family Research Council.
Publication date: November 25, 2014