With Thanksgiving just a few days away, it seems a fitting time to share with you that I happen to be “of the house and lineage” of the first pilgrims who sailed to America on the Mayflower in 1620, establishing both Plymouth Colony and the first Thanksgiving feast. Granted, there are a fair number of New Englanders who can claim that genealogy – in fact, in the same manner that it’s assumed that everybody’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, I suspect that it might also be said that on Thanksgiving we’re all pilgrims (!) – however, our family can justifiably take pride in a family tree that reveals that our particular ancestor was none other than Captain Miles Standish, famous in the Thanksgiving story as the military leader of the Pilgrims.
Let me assure you that this information provided me great bragging rights when I was but a youngster at Opal Myrick Elementary School, even if my ardent boasting was not always accepted as gospel truth by my classmates (and others; I actually have a vague recollection of a time when my mother sent a copy of our family tree with me to school so that I might convince a skeptical teacher!). It has also led me to a keen interest in just how my “great, great, great…” grandfather is characterized in a growing number of books, movies and even cartoons (!) over the years, including that beautiful, if highly fictionalized, portrayal in Longfellow’s poem The Courtship of Miles Standish. What I’ve ultimately discovered is that the real story is one that seldom gets told and yet ends up most interesting of all.
To begin with, Captain Standish was technically not even a pilgrim; he was, for all practical purposes, a hired gun: a British soldier turned soldier of fortune who signed on to serve as the chief military advisor for this group of exiles setting out to build a new life of religious freedom in the New World. Apparently, by the time Standish met up with the Pilgrims in the Netherlands, he’d already led a wild, somewhat reckless and certainly storied life, and had essentially been disinherited by his family (the story that’s told in our family is that Miles was “pumice stoned” off the family tree, with all traces of his existence erased from the family register). It might well have been the desire to start a new life that led him to make the journey; which was very interesting, indeed, for by all accounts, his presence amongst the Puritan passengers of the Mayflower was an ongoing study in contrasts.
It is said, for instance, that from the very beginning Standish proved not only to be a skilled and courageous defender of Plymouth Colony, he was a rather hawkish and preemptive one as well; an attitude that often put him at odds with some of his fellow settlers and angered the native Americans who dwelled in the region. Moreover, he had a reputation of being something of a hothead at times; there are historical records that vividly describe how Standish’s face would turn as red as his hair whenever he lost his temper; which was often (then again, those same records take note of the fact that that Miles had been given the rather demeaning nickname of “Captain Shrimp” because of his diminutive stature; so I suppose his impatience might have been well-founded)!
However, Standish was also well-respected; he’d been elected as the first commander of the Plymouth Colony Militia, and continued to be reelected to that position for the remainder of his life. Over the years, he also served for a time as the Plymouth’s assistant governor, and also as its treasurer; and it is worth noting that Miles Standish was the fourth of 41 men who signed “the Mayflower Compact,” a document that represents one of this country’s first attempts to establish a democratic government.
Most interesting of all, however, is what happened to Standish himself as he dwelt amongst this community of Christians at Plymouth. Though specific historical details on this are admittedly spotty at best, it appears that Standish not only found his Christian faith but that it deepened over time. David Beale, who has written a detailed piece about Standish’s “pilgrimage” of Christian faith, writes that while there is no indication that he ever became as orthodox or as strict as the Puritans, the Captain and his family attended the Plymouth Church with his family and “may even have been a member.” Moreover, it appears that in and through every challenge and struggle faced by his fellow settlers in those first few years, Standish was always present with compassion and care; Governor William Bradford himself took note of the fact that during “the starving time,” Standish was a “special example” of sacrifice and loyalty, “showing herein [his] true love unto [his] friends and brethren; a rare example and worthy to be remembered.”
Not too bad for someone who only a few years before had been “pumice stoned” off the family tree!
In recent years, we in the United Church of Christ have been fond of lifting up the truth that “God is Still Speaking.” It’s a good reminder to all of us that though life and the world often seems to be spinning out of control – and us along with it (!) – in truth God is ever and always working in amazing and miraculous ways. For me, the story of Miles Standish is not only part of an epic family saga (!); it serves as yet another great example of how when it comes to God’s divine work, none of us can ever be wholly defined by the world’s standards and its opinion of it; nor can any of us ever assume we’re finished, because every day that we live and breathe God is always at work in us, ever and always working his purpose out.
And that is certainly one thing for which to give thanks on this Thanksgiving Day!
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry