Book Review

Reexamining the Pilgrims and liberty

Thanksgiving and a look at Plymouth on the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival

November 19, 2020

November 2020 marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the “Pilgrims” in Plymouth Colony in New England. In other times and other years, the anniversary might have attracted more notice, but in the year of COVID, and amidst a controversial American election, the Pilgrims’ anniversary will undoubtedly be muted. 

The quiet tones about Plymouth also derive from Americans’ general uncertainty today about how to observe and honor such occasions, when much of the American (and Christian) past is viewed as ethically complex at best, and an unrelenting tale of racist and imperial oppression at worst. Such criticisms of American history, and Plymouth specifically, are not brand new. As Malcolm X once said, “we didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, the rock was landed on us.” 

1619 got far more notice last year than 1620 will get this year, with 1619 being the year of the first documented shipment of slaves to Virginia, and subject of the much-debated New York Times “1619 Project.” The veritable standoff between 1619 and 1620 has rendered sober observers uncertain about what to celebrate in the American past, and how.

Into this uncertainty comes John Turner’s outstanding and carefully-researched book, They Knew They Were Pilgrims: Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty. Turner tellingly asks at the outset “do the Pilgrims and their colony matter?” The answer actually remains clearer on a popular level than on an academic one. With all the recent furor over the American past, there is still no hope of displacing Thanksgiving on the American calendar. (COVID may push it to the back porches of America’s homes, however.) Americans are probably as unified about observing Thanksgiving as any other holiday. American Thanksgiving hazily conjures images of Pilgrims and Indians being nice to each other, or something to that effect. As usual, many of the impressions we have of the first Thanksgiving are a bit off: it is more likely that they ate eel instead of turkey, for instance. 

The importance of Plymouth for the story of liberty

Plymouth wasn’t the first permanent European settlement in North America (that was St. Augustine, Florida), or the first English settlement (Roanoke Island), or even the first permanent English colony (Jamestown in Virginia). But no matter: Plymouth is inextricably bound up with Thanksgiving, and so we remember it. Scholars, however, have spent little time on Plymouth since historian John Demos’s landmark study A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony a half-century ago. Part of the reason for Plymouth’s neglect is that the more numerical and better documented Puritans of Massachusetts have occupied the main stage of colonial American studies. Plymouth, which Massachusetts ultimately absorbed, gets treated by historians as a sideshow.

Turner uses the anniversary to reexamine Plymouth as a “fresh lens for examining the contested meaning of liberty in early New England.” If previous historians might have seized upon the Mayflower Compact and its covenanted “civil Body Politick” to show Plymouth’s contribution to the American democratic tradition, Turner uses Plymouth as a vantage point to demonstrate the vibrant but bitterly clashing traditions of liberty that have marked America from the beginning. 

They Knew They Were Pilgrims seeks to understand closely the cultural and religious influences that shaped the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags of southeastern Massachusetts. The Wampanoags’ world was already in turmoil before 1620, but the Pilgrims’ arrival challenged the Native Americans’ aspirations to mastery over the region like nothing before. We learn too about the Plymouth Separatists’ background in England and in the Netherlands, where many of them sojourned for a time before sailing to America.

Clashing visions of liberty

The Pilgrims did not call themselves “the Pilgrims,” but they were radical English Protestants who rejected the established Church of England for having retained too many “popish” practices in the decades following the English Reformation in the 1530s. For Separatists (and for most other leaders of the Reformation), true liberty was freedom to live according to the precepts of God’s Word. That freedom was routinely denied to Separatists in England, and in the Netherlands they found themselves surrounded by Dutch Christians who agreed with Christian liberty in principle, but whose readings of God’s Word differed from the Separatists’ in important ways. Thus, as for many devout Christian groups in the 1600s, a New World colony became a refuge where the Separatists could exercise Christian liberty. 

Yet the Plymouth colonists denied physical liberty to many Native Americans, who lost land to the English colonists, and many Indians also became enslaved to the English. Plymouth trafficked in smaller but significant numbers of African slaves, too. Whatever friendly feelings there had once been between the English and Indians was finally wrecked by the horrors of King Philip’s War in the mid-1670s, which by percentage of population killed was probably the deadliest war in American history. Massachusetts and Plymouth forces killed untold numbers of Indians, and they enslaved and deported hundreds more to the Caribbean and to destinations as far off as Spain.

Even in the Separatists’ churches, there was disagreement about what liberty and the Word of God required. They were among the small minority of English people who abandoned the Church of England, but still they could not agree amongst themselves on correct biblical practices for churches. Founders of the English Baptist movement had deep connections to the Separatists, but most Separatists continued to affirm infant baptism. Their break from the Anglican Church spawned incessant debates among the Separatists about ecclesiology and doctrine, however, such as the one that broke out when Plymouth called future Harvard College president Charles Chauncy as pastor in the 1630s. (Chauncy is not to be confused with his great-grandson of the same name, the Boston pastor who was the most vocal opponent of the revivals of the Great Awakening.) 

Chauncy affirmed paedobaptism, but he thought that infants should be immersed, rather than sprinkled. Some in the Plymouth congregation suggested that Chauncy could offer paedobaptism by immersion in addition to sprinkling, but Chauncy insisted that immersion was the only biblical mode. (Baptists would say he had gone halfway toward the correct view, which is believer’s baptism by immersion.) Some feared that baptizing infants in the frigid waters of a New England pond would threaten children’s well-being. Indeed, one of Chauncy’s own children reportedly died due to exposure to extreme cold in baptism. 

Chauncy’s recalcitrance led Plymouth to rescind their offer of employment. He moved on to Scituate, up the coast from Plymouth. More feuding there led to one of the first church splits in colonial American history, giving tiny Scituate a second separate congregation. Liberty was and is a preeminent Protestant concern. But, Turner seems to wonder, who adjudicates when Protestants do not agree about God’s will? How will we know in this life when we have manifested the true “liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free” (Gal. 5:1)? Seen in this context, the Plymouth colonists look even more like time-bound pilgrims trudging toward John Bunyan’s Celestial City. 

Thomas S. Kidd

Thomas S. Kidd is distinguished professor of church history at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the author of several books, including Who Is an Evangelical? The History of a Movement in Crisis (Yale University Press, 2019), and Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh (Yale University Press, 2022). You can follow him on … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24