Simple Gifts: Saints and Strangers

John & Priscilla Alden

By Diane Alden

The NewsMax Years #32
Still ON TARGET: November 20, 2001

There is a Quaker song I have loved since I first heard it sung by the Brigham Young University choir. That song is “Simple Gifts.” At this Thanksgiving time I am grateful for the simple gifts, of course, but I am just as grateful for those that are not so simple. Actually, some of those simple gifts passed on by my ancestors came at a great price.

Because of our surname, my kid brother John and I took an immense amount of teasing from our schoolmates. From the fourth grade on, every Benedictine nun who ever taught us would have us read the Courtship of Miles Standish during the Thanksgiving season.

That is the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow epic poem of a courtship that may have never been. As historians have observed, there is no indication that Miles Standish had a thing for Priscilla Mullins, who later became Mrs. John Alden. Nevertheless, it made a nice story for Longfellow, a descendant of the two Mayflower passengers.

It is reported that currently there are over 10 million living descendants of the 52 Mayflower Pilgrims who had children. John Alden’s descendants’ total posterity now number in the millions.

One interesting fact is that presidents of three countries were Alden descendants. In addition to John Adams and John Quincy Adams, Jan Garrigue Masaryk (1896-1948), president of Czechoslovakia, and Erskine Hamilton Childers (1905-1974), president of Ireland, are descendants.

The Pilgrims were actually a large minority of the passengers carried on the Mayflower. The rest of the passengers were families that came out of England willing to join the settlement as part of a business deal.

This was the original multinational corporation, known as the English Partners. It consisted of English merchants and New World planters, who gave the company money, equipment and labor to support it for seven years. At the end of seven years, everything the company owned would be divided among the partners, each share being worth money or land.

John Alden did not join the group for religious reasons. He came on board the Mayflower as part crew member and part carpenter and barrel maker. He did so because it paid much more than working on land at the same trade and because he was an adventurous sort, besides being a cousin of the captain of the Mayflower, Christopher Jones, who thought it would be a good chance for the young man to set a new course in his life.

Aboard the Mayflower were 44 religious Separatists, who called themselves the “Saints,” and 66 others, whom the “Saints” called the “Strangers.” So it was on Sept. 6, 1620, the “Saints” and “Strangers” set sail for the New World.

They sailed as part of a business venture but with overriding religious reasons. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Separatists were not the same as the Puritans. Only about one-third of the original colonists were Separatists.

After two false starts, the Mayflower’s ill-fated sister ship, the Speedwell, remained in England. Without the help of the Speedwell, the Mayflower finally set off for the unknown in September of 1620. The trip took 65 days on a stormy Atlantic.

Because of the storms, major repairs had to be made to the Mayflower en route. So John Alden, the carpenter, repaired the mainmast so they could continue the voyage. Since there was danger of fire, food had to be eaten cold and it fell to him as barrel maker to keep it fit to eat.

As it was, many passengers became sick and one person died by the time land was sighted on Nov. 10. Passengers spoke of many days on end where they were never dry, yet only one of their number died on the way.

In any event, a quarrel broke out between the factions on board. Just as today, the new worlders had disagreements, and this time it was between the Saints and the Strangers.

After land was sighted, a meeting was held and an agreement worked out between the two factions. The resulting document is, of course, the Mayflower Compact. That simple document would serve as an underpinning of later American documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

A simple compact, or agreement, it has fewer words than Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Nevertheless, its impact was just as profound. That compact between the Saints and the Strangers sealed the direction of the “new world.” It guaranteed equality, equal standing, between the two factions: One would not have preference or be “more equal” than the other.

Thus it was that the first stirrings of an American kind of freedom was born. That simple compact came out of religious conscience and an appreciation for one God, but held each person as an individual and important to the whole. Saints and Strangers thus fixed on a common course. As a result, two factions were united, and Saints and Strangers became the “Pilgrims.”

The Mayflower Compact states:

In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are underwriten, by the loyall subjects of our dread soveraigne Lord, King James, by the grace of God, of Great Britaine, Franc, and Ireland king, defender of the faith, etc.Haveing undertaken, for the glorie of God, and advancemente of the Christian faith, and honour of our king and countrie, a voyage to plant the first colonie in the Northerne parts of Virginia, doe by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God, and one another, covenant and combine our selves togeather into a civill body politick, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by vertue hereof to enacte, constitute and frame shuch just and equall lawes, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meete and convenient for the generall good of the Colonie, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witnes whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cap-Codd the .11. of November, in the year of the raigne of our soveraigne lord, King James, of England, France, and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fiftie-fourth. Anno Dom. 1620

Pilgrims and Puritans were not the same thing. As one historian put it, “The most obvious difference between the Pilgrims and the Puritans is that the Puritans had no intention of breaking with the Anglican church.”

Both Puritans and Pilgrims were nonconformists, both refused to accept an authority beyond that of the revealed word. But where the Pilgrims had translated this into something closer to an egalitarian mode, the “Puritans considered religion a very complex, subtle, and highly intellectual affair, and their leaders thus were highly trained scholars whose education tended to translate into positions that were often authoritarian. There was a built-in hierarchy in this sense, but one which mostly reflected the age.”

The Puritans, followers of the purified Anglican, or Church of England, separated themselves from the mass of man by intellectual distinctions based on scholarship. Sort of the way the professoriate and academic have done in the United States throughout our history.

But sadly, in this day and age, we in America have evolved our own Cotton Mathers and the religion of political correctness that thrives in our present university systems. I have always believed that political correctness and modern academe is just another form of Puritanism. Whether they know it or not, the proponents of political correctness in our universities are the intellectual descendants of the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony.

