“And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.” — Edward Winslow, December 11, 1621, Mayflower passenger, speaking of the first Thanksgiving
Most historians believe the American Pilgrims were deeply religious people who studied the Bible and whose intent was to create a new community based on Biblical teaching. As they were trying to find a way to express their thanks for their early survival and good harvest, it is quite possible that they looked to the Bible (Leviticus 23:39) for an appropriate way of celebrating and based their first Thanksgiving, in part on the Feast of Tabernacles, a Jewish fall harvest festival.
Yet, there had not been much to celebrate during the previous year. The long stormy passage left many of the Pilgrims sick with scurvy and typhus. The first winter was devastating, with less than 50 of the original 102 colonists surviving the exceptionally severe winter. By spring, 12 of the 18 married women had died, including Edward Winslow’s wife.[i] The living had the strength barely to put in the next year’s crop.
We all know the story that with the help of the Native Americans, who showed the Pilgrims how to plant corn, food shortages were resolved, resulting in a great harvest and the first Thanksgiving celebration.
But few of us know the rest of the story…
The Pilgrims continued to face chronic food shortages for the next three years. They failed to plant enough food and experienced another lean winter. However, it was not bad weather or lack of farming skills that caused that second lean winter. Instead, many of the men were not motivated to work hard because of the colony’s collective community organization.
Based on a misunderstanding of the opening chapters of the book of Acts, the Plymouth Plantation was founded in 1620 with a system of communal property rights, not biblical property rights. The community held everything in common, including food and supplies, distributing them equally and as needed by plantation officials. Everyone received equal portions regardless of their contribution. It sounds good, even biblical, until we read more closely.
Many Christians today point to Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32—5:11 as a “primary example of the collective commitment of the initial church.”ii New Testament scholar Paul Jeon argues in Collectivism and/or Christianity: An Exegetical Study of Acts 2:42-47 And 4:32—5:11, “This view is misguided. It is based principally on a misinterpretation of several key texts.”[ii]
Jeon concludes that each passage reveals the “consistent theme that all giving was a voluntary and joyful responseto the gospel and its powerful attestations through the apostles and its social implications” (emphasis mine). He also concludes that these first believers were not “compelled by the apostles to surrender their right to personal property and its discretionary use.” He further notes:
The Jerusalem community of brothers in Christ engaged in something different. Theirs was a voluntary, not an enforced, compliance. Nor did the Jerusalem community suggest anything unworthy about private ownership. When Barnabas, for example, sold a field, it is described as one “that belonged to him” (Acts 4:37). What these Christians practiced was not a primitive form of communism but a generosity of heart toward the needs of those they regarded as brothers and sisters in Christ. They were putting into practice what Paul would eventually summarize as the need to do good to all, “especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10).[iii]
In his 1647 “History of Plymouth Plantation,” Gov. William Bradford wrote about their collective system:
…this system was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. The problem was that young men, that were most able and fit for labor, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense. Because of the poor incentives, little food was produced.[iv]
In the spring of 1623, facing potential starvation, the colony abandoned its communal system. Each family was given their own land on which they could keep everything they grew for themselves. But now they alone were responsible for feeding themselves, taking to heart Paul’s admonition in II Thessalonians 3:10, “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”
Economists often talk about the “tragedy of the commons,” an illustration that demonstrates how we can lose accountability when we don’t own the property we are using. No one assumes responsibility for the commons, for its maintenance, or its growth. As a result, its common resources are depleted.
If resources are held privately, that is, if someone owns the resource, that person will have an incentive to tend to it, nurture it, and make it more productive. In practice, without property rights, we lose much of our ability promote the flourishing that God so dearly wants for us. Nor is this just a practical argument, as II Thessalonians 3:10 shows.
This is an area where we find much confusion in the church. We say that we are to be good stewards of everything God has given us, remembering that God owns it all. Yet, the scriptures are full of instructions about property rights. For example, the eighth commandment states, “Thou shalt not steal,” which implies property rights. Yet, if God owns the cattle of a thousand hills, how can I put my brand on one of those cows? Here are six principles that help to flesh out a more extensive definition of stewardship and resolve this supposed paradox:
- God Owns Everything
Paul writes in Col. 1:16: “For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.”
