Editor’s note: This article was first published by the Center for Vision & Values on November 24, 2004.
Did you ever learn anything profound from a fourth grade play? I did yesterday.
I took an hour off of work to go to the humble theatre of Grove City Christian Academy — the little gymnasium of First Baptist Church in Grove City, Pennsylvania — to see my son’s play about the Mayflower Compact. I didn’t expect to learn anything. But I did.
Among other things, I learned that the little Mayflower set sail for the Hudson Bay area in what was then part of the Virginia colony but it was blown off course by heavy storms. I didn’t know that, or maybe I forgot that. Finding an ideal natural harbor near a defensible mainland with good land that had been cleared by an Indian tribe no longer present, the Pilgrims decided to settle at Plymouth, Massachusetts.
In addition to the harsh winter weather, lack of supplies and shelter, the Pilgrims had a problem. Far north of the Virginia colony, they would not be subjects of the Virginia Company—they lacked civil authority. Dissension began to set in. Some wanted to go their own way, do their own thing. But the talents of all were needed for survival and they had committed themselves to a spiritual covenant relationship when they set sail from Leyden, Holland.
The solution: use their spiritual covenant as a foundation for a civil government covenant. The result: The Mayflower Compact. Here we have the first formal written document expressing the tenets of American civil government.
“The Mayflower Compact embodies the early American concern for freedom, self-governance and a strong commitment to Christianity,” says Grove City College political science professor Dr. Michael Coulter. “And it exhibits what Tocqueville described as the point of departure—a democracy not given over to individual passion and desire, but a democracy that works because it is restrained by religion. The Mayflower Compact is an important achievement too because the people developed the document themselves; they didn’t act like many in history as subservient subjects relying on an external governmental force for guidance.”
Back to the Baptist church gymnasium. It’s March 1621. The Pilgrims signed the Mayflower Compact back in November, got off the boat in December and lost nearly half of their 102 members to the harsh New England winter. Frank Ayers, I mean Samoset, enters the scene. My son, Miles Standish, stands guard warily as an Indian, who had learned to speak English from fishermen, approaches.
Samoset returns a week later with the chief of the Wampanoag tribe, Massasoit, played by Matthew Welker (who scores lots of goals when he plays soccer) and Squanto.
Squanto had been a member of the Patuxet tribe that had previously inhabited the Pilgrim’s land. But the tribe had been wiped out by plague. Squanto had survived because he had been captured, for a second time, as a slave and had been sent to Europe for a second time during the plague. Squanto was freed in Spain by friars who had introduced him to Christianity. When he returned to his homeland, Squanto found nobody. Dejected, he traveled several miles and resided with the Wampanoag tribe six months before the Pilgrims departed Holland.
Samoset told Squanto about the Pilgrims. Renewed, Squanto had found his life’s work—teaching the pilgrims to survive, trade and prosper on the land that had belonged to his tribe. Here we see the emerging combination of education, cooperation and free enterprise that lifted a people out of poverty and made a nation into a land of economic opportunity to the world.
Thanks to Squanto’s teaching, crops, game and fish sustained the Pilgrims while Beaver pelts provided their economic gain. At a time when the Pilgrims had nothing, God provided a man of unusual knowledge and talent who taught them how to be self-sustaining. And He provided perhaps the only friendly Indian tribe in the area as a neighbor whose leader, Massasoit, would sign a peace treaty of mutual aid and assistance that would last for a generation.
Nine year-old Matthew Thrasher, who was cast very well as a confident Governor William Bradford, declares a day of thanksgiving in October 1621.
The boys and girls line up, bow and pose for a cast picture. My wife and I proudly congratulate Miles Standish and his friends. Parents depart, children file out to their classes and I find my mind wandering as I head back to work.
Why I am in awe of a fourth grade play and thanking God, I wonder? Pausing for a moment on this unseasonably warm and sunny day the answer comes to me. My son and his schoolmates just reminded us of one of the greatest lessons ever taught—we have God’s daily Providence and a nation to be thankful for on Thanksgiving … and every day thereafter.
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