They Knew They Were Pilgrims, Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty by John G. Turner

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Professor John Turner has written a comprehensive historical account of the early American settlers commonly called the Pilgrims. He begins with the formation of certain separatist groups in England which later moved to Leiden, Holland, to pursue freedom to worship according to their convictions. Not content in Leiden, a minority left for the American Colonies in 1620. Only 102 traveled the eight weeks across the sea on the Mayflower and only half of them were alive a year later (pp. 52-54, 73-74) but the handful who survived founded New Plymouth (p. 72), and established a way of life that still intrigues us today.

The essence of the book is stated by the author on the first page:

This is a history of the peoples who lived in Plymouth Colony (alternatively New Plymouth, later known within Massachusetts as the Old Colony) from the English and Dutch events that led to its 1620 founding until its 1691 incorporation into a larger Province of Massachusetts Bay.

In American mythology, the Pilgrims (a label they never used and which only emerged in the nineteenth century – p. ix) have been lionized as champions of liberty and the heroes of democracy and the Mayflower Compact as the template for the Declaration of Independence (p. 2). More recently, however, those storylines have been debunked and replaced with a portrait of a power-hungry, violent, separatist sect which murdered, enslaved and stole the land from the natives, could not get along with one another, and were anything but the holy people they claimed to be. Turner’s history of the Pilgrims definitely leans toward the latter, as it is filled with ugly accounts of every sort to the extent that the Pilgrims lose any claim to helos and being examples of freedom loving, Christ-honoring people. To be fair, the author attempts a balance between the extremes but the book drifts heavily toward the negative and gives story after story that not only burst the Pilgrim myths but reframe their lives as virtual hypocrites. This becomes the plot of the book because the events and history of the Pilgrims, which are well-researched,  lead to Turner’s conclusion. But their daily lives, their desire to live piously, their faith in God and love for one another are little explored. Of course, others have written volumes concerning the virtues of the Puritans, but Turner devotes almost no attention to this facet of their lives.

In fact, the legacy of the Pilgrims is complicated. The author chronicles the unseemly side of the Pilgrim experiment but admits that their history should be viewed in light of the times and their struggle for survival. The Pilgrims were not the flawless heroes of American folklore as often depicted, but neither were they the savage villains that the deconstructors of history portray. They were a people who genuinely loved the Lord, desired to carve out a place in which they could live and worship according to their convictions, and wanted to be self-governing along democratic ideas. Unfortunately, they were not prepared for the challenges that faced them, their ideas often crumbled even within their own community and churches, their fight for survival frequently turned ugly, and try as they may they did not create Utopia. By 1687 the colony founded by the Pilgrims in 1620 no longer existed in the same form (pp. 342-343). Much good had been accomplished during those decades, as New England was filling up with Europeans, but much evil and destruction lay in the wake of this settlement. It is easy from the perspective of time to look back and vilify the Pilgrims, but one has to wonder what we would do differently under the same circumstances.

They Knew They Were Pilgrims is a valuable contribution to understanding the history of the American Pilgrims, however It certainly does not advance the mythology commonly embraced by many. For this reason, in numerous ways this is a disturbing book, but one that is needed to grasp a full picture of who the Pilgrims were, what they tried to accomplish, and where they succeeded and failed. I would recommend it for those seeking an accurate historical account of the Pilgrims, but would warn that it will leave a bad taste in the mouth of those who idolize them.

They Knew They Were Pilgrims, Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty by John G. Turner (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020) 447 pp. & x, Hard $22.99

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/teacher Southern View Chapel.

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