- Everything We Have Is a Gift from God
Everything you have, eat, drink, breathe, wear, or use is because of God’s grace. We must echo Job’s declaration from Job 1:21: ““Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.”
- God Has Given Us Authority Over His Earthly Creation
The biblical term for this idea is “stewardship.” God, the creator, owner of everything, gives human beings provisional rule and ownership in this earthly realm. We see this first in the opening chapters of the Bible in what is called the Cultural Mandate (Gen. 1:28).
- Man’s Private Property Rights Are Established by God
The biblical idea of Christian stewardship firmly establishes the right to private property, as we read in both the Old and New Testaments. At first, this might seem like a contradiction, but consider this: if God gives you stewardship over a house and other property, that property, although a gift from God, becomes yours in a concrete, definite way. Only you have the responsibility to watch over and care for it. Those rights and responsibilities over your house and other things do not belong to the government, to the community, or your neighbor.
- The Work of Our Hands Matters
This provisional stewardship provides us with incentives to be productive and strive toward the flourishing—the peace and prosperity of our cities—to which God desires for us. Property rights are one tool that can help us live out biblical stewardship.
In economics, we think about property rights as crucial aspects in a market- and opportunity-based society. Property rights put parameters around that for which are accountable and responsible. They are not just windfall gains that we get to use however we wish; instead, God has gifted us with skills and talents to create more out of what we are given.
This is what happens in the Parable of the Talents—the master gives resources to his servants with the expectation that they will increase his investment.
- We Will Be Held Accountable
We have the call to steward the gifts that God has given us. It is only in this concept of biblical stewardship that we find the beautiful balance between God’s gifts and man’s obligations. By requiring stewardship of us, God sets up a wall of protection around what we possess – not an insurmountable wall, but a clear demarcation nonetheless. And at some point, we will have to give an account to God for how we exercise that stewardship.
As Christians, our faith requires us to live out an understanding that ownership of property is a God-given right, and the stewardship of that same property is a God-given responsibility.
We need to understand stewardship as accountability over all of our choices, decisions, and resources. This type of stewardship is all-inclusive, touching every area of life, including our time and talent as well as our treasure. It is faithfully using whatever God gives us (opportunities, interests, skills, employment, family, talents, spiritual gifts, land, money, etc.) for his glory to serve the common good and to further his Kingdom. This is not only biblical. It helps us not only want to do good but to do the good we hope to carry out.
For the Pilgrims, this return to the idea of property rights had dramatic results. Food production soared, and the colony prospered. Bradford wrote, “This change had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been. Giving people economic incentives changed their behavior.”[v]
In the Pilgrims’ new economic system were planted the seeds of our free market, which offers incentives for both individual flourishing and the mutual benefit of all.
Dramatic results followed. More land was cleared. More crops were planted. Everything was going well until summer arrived. Bradford tells how the summer of 1623 was unusually hot with no rain for weeks. Edward Winslow writes a graphic description of the corn in his journal:
Both blade and stalk handing the head and changing the color in such manner as we judged it utterly dead…Now ere our hopes overthrown, and we discouraged, our joy turned into mourning…because God, which hitherto had been our only shield and supporter, now seeded in this anger to turn Himself against us.[vi]
Facing impending disaster, Bradford called the colony to a day of “humiliation and prayer.”[vii] For the Pilgrims, “humiliation” meant repenting from trusting in their strength and ability rather than in God.
They prayed all day, but there was not a single cloud in the sky. Yet, near the end of the day, God gave them, Bradford says, “A gracious and speedy answer, both to their own and the Native Americans’ admiration that lived amongst them.” Bradford goes on to say:
For all the morning and the greatest part of the day, it was clear weather and very hot, and not a cloud or any sign of rain to be seen; yet toward evening it began to overcast, and shortly after to rain with such sweet and gentle showers as gave them cause of rejoicing and blessing God…It came without wind or thunder or any violence, and by degrees in that abundance as that the earth was thoroughly wet and soaked … which did so apparently revive and quicken the decayed corn and other fruits as was wonderful to see, and made the Indians astonished to behold.[viii]
From that day forward, God continued to give them seasonable showers and fair weather such that they enjoyed a fruitful and bountiful harvest in the fall. The harvest was so abundant they ended up with a surplus of corn.
