“You will say they deserved it,” wrote the Separatist pastor John Robinson in 1623, after he first heard about the killings. The recipient of this letter was Pilgrim leader William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth colony in America. Robinson had been a long-time spiritual mentor to the Pilgrims who had immigrated to the New World in 1620. Years earlier, he had served as their pastor in Scrooby, England. Harassed by the English government and the established church due to their religious non-conformity and their unwillingness to engage in worship they deemed corrupt, Robinson eventually accompanied his flock into exile in Holland.

Ironically, the generous religious freedom they enjoyed in the Netherlands could also be interpreted as alarming spiritual laxity, and so the plans for what would become the Mayflower voyage were first hatched in that Dutch refuge. Although Robinson never left Europe, he remained keenly interested in the lives of his friends in New England. However, as Robinson penned this particular letter in 1623, pastoral encouragement was not the order of the day. Instead, he had just been informed of a disturbing altercation between his former parishioners and a group of local Native Americans that left several Indians dead.

In 1622, a company of English settlers under the leadership of Thomas Weston had established a rival colony at Wessagussett, several miles north of Plymouth. Quarrels over food soon soured the relationship between Wessagussett and the local Massachusett tribe, and rumors of an impending Native American attack against both Weston’s party and the Pilgrims soon reached Plymouth. Convinced by Chief Massasoit of the rival Wampanoag tribe that a preemptive strike was the wisest course of action, Bradford authorized Captain Miles Standish to set a deadly trap for the Massachusetts.

Under the pretext of a banquet, in March 1623 Standish lured several Massachusett warriors into the Wessagusssett settlement, and proceeded to stab them to death as they ate. By the end of the attack, seven Massachusett warriors had been killed, with the head of one individual named Wituwamat being delivered back to Plymouth to be placed on public display at the end of a pike.[1] Despite being the first to resort to violence, the leaders of Plymouth framed the assault as a necessary act of self-preservation. (“We knew no means to . . . preserve ourselves,” bemoaned Edward Winslow of Plymouth, “than by returning their own malicious and cruel purposes on their own head.”)[2] Nevertheless, it fell to Robinson to push back against that narrative with the difficult question: “But upon what provocations . . . by those heathenish Christians?”[3] Centuries later, Robinson’s rebuke still offers a way forward for Americans who wrestle with past failures while striving to build a better nation.

For many generations, the first Thanksgiving in 1621 has been the moment that Americans have chosen to remember about the Pilgrims. That is understandable – it is a moment of optimism and hope, untainted by subsequent events. At first glance, an Indian war would seem to highlight violence, injustice, and the worst tendencies in the settlement of America. But it is here that Robinson’s letter is especially relevant. Instead of depicting violent conflict as inevitable, or rushing to defend it out of personal loyalty, it suggests the existence of a better way more consistent with the Pilgrims’ own theological convictions. In criticizing the settlers’ posture toward Native Americans, he offered two correctives with the power to contain frontier violence and popular passion. First, the Pilgrims must remain accountable to a higher standard against which their actions might be measured and judged. Mere pragmatism was an insufficient justification for violence on this scale. Even as the Pilgrims departed the Netherlands, Robinson had reminded them in his farewell sermon that they had a religious duty to remain open to “whatsoever light or truth shall be made known ” to them, so long as they “examine[d] and compare[d], and weigh[ed] it with . . . Scriptures.” Their lives must conform to a higher truth. They did not get to make up the rules as they went along.

When considering the violence that had led to the death of the Native Americans, Robinson warned the settlers that their behavior “may be wanting” in the “tenderness” toward the “life of man (made after God’s image) which is meet.” In other words, the Pilgrims must always value human life, and even their enemies were created in God’s image. Furthermore, Robinson warned “it is also a thing more glorious in men’s eyes, than pleasing to God’s . . . to be a terror to poor barbarous people.”[4] Although there may be short-term advantages to striking inordinate fear into your nearest neighbors, the Pilgrims’ behavior must also live up to the demands of Christian love.

Indeed, identifying a set of first principles which one has an obligation to “live up to” is one of the ways in which the experiment at Plymouth in 1620 foreshadows the later experience of the United States. We live now in a historic moment where we are keenly aware of the shortcomings of the men who composed our founding documents. Can the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution ever transcend the flaws of our ancestors? The fact that generations of Americans have taken these words about unalienable rights seriously and have struggled to live up to them strongly suggests they can. Ideas take on a life of their own.

