Thinking In Public

June 3, 2020

They Knew They Were Pilgrims: A Conversation with Historian John Turner

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Albert Mohler:

This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I am Albert Mohler, your host and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Albert Mohler:

John G. Turner is professor of American Religion at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. He earned his Master in Divinity from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and then his PhD in American History from Notre Dame. Professor Turner's research focuses on the history of Mormonism, having published Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet in 2012, and The Mormon Jesus: A Biography in 2016, both by Harvard University Press.

Albert Mohler:

His most recent book, They Knew They Were Pilgrims: Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty, chronicles the story of the English settlers, who 400 years ago crossed the Atlantic on the Mayflower in order to establish a new society and a new world. They Knew They Were Pilgrims is published by Yale University Press, and that book is the topic of our conversation today.

Albert Mohler:

Professor Turner, welcome to Thinking in Public.

John Turner:

Pleased to be with you. Thanks for having me back.

Albert Mohler:

We've had some good conversations in the past. I feel like some of those conversations are just reading your books as the way it ought to be, so it's like an added bonus to have a conversation in voice after the experience of reading a book. Your latest book, They Knew They Were Pilgrims, is a text that I think will fascinate a lot of Americans and fill in a lot of gaps. The subtitle, by the way, Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty.

Albert Mohler:

This is a book that is coming out in the early months of 2020 in an unusual cultural context. People think of the pilgrims in the United States. They think naturally of November and of Thanksgiving, but you had a particular strategy in having this book come out when it did in the year 2020. So, what's behind that?

John Turner:

Well, the basic marketing strategy I suppose is that it's the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower and the founding of Plymouth Colony, so I'm trying to capitalize on that anniversary. For me, it was an excuse to take a fresh and more detailed look at what many Americans think is a familiar story. I think almost everybody grows up and encounters the pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving in elementary school and thinks that it’s a story that they know about. As it's true with almost everything in history, there's so much more to it, and I wanted to scratch underneath the surface of it.

Albert Mohler:

It raises some really interesting historical questions, especially for thinking Christians trying to think these issues through. For one thing, if you just mentioned Thanksgiving, you mentioned Plymouth colony, you mentioned the pilgrims, you immediately raised a host of questions that people really didn't think much about in generations past. We're not even sure how to tell the story.

Albert Mohler:

Obviously, you've written a major academic work attempting to tell the story, but it appears that the traumas right now are multiple. So, for one thing, we have a cartoon version of the pilgrims, and of that first Thanksgiving, and in the same way, you had Parson Weems with George Washington. We weren't sure how much of it was costumery and a representation and how much was actually based on historical facts.

Then came the recognition that whatever the story actually was told along those lines, it was only part of the story, and thus you had Native Americans. Then you had others who were looking at these events in a very different light. So, it struck me before I began reading your book, but with your book about to be read, a part of the difficulty here is even knowing how to get at the story in a way that will stand the test of time because you've written a book published by a major scholarly press, Yale University Press. You're not writing this as an Op-Ed piece in the Wall Street Journal. You're trying to tell a story that will last.

John Turner:

Yes. I think the task for students of history is always—regardless of what myths or reigning interpretations of the past exist—to simply go back and look at the sources. There are actually a lot of sources for 17th century Plymouth, some of which their historians have used. Others, mostly left alone.

John Turner:

Some things are difficult to get at. So, the first Thanksgiving is really something that receives a little bit of mention in one letter by one Mayflower passenger. Now, that is something that became extraordinarily important to 19th century Americans, but it wasn't an important part of the colony zone self-understanding. But there are so many other episodes that were important to folks at the time. The Mayflower Compact was very important even though it doesn't get all that much attention in history textbooks these days. Certainly, relations with the natives were very important from the get-go and everybody understood that.

Albert Mohler:

When you look at this book, I, reading it, believe that you started in exactly the right place. You looked in Britain at the reign of King James—in particular, James VI of Scotland, the James I of the United Kingdom—and placed this in the context of the unfolding of the English-speaking reformation and in particular, the rise of separatism. By the way, you did that so well. It leads me to tell you that you need to write a book just on that, which may not be your interest but would have been mine. I really appreciated the way you laid out the development of the separatists and set the stage for how in the world they ended up in Leiden, not to mention on a leaky vessel trying to get across the Atlantic. So, how did you decide where to begin the story?