But I digress. Back to 1620, the Pilgrims, or “Saints,” were a religious bunch; however, there was a strain of egalitarianism that ran through their creed, as one can tell from reading the Mayflower Compact. While the Separatists were not exactly rowdy party-givers, neither did they have the bleak view of life, humanity and elitism that the Puritans had.

In any event, the newly named “Pilgrims” landed on the bleak shore of Plymouth on Dec. 11, 1620. They passed a winter in sickness and hardships. They began to die – one per day, then two, and sometimes three. They dug the graves at night, so that the Indians would not see how their numbers were dwindling. At one point, there were only seven persons able to fetch wood, make fires, and care for the sick.

By the spring, they had lost 46 of the original 102 who sailed on the Mayflower. Befriended by Indians who helped and taught them how to grow food, they learned how to survive in their new world. The Indians taught them them to tap maple trees for sap, which plants were poisonous and which could be used as medicine. In the spring the settlers planted 20 acres of corn, barley and peas. The corn and barley did well, but the peas died in the hot sun.

Now we come to how Thanksgiving Day came to be. There are several options.

It is said that the Saints got the idea from the Dutch when they stayed in Holland. The Dutch celebrated a day of thanksgiving for their victory over the Spanish in October 1575. Others say that it was just a celebration of the harvest they brought in that first year, still others that it was merely the typical harvest celebration that goes back into antiquity.

In any event, to those who survived that first year in Plymouth Colony, any reason was a good reason to celebrate. They invited the Indians and their chief, Massasoit, and were surprised when 90 natives accepted the invitation. The Indians killed five deer for the feast and are said to have introduced the settlers to eating oysters.

One settler reported: “Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent 4 men fowling so that we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. The hunters returned with many wild turkeys, wood pigeons, partridges, geese, and ducks.” Others brought in clams, eels and various kinds of fish. The women were busy preparing the foods, making Indian pudding, hoecake, and so forth.

Historians now say there was more party about the event than thanks to God.

It wasn’t until 1623 that the thanks in Thanksgiving had religious overtones. In that year a drought struck and crops died in the fields. Gov. William Bradford ordered a day of fasting and prayer. For nine hours the praying continued. The rain came and saved the crops.

To celebrate, Nov. 29, 1623 was proclaimed a day of thanksgiving:

I, William Bradford, your magistrate, do proclaim that all ye Pilgrims, with your wives and little ones, do gather at ye meeting house, on ye hill, between the hours of 9 and 12 in the day time, on Thursday, November ye 29th of the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred and twenty-three, and the third year since ye Pilgrims landed on ye Pilgrim Rock, there to listen to ye pastor, and render thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all His blessings.

This date is believed to be the true beginning of the present Thanksgiving Day, as it is based on religious as well as social reasons.

It is said when the Dutch arrived in New York they began to celebrate “Thanks Days” in 1644 and eventually the custom spread through out the colonies. The custom of combining the religious elements at these Thanksgiving Days gradually spread from New England to other settlements.

During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress set several Thanksgiving Days for the people to rejoice in their homes and churches for victories won. In 1778, George Washington proclaimed a day on which to give thanks for the treaties just concluded with France.

After the Union’s victory at Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation making the last Thursday in November the official date for Thanksgiving.

That is the story, or rather stories, of Thanksgiving. But it isn’t the whole story. The whole and entire story has always had to do with faith. The Saints and Strangers of 1620 had faith in themselves, in each other, in the possibilities of the new world and the new era before them, and in the one God they all recognized.

They came to the New World for different reasons, but they stayed for the same ones. As a result, the simple gift they passed on is the common heritage we take from being American. Diverse in its inception, the New World known as America has offered hope and freedom to those who would make the most of it. In fact, it may very well be hope’s last home.

Yet among Americans, there are those who seek to hold fast the tribal and cultural differences of times past. They represent what the Saints and Strangers left behind in the Old World.

They are of the same species as those who always keep the saints and strangers on the run. They are same ones who deny any unique creation or the very idea of something specifically called American.

They are the grandees of political correctness. They keep alive the eternal hatreds of division, and they keep opening the wounds of separatism and call it wonderful and “celebrating diversity.”

Like the Puritans, they set themselves apart as elite and special. They crush the real diversity in the human soul and psyche while denying the need to create a new identity from diversity. They deny that America is a place of new beginnings spun off from the same old story of persecution and oppression and lack of opportunity.

Would that Americans could leave them behind as completely as the Saints and Strangers left behind the old tired world of Europe.

I am proud to be among the descendants of these Saints and Strangers. Proud to be a child of all the pilgrims, those of 1620 as well as those of 1910.

On this Thanksgiving I just wish the divided hearts, the sad ones trying to keep us separate by dwelling on our differences and celebrating “diversity” would instead celebrate our uniqueness as Americans.

I would pray they choose to come off their isolated pedestals in ivory towers and marble halls, and rather begin to understand that all “diverse” stories must be woven into the unique American story. It is a good story, as good as and better than many. It is only the ungrateful and selfish heart that can’t see how very special this unique story really is.

God in His goodness has never blessed a people or a nation so mightily as He has America the Beautiful. That is the simple and profound gift to the saints and strangers who live in this place called America.


First published at NewsMax.com on November 20, 2001. Copyright © 2000-2011 Diane Alden


The Moral Lib­eral Senior Edi­tor, Diane Alden, was one of NewsMax.com’s most pop­u­lar and out­spo­ken pun­dits ( 1999–2008), and before that, a wonk for The Nevada Pol­icy Insti­tute. A former DJ in Geor­gia, Diane of late has been a weekly guest on the East Coast hit program, The Marc Bernier Show. Diane is loved for her quick sense of humor, cre­ative vocab­u­lary, inde­pen­dence of mind, and her pen­e­trat­ing analy­sis of a wide range of polit­i­cal, eco­nomic, and cul­tural issues.