21 November 2007

William Bradford & America’s (First) Failed Flirtation with Socialism

Both state and federal governments in the United States ought to take a very simple lesson from America's first failed experiment with socialism.

The Pilgrims are generally credited with starting the Thanksgiving tradition (actually, the first Thanksgiving was in Virginia). What many people forget to attribute to them, however, are business and political practices that would've set America's future on a much different path. America, in fact, would be a very different place today, if not for the actions of one brave man.

It is common knowledge that the Pilgrims settled in America in 1620 for religious freedom. Driven by a desire to worship their Creator free from the decrees of mother England, they risked all they owned to establish a colony at Plymouth and further of the gospel of Jesus Christ. William Bradford left no doubt as to the Pilgrims' intentions:

"…they cherished a great hope and inward zeal of laying good foundations, or at least of making some way towards it, for the propagation and advance of the gospel of the kingdom of Christ in the remote parts of the world, even though they should be but stepping stones to others in the performance of so great a work."

Bradford was born in the small English village of Austerfield in 1590. His parents died when Bradford was a young child. Bradford's grandparents, along with some uncles, raised the young orphan and taught him the trade of "husbandry." William was a sickly boy and, in addition to studying history, philosophy, theology, Latin, Greek and Hebrew, the young lad looked to the Scriptures for comfort. Bradford embraced Christ and, as he grew, he increasingly came under the influence of the Separatists. Despite the disapproval of his family, Bradford fully accepted their beliefs. He united with the Separatists and, due to the persecution in England; he fled with the sect to Amsterdam in 1608. It was from Amsterdam, at the age of 30, that Bradford and the Pilgrims decided to strike out for the New World.

The Pilgrims knew that the new Colony would need a means of support—an economy. King James I of England also knew this. As the late and renowned free-market economist Kirk Russell noted:

"When the Pilgrim leaders sought from the king of England, James I, his permission to settle in America, James asked his chief secretary, 'What profit might arise in the part they intend?' 'Fishing,' the secretary replied. 'So God have my soul,' declared King James, 'tis an honest trade. 'Twas the Apostles' own calling.'"

So the Pilgrims' plans were to catch fish, dry them, and ship them back to England—hopefully at a profit. This group of highly intelligent and highly motivated men presented their plans to a group of British merchants known as The Virginia Company. The Pilgrims were able to secure from these merchants an investment of 7,000 English pounds—a large sum of money in those days. With this money, the Pilgrims were able to purchase supplies, seed for crops, tools, and also hire a ship to carry them across the Atlantic—the Mayflower.

On December 16, 1620, the tiny ship loaded with "tools and weapons, a stock of dried and salted foods, a few goats, pigs, and chickens" landed at Plymouth Rock. Their hardy Christian faith and work ethic enabled them to hang on with tenacity, despite battles with the elements and Indians. The Pilgrims also experienced the devastating "Starving Time" when half of them perished from malnutrition, pneumonia, and tuberculosis. This time of want was due primarily to their unbiblical economic system.

For the first two years of the settlement, the colonists labored under an economic system that they called, "The Common Course and Condition." This was a primitive and simple form of socialism. The family households commonly shared whatever products they could produce. If one family worked diligently, rising early, working hard until sundown, and produced a bumper crop, while his neighbor lay in bed until noon and produced little, they shared equally the sum of both. There was no incentive to work hard and apply one's God-given talents and abilities. This system produced consistent shortages. There was never enough food for everyone. It also produced squabbles among the colonists. There was resentment and envy—predictable results in socialist economies. Fortunately, the colonists had elected a young, but wise and godly governor for the colony—William Bradford. In 1623, Bradford recognized the failure the "Common Course." Bradford would later write that this failed economic system "was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment."

Bradford had a better plan. Each family would be given a piece of land based on the size of their family. Larger families received larger tracts. Each household was allowed to grow corn for their own families and to do with it what they wished. The results were phenomenal.

"This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use."

While under the original system, the women of the colony had complained that they were "oppressed." The Pilgrims experience proved that a biblically based economic system could provide liberty and a "family-friendly" means of production: "The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn." Bradford had recognized that "the primary agency of economic planning is the family, as the primary owner of property." Bradford realized that the family and ownership of the means of production were an unbeatable economic formula. This recognition caused the economy of the fledgling settlement to flourish and when 60 more settlers arrived in 1623, there was more than enough food for them as well. And despite continued challenges from Indians, pirates, and sometimes harsh weather conditions, the little colony prospered as God blessed their steadfast faithfulness.

Bradford's unwavering faith in God amazed even the Indians. During one particularly dry season, the colonists had no other option but to pray for rain. Bradford would later write how God abundantly answered that prayer:

"The rains came, without wind, or thunder or any violence and by abundant degrees it wetted the earth and soaked the crops. Within a quick period of time, the decayed corn and other fruits began to wonderfully revive. Even the Indians were astonished to behold the transformation. And afterwards all through the hot summer months, God sent seasonable showers. Through God's blessings, He caused a fruitful and liberal harvest to our comfort and rejoicing."

A group of Puritans would also establish a colony in Salem in 1630 and the economic foundations laid by these two groups would eventually make America the financial powerhouse it is today.

William Bradford went to be with his Savior on May 9, 1657 at the age of 68. The lessons Bradford and the Pilgrims have taught us have allowed them to become "stepping stones to others in the performance of so great a work" and made America the primary source of funding for missionary endeavors around the world. It is a lesson our nation so desperately needs to revisit.

4 comments:

3CirclesCommunity said...

When you say that the Pilgrims suffering through economic and disease related hardships "was due primarily to their unbiblical economic system". Nothing could be further from the truth. Their economic system was biblical, read Acts chapter 2. History is littered with Christians communities started with that same failed socialistic philosophy used by the early Christians, including the 1607 Jamestown communal settlement.

Some 36 years ago, as a young Christian, I believed Act 2 was the ideal. But under the anointing of the Holy Spirit one night God told me Acts 2 was for our instruction as to what doesn't work, not what does, that it was a failed experiment. This was before I understand anything about politics, socialism or communism. Now the Holy Spirit's instruction is clearer than ever.

To say that these settlements were using an unbiblical economic system might serve your present understanding, but it doesn't jive with the facts. I'm a born again Christian but as a man even Jesus didn't get everything right... after all, his little community of disciples held a common purse, which is very commune-ist.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

So you're suggesting that the biblical model is a failure? That the Holy Spirit would contradict "what saith the Scripture?" I would disagree.

You fail to differentiate between "forced community" and one which is voluntary. The Acts 2 passage is one often cited by those who wish to twist the Scripture into their "present understanding" and political framework. The Christians in Acts 2 were sharing all things in common because they freely chose to, not because some authoritarian government was taking from the producers and "redistributing the wealth" to the non-producers (after skimming off the top), which is what oppressive socialist/communist systems do. One cannot take one Scripture out of context and base an economic system on it. Apostle Paul admonished us that the man that doesn't work, shouldn't eat.

Communism and socialism are most certainly unbiblical. Free markets which involve free choices by individuals is the Scriptural model. "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty."

Thanks for taking the time to comment.

steve ebling said...

Then it's a bad idea for a government to order you to live like Christ and his disciples?

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Of course.