John Turner:

Well, there could be a number of different starting points. There've been historians who start with New England itself, and the Wampanoag and other native peoples that are there. For me, because I was beginning with the focus on the pilgrims themselves, it made sense for me to start just as you described it, with the English reformation and its discontents.

The separatists, that is a well-known part of the story, but for me, it was surprising to learn just how loathed this particular religious movement was. Pretty much everybody else in England really disdained and mocked separatists for their willingness to simply flat out leave the church of England behind and form their own congregations, which in 21st century America sounds like an entirely unradical thing to do. But at the time, it was illegal and incredibly controversial. There were a lot of Puritans who wanted to reform the church of England, but the separatists had concluded that that simply wasn't possible. They didn't want to compromise with what they understood to be anti-Christ any longer.

So, they set off on their own. From the start for them, Christian liberty was absolutely essential. By that they meant the obligation of Christians to form their own churches and to be able to elect their own leaders and to discipline themselves. In terms of liberty in 17th century New England, different strains of that basic understanding of Christian liberty were very much central to my story.

Albert Mohler:

Well, absolutely. I was very, very interested how you wove so many different ideas together. By the way, as a Baptist, which means as a direct heir of that separatist tradition, I felt the story very much even as I was reading it. Of course, you're talking about the names that are central to that separatist tradition. It came to the new world, especially in the context of what we talk about with the pilgrims after a travail in Britain, and then you really offer a very fascinating chapter on what I would call the continued threatened instability even in the low countries, in the Netherlands, where even where there was after the peace between the Netherlands and Spain, there was a period of some form of religious tolerance.

Actually, until I read your book, I had not thought about the fact that the collision point was just going to come a year later with the expiration of that treaty. So, there's really an incredible amount of drama here with those separatists having basically to risk their lives to get out of England, having to risk their lives in England. They then found their lives potentially at risk again in the Netherlands. So, I think it's difficult for a modern American to realize the kind of desperation that would have led them to risk crossing the Atlantic.

John Turner:

Yeah. Then they had been able to organize their church as they saw fit in Leiden. So, there were members of the congregation who saw no reason to go to the new world. I mean, planting a colony, really, by any reasonable standard is the rather full hearty enterprise. So, there were plenty of members of the congregation who thought they better stay where they were in the Netherlands.

Then the pilgrims, the leaders of the pilgrims, they concluded that, first of all, their Christian liberty was tenuous in the Netherlands. It's fragile as you just referenced, and they weren't sure that they their children and their descendants would adhere to their religious principles in this very pluralistic environment. So, they wanted to go somewhere where their congregation could thrive more fully and attract more wavering Puritans in England to join their cause.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah, and what they found in the Netherlands was not only a certain amount of toleration, they also found what they considered to be licentiousness.

John Turner:

Exactly. Exactly. Now, in the 17th century, for most people, toleration remained a dirty word. Liberty of conscience had a much better ring to it, not forcing people to violate their consciences, but to actually tolerate all sorts of religious difference and perceived heresy. That was really another matter.

Albert Mohler:

I had a fascinating conversation some time ago with Robert Louis Wilken, author of a wonderful book on the origins of the Christian idea of liberty or the idea of Christian liberty. One of the issues that he pointed out was how rare it is in any previous century to the 20th century to find any place where there was virtually any acceptable idea of more than one religion, more than one church, more than one form of worship in any single community, however you define that community.

You make that point in your book even when it comes to the Plymouth colony, into the pilgrims. What was not yet envisioned was that there could be multiple religions or multiple churches even in a single community.

John Turner:

Well, and there are a number of reasons for that. There's a genuine concern, I think, about heresy. There's also an understanding of religion as a public good. There's a communal understanding of liberty that bumps up against more individual conceptions that we're familiar with.

John Turner:

I'm glad you mentioned this because the pilgrims are often criticized as Puritans are more generally criticized for being religious hypocrites, that they wanted religious freedom for themselves but wouldn't extend it to others. And that's true from that particular angle, but as you pointed out, not a lot of 17th century English men envisioned religious toleration. They simply didn't agree about what the single acceptable option should be.

