The Christian Ethics Behind the Pilgrims' Rejection of Communism
Historically, Thanksgiving has been a feast day during which Americans are called upon to thank the Lord for the many blessings he has bestowed upon us. Richard J. Maybury and Gary Galles both explain the economic lessons to glean from the experience of the Pilgrims and both note that the primary reason for God's blessing them with relative prosperity after years of famine and hunger was a shift away from socialism and toward private property. In their essays, both authors draw upon William Bradford's History of Plymouth Plantation to get the story straight from the source.
One misconception that is still with us is that the Pilgrims adopted socialism out of religious conviction, as if Christian ethics requires a Platonic communist utopia. Galles notes that this is a misconception, but it is beyond the scope of his essay to provide the full historical back drop to that initial fateful economic design.
In fact, as Bradford makes clear, the Pilgrims did not desire to establish Christian communism. The Pilgrims' original communal property arrangements were foisted upon them by their colonial sponsors. The sponsors did this after they learned that they would not be granted a monopoly of fishing rights in Cape Cod. The sponsors’ original agreement with the Pilgrims was such that the Pilgrims were to work for four days for the sponsoring company and then would have two days to work for themselves. The sponsors later changed their deal and told the Pilgrims that they would have to work all six days of the work week for the sponsors. At the end of seven years, the Pilgrims would be granted title to the property they worked. The Pilgrims were not happy with the change, several of them recognizing that the new arrangement would make them virtual slaves of the sponsors, but they went along with the deal because many had already made large investments toward the move and they were convinced that emigrating to the New World is what God wanted them to do.
Bradford’s establishing private property was not a repudiation of any belief they had that Christian charity requires communism. They had no intention of implementing such a system. The Pilgrims’ move to private property was, in fact, a move to a properly Christian ethic as it regards property.
Historically, the majority report from Christians embraces private property as required by Christian ethics. The morality of private property was recognized by many of the patriarchs in the early church and the broader Scholastic tradition. Alas, what is not always recognized by contemporary evangelical Christians is that key thinkers in the Protestant tradition also argued for the legitimacy of private property.
One such figure was Francis Wayland, a Baptist minister and educator who was the president of Brown University for 28 years. An excellent introduction to Wayland and his social thought has been written by Laurence Vance, director of the Francis Wayland Institute. Wayland explained the Christian ethic of property in his treatise on ethics, The Elements of Moral Science. In his chapter on personal liberty, Wayland explains that everyone possesses a physical body, mental understanding, and will. He then argues that if a person uses them “in such manner as not to interfere with the use of the same powers which God has bestowed upon his neighbor, he is, as it respects his neighbor. . . to be held guiltless. So long has he uses them within this limit, he has a right, so far as his fellow-men are concerned, to use them, in the most unlimited sense, suo arbitrio, at his own discretion.”
Such a view of property has clear implications for economic policy. Wayland counseled against usury laws, government trade restrictions, government funded internal improvements, and government intervention in the banking industry. He also opposed confiscatory taxation, government granted monopolies, and government regulation of money. He did so because he believed that interventionist economic policy is not only economically destructive, it also violates Christian ethics.
Bradford’s and the Pilgrims’ move away from socialism and toward private property was not, therefore, a repudiation of their vision of the Christian ideal. It was a move toward obedience to their maker. Bradford interpreted the material plenty they enjoyed as they forsook their original socialist economic arrangement as a blessing from God for adopting a system more in agreement with Christian ethics.