At the Thanksgiving holiday , the Wall Street Journal reprints, as it has on this day for the past forty-three years, the account given by Nathaniel Morton of the so-called Pilgrims who departed their refuge in Holland for the unknowns of the New World. It is difficult to put ourselves in their place, and give adequate weight to the courage and resolute faithfulness that they needed to show in this undertaking---not mention also the remarkable lengths to which they were willing to go to establish a Christian way of life for themselves and their offspring:
So they left that goodly and pleasant city of Leyden, which had been their resting-place for above eleven years, but they knew that they were pilgrims and strangers here below, and looked not much on these things, but lifted up their eyes to Heaven, their dearest country, where God hath prepared for them a city (Heb. XI, 16), and therein quieted their spirits.
When they came to Delfs-Haven they found the ship and all things ready, and such of their friends as could not come with them followed after them, and sundry came from Amsterdam to see them shipt, and to take their leaves of them. One night was spent with little sleep with the most, but with friendly entertainment and Christian discourse, and other real expressions of true Christian love.
The next day they went on board, and their friends with them, where truly doleful was the sight of that sad and mournful parting, to hear what sighs and sobs and prayers did sound amongst them; what tears did gush from every eye, and pithy speeches pierced each other's heart, that sundry of the Dutch strangers that stood on the Key as spectators could not refrain from tears. But the tide (which stays for no man) calling them away, that were thus loath to depart, their Reverend Pastor, falling down on his knees, and they all with him, with watery cheeks commended them with the most fervent prayers unto the Lord and His blessing; and then with mutual embraces and many tears they took their leaves one of another, which proved to be the last leave to many of them.
Being now passed the vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before them in expectations, they had now no friends to welcome them, no inns to entertain or refresh them, no houses, or much less towns, to repair unto to seek for succour; and for the season it was winter, and they that know the winters of the country know them to be sharp and violent, subject to cruel and fierce storms, dangerous to travel to known places, much more to search unknown coasts.
Besides, what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wilde beasts and wilde men? and what multitudes of them there were, they then knew not: for which way soever they turned their eyes (save upward to Heaven) they could have but little solace or content in respect of any outward object; for summer being ended, all things stand in appearance with a weatherbeaten face, and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hew.
If they looked behind them, there was a mighty ocean which they had passed, and was now as a main bar or gulph to separate them from all the civil parts of the world.
It is an awesome scene. Small wonder that so many of the New England Puritans saw themselves enacting, with the grit and determination of their own lives, the familiar patterns of Biblical displacement and exile. For those stories were the very warp and woof of their existence, the meat and drink that sustained them. Without that template of meaning for this endeavor, the great Puritan migration to this hemisphere would not have occurred, certainly not in the way that it did.
And we would consequently have been a very different people. It is because of them that those stories, including their own story, are part of the warp and woof of this nation too. The critics of the concept of "Christian America" are right, of course, albeit in a limited way. The founding of this nation can't be reduced to religious tenets and motives. But it cannot be understood, then or now, without constant recourse to them. And a group of people that know themselves to be "pilgrims and strangers here below" have a safeguard against the tendency to confuse the nation with the Kingdom. Let us be thankful, this Thanksgiving, that this insight has not been lost.
It is now fashionable among certain Christians to prove their devotion to Christ by expressing their unqualified contempt for the American nation-state and all its works. I have some sympathy for such sentiments, and consider some of these folks my friends. They do valuable work in reminding Christians that they are first and foremost citizens of heaven. But I think their judgment misses the mark, and falls short of Christian maturity. It is the anger and mocking tone that creeps into their discourse that gives them away. There is all the difference in the world between, for example, a cosmopolitanism that builds upon, and transcends (sometimes at great personal expense), one's more provincial and local loyalties, and a cosmopolitanism that never had any such loyalties to begin with, and adopts cosmopolitanism as a perpetual superior pose, a lifelong adolescent revenge against the village. Calling ourselves "a peculiar people" or "resident aliens" should not become a religiously sanctioned way of giving the finger to our neighbors.
One of the most overused words emanating from this particular perspective is "idolatry." It should be used far more sparingly. Not every powerful earthly attachment is a form of idolatry. On the contrary. The incarnational qualities of the Christian faith demand that we cherish what is here and now---the day-old bread on our table, the tangled families in which we find ourselves, the often-exasperating work of our hands, the disappointing churches in which we worship, and so on---even as we are called to remember, and live in the light of, what is beyond them.
And so the virtues of patriotism are secondary but real---as real as any of our loyalties, short of those to God Himself. We should be thankful for the peerless gift of this rich and abundant land. With all its faults, it has been a refuge for all of humanity—an island of prosperity and order and democracy in a cruel and violent world, and a place where the most vital of all liberties, the freedom to worship God in spirit and truth, has been cherished and enshrined in our fundamental institutions.
We constantly fail to appreciate the magnitude of this legacy---and the responsibilities entailed in it. We should live in gratitude and faithfulness to it, even as we built upon it in our own ways. We should strive to be worthy of our forebears’ hopes, their dreams, their sacrifices, and their love. We should pray for the strength and wisdom and discipline to be good stewards of this gift. And yes, we are obliged to improve and purify and preserve it, so that the generations to come will also have reason to be thankful that we were here.
Yet even as we give thanks for our nation, the example of the Pilgrims reminds us that this beautiful place is not our home. That we were made not for it, or for any other earthly nation, but for God alone. That even this great nation, like all things here below, is imperfect, and will perish someday. That even as we make our homes, plant our gardens, and raise our families here, there will come a time when those families are no more, when our yet-unborn grandchildren will be vanished, our houses torn down, every earthly grace and beauty decayed into dust and scattered in the air. That this city on a hill is, like every earthly city, not a city for us to abide in.
So Thanksgiving is a time to love our country for the right reasons. It is, on the simplest plane, where God has placed us. That alone makes it a gift we did not deserve. It also is a nation that does not---yet---put Caesar in God’s place, and is still---for now---a land where the knowledge of God's Word and Kingdom have been given a special protection. Indeed, it has been a bulwark to pilgrims and seekers through the years, and remains so today, despite many threatening clouds. Long may it prosper. But may we always seek His Kingdom first.