The pilgrims, they did extend a certain amount of liberty of conscience to the centrists. They didn't compel other men and women to join their church. They wouldn't even have wanted them all to. They didn't force parents to have their children baptized against their wishes or things like that, but they were not at all comfortable with permitting really just options in Plymouth. Then, of course, that regularly reemerges as a point of conflict over the next 70 years.

Albert Mohler:

Thinking about this, by the way, and taking us back just a little bit in the telling of our story here, we talked about the pilgrims as if that's the natural term or name by which to designate them. In what sense did they see themselves as pilgrims? Next, when did it become a convention to call, especially those who established the Plymouth colony, the pilgrims?

John Turner:

That's a great question. So, I've been using this anachronistic term, which I do in my book because readers are simply familiar with it, but until the early 1800s, that term wasn't applied to the Mayflower passengers of the Plymouth colonists. They understood themselves as pilgrims in a generically Christian sense drawing on the New Testament's description of Christians as strangers and pilgrims on the Earth with their eyes fixed toward heaven.

John Turner:

William Bradford. The title of my book was taken from his history in which he says they knew they were pilgrims in that sense. Only in the early 1800s did Americans begin referring to this particular group of colonists as the pilgrims, and over time, that stuck, and it's so conventional that I stick with it in my book.

Albert Mohler:

This is going to be a little out of sync in asking this question, but I want to ask you because it comes to my mind at the moment. Amongst my interests are I guess too many, but one of them is the rise of WASP, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture and then the English-speaking, basically, Anglophile elite in the United States. Many of them actually traced their lineage to the Mayflower list.

So, you've got even a scandal with the so-call Mayflower madam years ago in New York City, but one of the points you make is something that I picked up on some time ago, and that is the fact that people in Boston and especially after the formation of Harvard University and others in the area of Cambridge, they really thought Plymouth was a backwater. Even a historian as influential as Perry Miller in American intellectual history basically dismissed Plymouth as being a bunch of Puritans at all.

John Turner:

That's absolutely the case. Some of that comes from the self-descriptions of William Bradford and other Plymouth colony leaders. They described Plymouth colony as barren, and impoverished. Massachusetts Bay colony to the north centered in Boston, it's more populous almost from the get-go, have so much more economic and military clout, have the more prolific ministers. So, very quickly, Massachusetts Bay overshadowed Plymouth.

In the 19th century, popular culture very much latched onto the pilgrims, but academic historians like Perry Miller didn't, and they understood Plymouth colony as an inferior intellectual backwater.

I find that ministers and leaders of Plymouth colony actually are just as erudite and connected with trans-Atlantic Protestant debates about religion as their counterparts in Massachusetts Bay. So, it's a much smaller colony. It's marginally prosperous, but it's an important part of the whole.

Albert Mohler:

Well, and without it, you can't tell the story of the whole. Arguably, there isn't a whole. That looms large in the American consciousness that our own understanding of our national story. It also looms large theologically, and in the history of religion, in particular, Protestant Christianity in the United States.

One of the interesting questions I think that has to be pondered and should be fertile material for historians for a long time is how the Puritan tradition, the larger Puritan tradition that would have included most importantly the Puritans in the church of England became so important in the establishment of the United States and the form of Protestantism that took shape in the United States.

It was the separatists who were the most marginalized as you tried to point it out, and as a result of desperation and some opportunity came to the new world. I was looking at some historical documents just recently of people connected with Brown University, Francis Wayland and others. They're looking at all these from Rhode Island. The odd thing is that by the time you get to the middle of 18th century, it is clear that the separatists are winning in numbers, and the others are winning in gaining cultural control.

John Turner:

Right. Well, a lot of the issues surrounding that separatist impulse is they reemerged in the middle of the 18th century at the time of the great awakening, and then going forward. So, you get new generations of American Protestants who see the existing congregations of New England and elsewhere as corrupt and not true to the gospel, and as unregenerate, and so the cycle repeats itself later on.

One thing I think that's interesting too about Plymouth colony is you have that very magisterial Puritan colony to north in Massachusetts Bay, and then you have the far more separatists and religiously tolerant, in a way, colony of Rhode Island, and Plymouth is between the two. So, you see its inhabitants really in the middle of that argument. There's a lot of division within the colony about the proper extent of religious toleration and liberty of consciousness, and it's a reminder, really, that Puritanism wasn't monolithic, and had a lot of internal debates about these issues.