It is no accident that in 1776 future first lady Abigail Adams argued for women’s’ rights by pointing out that female political participation was in harmony with the spirit of the Revolution.[5] Or that feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s 1848 Declaration of Sentiments relied on the same natural rights argument as Thomas Jefferson’s more famous declaration.[6] Or that Abraham Lincoln saw the Civil War as the fulfillment of the founding promises of liberty and equality in his 1863 Gettysburg Address.[7] Martin Luther King Jr. would later call these founding documents “promissory notes.”[8] They were the nation’s obligations to its citizens, and moral debts that must be paid. Like a latter-day John Robinson, King called on a nation to repent of its sin and live up to those ideals.

But Robinson had one more bone to pick with the settlers at Plymouth. He also contended that Plymouth’s interactions with Native Americans must be contained within prescribed legal boundaries. The pastor reminded the governor that because “you, being no magistrates over them, were to consider, not what they deserved, but what you were by necessity constrained to inflict. Necessity of . . . killing so many . . . I see not.”[9] The settlers of Plymouth could not rightfully go beyond the necessities of self-defense when dealing with people outside their political jurisdiction. Power must be limited by law, rather than the law justifying power.

One hundred sixty years later James Madison remarked in Federalist No. 51 that “in framing a government which is to be administered men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed: and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”[10] The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia once quipped that the Soviet Union’s bill of rights was “wonderful; it was better than ours.”[11] But the totalitarian government of the USSR, with its unlimited power, need never be bound by words on a page. No structural safeguards existed that placed limits on what the state could do – those rights were never anything more than an empty “parchment guarantee.”[12]

When the immense power of Germany was placed at the complete disposal of Adolf Hitler, nothing remained to prevent Nazism from permeating every aspect of life. The unfettered state attempted to erase any notion of right or wrong beyond the will of the leader, and unspeakable horrors ensued. Even after the fall of the Third Reich, Nazi ideology maintained such a hold on some Germans that the ethical boundaries around power were hard to reconstruct. For instance, while being tried by the Allies for war crimes in 1946, former Nazi foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop remarked that “even though I am here in jail on trial for my life, if Hitler were to walk into this room at this moment and command anything, I would do it immediately without thought of consequence.”[13]

Separated by centuries, we can never really know for sure how John Robinson might have counseled von Ribbentrop as he faced the gallows, or what specific advice he might have for us as we navigate the complicated moral landscape of twenty-first century America.

We can only know how he responded to those in his own place and time, how he drew the line between right and wrong in the world he lived in, and then come to our own conclusions. As the Pilgrims prepared to embark on their journey to America, Robinson reminded them of the importance of daily renewing “our repentance with our God, especially for our sins known, and generally for our unknown trespasses.”[14] As the Pilgrims built a new colony in a new world, they were expected to remain mindful of their moral responsibilities. First principles must be upheld. Sin must be acknowledged. And power must be kept within its proper bounds. In their moment of failure, Robinson offered the Pilgrims a way to become better, both as individuals and as a community – a path their descendants in the United States still seek.

Footnotes

  1. Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. 135-57. Amazon.com: Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War (Audible Audio Edition): Nathaniel Philbrick, George Guidall, Penguin Audio: Audible Books & Originals
  2. Edward Winslow, Good News from New England: A True Relation of Things Very Remarkable at the Plantation of Plimoth in New England. 43. “Good News from New England” by Edward Winslow: A Scholarly Edition (Native Americans of the Northeast): Wisecup, Kelly: 9781625340832: Amazon.com: Books
  3. https://oll.libertyfund.org/title/robinson-words-of-john-robinson-robinsons-farewell-address-to-the-pilgrims#preview
  4. https://oll.libertyfund.org/title/robinson-words-of-john-robinson-robinsons-farewell-address-to-the-pilgrims#preview
  5. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/abigail-adams-urges-husband-to-remember-the-ladies
  6. https://liberalarts.utexas.edu/coretexts/_files/resources/texts/1848DeclarationofSentiments.pdf
  7. https://www.britannica.com/event/Gettysburg-Address
  8. https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm
  9. https://oll.libertyfund.org/title/robinson-words-of-john-robinson-robinsons-farewell-address-to-the-pilgrims#preview
  10. https://billofrightsinstitute.org/founding-documents/primary-source-documents/the-federalist-papers/federalist-papers-no-51/
  11. https://news.usc.edu/33472/scalia-takes-a-stand-on-constitutional-law/
  12. https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/antoninscaliaamericanexceptionalism.htm
  13. Michael Bloch, Ribbentrop: A Biography, 440. https://www.amazon.com/Ribbentrop-Biography-Michael-Bloch/dp/0517593106
  14. https://oll.libertyfund.org/title/robinson-words-of-john-robinson-robinsons-farewell-address-to-the-pilgrims#lf0063_head_013
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Posted by Timothy Wood

Timothy L. Wood is the Roy Blunt Professor of History at Southwest Baptist University. He is the author of Agents of Wrath, Sowers of Discord: Authority and Dissent in Puritan Massachusetts, 1630-55.

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