The Pilgrims planned another Thanksgiving celebration to honor God’s gracious provision of answered prayer–the second Thanksgiving Day in the New World.
There is a lesson to be learned from this story of the second Thanksgiving, and it is more than economic. We too often forget that the work of our hands is insufficient to achieve the work God has called us to do. “Unless the LORD builds the house, the builders labor in vain” (Ps. 127:1).
This Thanksgiving, let us give ourselves to “humiliation and prayer,” asking God to bless the work of our hands. Let us remember Paul’s admonition to be “anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6).
We know that “the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:16). We are not righteous by ourselves, no matter how good our work is. But we have a great high priest who intercedes for us in the temple not built by hands. We stand and do our work in the righteousness of his sacrifice.
This year, when we sit around our dining table with family and friends, we should also remember that we are celebrating the birth of freedom and free enterprise in America. We should be grateful that our founding fathers understood the lesson learned by the Pilgrims: an economic system rooted in property rights and private competition makes bountiful feasts possible.
Yet, it is interesting that Christians in American in the 21st century seem to have everything but gratitude. By contrast, the Americans in 1621 had nothing but gratitude and a desire to seek God’s will in their lives. They saw the error of their ways and made the appropriate corrections. As a church, many well-meaning Christians are moving away from the God-given biblical economic principles. Compassion is always admirable, and there has been a terrible dearth of compassion in God’s church for too many years. Nonetheless, a right reaction against that hardness and fatal lack of generosity must be countered by spiritual change, by hearts that give out of joyful obedience, not by the elimination of private property. The world has been down that road before, and not just with the Pilgrims. We must be careful not to repeat the mistakes of history by moving toward an economic system that nearly doomed them and did doom many other societies.
Andree Seu, in an article for World Magazine[ix] suggests a clue to this difference can be found in the name of the first baby born to the colony in America, Peregrine White. Peregrine was the second son of William and Susannah White (his older brother was named Resolved) and was born before the end of November 1620 while the Mayflower was anchored in Provincetown Harbor. The name “Peregrine” means pilgrim.
Seu writes: “The difference, I think, is the ‘Peregrine White’ factor, the setting of hearts on pilgrimage, the Resolve of forceful men (Luke 16:16) who ‘acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth’ and made it clear ‘that they are seeking a homeland,’ that they ‘desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one’” (Heb. 11:13-16). “The history books speak truer than they know to call them ‘Pilgrims.’ The pilgrim heart is known by the quality of thanksgiving. But when the Lord returns, will He yet find their like in the land?”
Only we can answer that question.
[i] Edward Winslow would marry Susannah White that spring in the first wedding in the Plymouth Plantation. Susannah’s husband William, like Winslow’s wife, died that first winter.
[ii] Paul S. Jeon, “Collectivism and/or Christianity: An Exegetical Study of Acts 2:42-47 AND 4:32—5:11,” The Institute for Faith Work & Economics, accessed September 29, 2021, https://tifwe.org/resource/collectivism-andor-christianity-an-exegetical-study-of-acts-242-47-and-432-511/.
[iii] Derek W. H. Thomas, Acts (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2011), 60.
[iv] William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation (Boston: Wright & Porter Printing, 1901), 120-121.
[v] William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation (Boston: Wright & Porter Printing, 1901), 162.
[vi] Edward Winslow, Good News from New England (Boston: University of Mass Press, 2014), 100.
[vii] William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation (Boston: Wright & Porter Printing, 1901), 170-171.
[viii] William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation (Boston: Wright & Porter Printing, 1901), 170-171.
[ix] Andree Seu Peterson, “The ‘Peregrine White’ Factor,” World Magazine, accessed October 1, 2021, https://wng.org/articles/the-peregrine-white-factor-1617625544