Every Thanksgiving I am reminded of a humor column—Art Buchwald, I think—about Thanksgiving that was full of fractured French. Les pellerins are indeed pilgrims, but is a turkey in French really a dindon? Maybe. For sure, Thanksgiving Day does NOT translate to “le jour de merci donée.”
In any case, it was not my fondness for the French language that set off alarm bells in my head but a line from an article in Time this week about teaching children about Thanksgiving. It included the following mind-boggling statement: “The Puritan separatists were rebranded Pilgrims.” Ouch. Okay, I’m really interested in religious history, having grown up in a New England Congregational Church attending Pilgrim Fellowship and singing out of the Pilgrim Hymnal, and yes, that church of my ancestors was later formed by a merger between the two groups, but no, Puritans were not rebranded Pilgrims. Pilgrims came on the Mayflower in 1620. Puritans weren’t even present at the shindig in 1621. They were still back in England annoying King Charles I with demands to purify the Church of England, a demand that eventually would lead to his loss of his head (literally). By then our American Puritans had set sail for the New World, arriving about ten years after the less numerous Pilgrims.
Pilgrims were separatists. They didn’t want the state running the church. They chose to be self-governing. They believed in religious democracy, up to a point. You did have to agree to a certain amount of Christian orthodoxy in order to be a member of the church, but there was more emphasis on right living and mutual respect and having genuine religious experience. No bishops, no popes, no hierarchy, no divine right of kings or the monarch as head of the church. God was the only external authority, and discerning what God wanted them to do led to a lot of church meetings.
Roots of American democracy came from many sources. New England religion was an important one. The less numerous Pilgrims even persuaded their Puritan brothers (sisters didn’t vote) that democracy should be the way to govern themselves in both church and civil society.
So while you are celebrating the jour de merci donée with your dindon, remember to thank the Pilgrims and yes, the Puritans who embraced it as well, for the gift of democracy. And keep in mind that democracy is a fragile gift, one that needs to be honored, practiced, and polished regularly. And protected from all enemies foreign and domestic. Just sayin’.