America’s experiences in the 1600s — and our understanding of those times, now — are rather much like the final, radiant glow of golden autumn in an unexpected November snow, or like the vaulted stars in the night sky. We see traces of what was, the seasons gone; and we discern patterns there among those far-distant lights swirled around the footstep of Heaven. And yet, they remain elusive, somehow real and not real all at once, formless movement in the morning mist.
In and there among the well-known names of long-traveled roads and vibrant towns, we glimpse fleeting images of our past, and of ourselves now. We have always been working to achieve more than we were, to become better than who we used to be, and to do good by ourselves and others.
John Winthrop, the incoming governor of Massachusetts Bay in 1630, articulated the first, real foundation for our American way of life when he envisioned that those early settlements should do right under God, becoming a city upon a hill on which the eyes of the world would be fixed. It incorporated the religious freedom sought by the first Puritan residents only a few years before; and it involved a kind of eternal mission found in the self-determination and self-improvement of the individual thereafter.
It is possible that Winthrop could perhaps see there between the windswept dunes and forest bogs of what would become known as New England something which had escaped the notice of others. Perhaps Winthrop only gave a voice to a becoming recognized but not described. Perhaps he understood that a frail decade of experience in the New World had made anything possible. That he drew on the Bible for inspiration in his approach to a land that would become known for ideas and values rather than the land itself was prophetic.
People first came to this continent thousands of years ago, their children to become natives of the land. We know that a number of European explorers and settlers attempted to place a foot in the American wilds long before Winthrop — from the Spanish in Florida and the Southwest to the English in Roanoke Island and Jamestown.
But the first Puritans at Plymouth, and thereafter Winthrop and successive generations, were distinct in their religiousness. Perhaps friendly natives like Squanto, Massasoit and Samoset realized this, which helped to strengthen relations between them.
At times, there was genuinely peaceful and respectful coexistence and community between natives and settlers. At times, there was cruelty and war. There were moments of tragedy and excess, such as at Salem in 1692. And yet also, there was healing and freedom unknown anywhere else throughout the world. Some historians, for example, have argued that the colony of Maryland was the most religiously tolerant place on Earth in the 1640s.
The history of 1600s colonial America affects us in other ways, too. It can be argued that the Dutch of the colony of New Amsterdam, and their black clothing was the root of a cultural staple for New York. The deeply faithful Quakers who ultimately settled in Pennsylvania spearheaded antislavery efforts that would reverberate for years to come when their descendants would appeal to Benjamin Franklin. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England dragged along American colonials in Old World ways when most only wanted to be left alone — something which remains with us to this day as reluctant global arbiters.
Yet, it was those unique experiences and circumstances of the Puritans which forged a path of success and shortcomings, correction and improvement that we Americans still pursue. It is a path on which we forever journey, never to reach an end so long as we choose to travel. They drew on faith in God and faith in becoming — those very same traits we Americans harbor so closely in our hearts even now.
And still, in the present day, so many of us dismiss and disdain those early Americans as genocidal colonizers, as is the current trend of popular thought to see in American history only a storied succession of hatred in practice, each such instance worse than the last and targeted for contemporary political purposes.
Neither we, nor our history are perfect. We never pretended to be so. To focus only on mistakes, on wrong choices, on the commission of evils, is to deny those good and just American qualities, movements, and events which also matter, and which can make sense to us today only in the fading, autumn light of yesterday.
And what first set us apart from all other nations in the world was a moral understanding grounded in faith’s forgiveness and freedom that we could improve, that God was with us eternally in a season of spring so long as we tried to do was right.
This is why the much-mocked account and idea of the first meal of thanksgiving matters so much for us, now. That meal in 1621 made apparent and helped repair imperfections and failures, brought different people together under common ideas directed toward God, showcased the best of the human spirit, and reminded those in attendance to genuinely dwell upon, and be grateful for those gifts they had — such as family, friendship, freedom, community, food, shelter and life.
We must now, as they were then, be grateful. It is not always easy to be so. Very often, indeed usually, it takes effort and self-discipline. In politically charged times we are in danger of losing sight of the people sitting not only across the table from us, but beside us as well. We may not always agree, and will not always get things right, but we cannot refuse to sit down together at that table in celebration to God of what we do have in each other.
When we sit down at that table, we are no longer our politics, our incomes, our careers, our places of residence, none of that. We are Americans united in Thanksgiving to God. We may not see the far larger patterns should we see only a single star from a greater constellation, or consider only a single leaf from the tree of life. Those far-distant glimpses of an extraordinary, twilight world behind us are the starlight-graced, leaf-strewn path before us among familiar but different footsteps as we leave our own.