One Small Candle May Light a Thousand: A Thanksgiving Message from the Digest

November 25, 2020 |

This week marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. Their story has been oft-told.

A band of English Puritans who set out to the Americas in search of religious freedom and to found what John Winthrop would later call “a shining city upon a hill”. Their desperate passage across the Atlantic in hurricane season, the crowded conditions aboard the Mayflower after the Speedwell had turned back with leaks. The Mayflower Compact by which the settlers organized themselves as a democracy. Their terrible ignorance of disease and the crops of the New World, that nearly destroyed the little colony in the winter of 1620-21. An unlikely friendship that grew up between the Pilgrims and one of the native tribes, through the efforts of an English-speaking Indian named Squanto. A good harvest in 1621 that ensured the colony would succeed, and a feast enjoyed late in the year by the Pilgrims and their Indian allies. 

These days, plenty of Americans have Pilgrim antecedents, some 10 million of us, and the United States eventually grew out of this colony and others that appeared.

They were flawed people. They brought with them European diseases, ideas about slavery that would stain the continent, a combativeness regarding religion, and an inability to appreciate and live peacefully with the civilizations they landed amongst. We rightly criticize them for their shortcomings, yet it is the blessings that flowed from their strengths that makes us remember them. They brought a capacity to navigate long journeys by sea, and iron tools never seen before in the New World. Even more, they brought ideals of liberty, a system of land tenure, and saw the potential for world trade.

I have often wondered what the Pilgrims would make of us today, especially those who row in the galleys of inventiveness, who worry and suffer over their companies, who build the bioeconomy.

The bioeconomy, you see, was all the Pilgrims had, it wasn’t something they had to build and nourish. The replenishable resources of the forest and the field provided all their food, feed, materials, and fuels. They hardly knew what waste was, since they wasted almost nothing. 

Today, after a few centuries of fossil fuels and rampant waste, memorialized in our mountains made of landfills and sky replete with greenhouse gases, we are trending back towards our roots, and to the way of life of the Pilgrims.

I happen to carry a copy of William Bradford’s journal Of Plimouth Plantation, written during the first decades of the Pilgrim experience, with me almost anywhere I travel. He was one of the Pilgrims and governor of the colony for many years. His journal was lost for a century, found in an English church library in the mid-1800s, and returned after some argument to America where it was reprinted and widely published in 1898 for the first time. A craze came upon Americans for all things Pilgrim in the years after 1898, which has only dissipated in the past 20 years or so. 

A copy from that first edition sits on my shelf not two feet from me when I write for The Daily Digest, so that I always remember, as Bradford remarked, that All great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courage.

I think upon the struggles of the bioeconomy, which also went through a period of great popularity and today has a more mixed reputation amongst the nabobs of national policy.  Success has brought disappointment; when a thing is done it is never as pretty as when it was first dreamed — shortcomings are the livery of great ventures. And so, too many people choose to sit on the sidelines and criticize the athletes on the field, because they are human and imperfect, as if one man failing to run a marathon is proof that a marathon cannot be run at all. As was observed in the Book of Ecclesiastes many centuries ago: 

He that diggeth a pit shall fall into it; and whoso breaketh an hedge, a serpent shall bite him. Whoso removeth stones shall be hurt therewith; and he that cleaveth wood shall be endangered thereby.”

The bioeconomy has many things in common with the Pilgrims, besides being often out of fashion with the smart set. Both looked to the land for their nourishment. Both have given back more than they took. Both sought freedom to operate. Both had many failures offset by a handful of transformative achievements. Both were grounded in a spirit of community rather than the principles of Dog Eat Dog. Both looked upon waste as a failure of imagination that could be corrected.

Both knew that values drive habits, habits drive actions, and actions change the world — and those who would change the world must place values before value.

A love of partnership and a longing to co-operate led the Pilgrims to try a form of communism, in which they shared ownership of the assets of the colony, and labored together rather than in competition. The experiment was a dreadful failure, and a cautionary note to those who say that common ownership for the common benefit has not been tried upon America’s bounteous shores. It has. Bradford observed:

“The failure of this experiment of communal service, which was tried for several years, and by good and honest men proves the emptiness of the theory of Plato and other ancients, applauded by some of later times, — that the taking away of private property, and the possession of it in community, by a commonwealth, would make a state happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God.” 

One year at ABLC, I placed a copy of Of Plimouth Plantation upon the speaker’s lectern. For an entire day, I watched as speaker after speaker came forward to deliver their slides, outline their great plans, and advance the causes for which their companies had been formed. Each would look in a puzzled way at the open book on the lectern, one asked with some irritation why a book was making it impossible for him to place his speaker notes flat as he wanted. Eventually, someone picked it up and dropped it onto a nearby table, where the quote I had highlighted with a Post-It tag went unheeded or noticed for the remainder. 

It read:

“Out of small beginnings greater things have been produced by His hand that made all things of nothing, and gives being to all things that are; and, as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone unto many…” 

It will not take 400 years for your small candles to light a thousand, for the times are more urgent and opportunity awaits those who have the fortitude to endure the indignities of the long winter that comes before the spring.

Happy Thanksgiving to each of you, and joy in the holiday time ahead. Those of us who watch your work give thanks for all you do.

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