Albert Mohler:

Let me go with you into Plymouth colony for a few moments. Let me track one issue related to this. So, if you're a historian of the West trying to figure out the massive changes that arrived with modernity, one of them is the separation of throne and altar so that you could have some conceptual separation between a religious sphere and a legal sphere. When you get to Plymouth colony, I found you a bit fascinating on every turn. I also felt like I want to ask you some questions such as, was a part of the dynamic in Plymouth effect that the necessary application of church discipline was seen as central to the cohesiveness of the entire colony? In other words, was it possible under those circumstances to conceive of how discipline, and order, and morality could be maintained outside of what was essentially the exercise of church discipline?

John Turner:

Well, I would actually say that throughout the history of Plymouth colony, only a minority of the settlers actually belong to the churches. So, those who do certainly faced church discipline for transgressions such as adultery or things like that, but the civil government, really, has to vigorously punish those transgressions as well because so many people don't qualify themselves, or choose to qualify themselves, for church membership.

So, what you actually have is you have parallel disciplinary structures of church and state. So, sometimes you'll have individuals, they have to go through almost two tribunals for an offense such as adultery that they might be punished by the civil government, but then they also face church discipline. So, that comes up a number of times in the colony's history.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah, but what's inconceivable is it not is the fact that there would be two different moral systems of judgment. I don't mean mechanisms of verdict. In other words, a cohesiveness of the colony requires they basically share the same moral verdict on adultery as an assault upon the covenant of the community itself.

John Turner:

That's certainly true. For the most part, these two establishments, they are fairly cohesive. The ministers of the colony, they are frustrated at times because they want the civil government to do more to enforce the religious order. Over time, they actually, I think, moved away from some of the early principles of separatism and want a stronger state religious establishment.

For the most part, the magistrates are actually quite resistant to that. They, at times, do things such as mandate church attendance and then back away from it. They punished Quakers for a time, and then back away from it, which makes the colony's ministers actually rather unhappy. So, there's a fair amount of back and forth and tension between these two parts of the establishment that you could call them.

Albert Mohler:

When you look at both the religious nature of the colony, the Christian nature of the colony and of the church, in your book, you say this, "For the pilgrims, a true church was a congregation formed when Christians covenanted with each other to walk in the ways of God." The covenant was as John Robinson taught the true essential property in the visible church. As a Baptist, I resonate with that entirely as a covenant community.

That raises an interesting question to me, and it's rather central to your book. When you look at the Mayflower Compact, it, too—‘compact’ is another word for covenant in this sense. So, the entire political super structure, what Charles Taylor, I guess, would call ‘the social imaginary’, was based upon the idea that human relationships should be covenant relationships—marriage, church, and the colony as well.

John Turner:

Yeah. No. I think that's absolutely true. A number of historians, including recently, have noted parallels between the Mayflower Compact and the church covenant of separatists congregations. I certainly think it's there. I don't see the Mayflower Compact as an especially sacred document in the sense of I think the references to God that are in it are window dressing, and it's not a grand statement of principles by any stretch. But what it is and one thing that ties these two together is there's a sense that the validity of a community rests on the consent of its members, or at least on the consent of some of its members.

So, that democratic principle that was at the heart of the separatists' understanding of the church, it at least carries over partly into their understanding of political liberty that laws and officers don't have validity unless they rest on the consent of the body politic.

Albert Mohler:

So, then what would you argue is the influence of the Mayflower Compact on, say, the American constitutional order, this unique experiment in ordered liberty? What is the influence that you would trace there?

John Turner:

Well, I'm afraid I might disappoint you by saying not much direct influence. The Mayflower Compact was very important to the political leaders of Plymouth colony. When they would meet periodically to revise the colony's laws, they would have the Mayflower compact read aloud. They understood it as fundamental to their political order, but once Plymouth colony went by the wayside, the Compact in terms of having any importance wasn't really revived until after the American revolution, but that basic idea of consent, I mean, that was so integral to English political thought as a whole.

Stretching back to Magna Carta, to the petition of right, and other contemporary issues that although they might have understood its particularities differently, most English political thinkers, especially reformers, understood that as a fundamental principle. So, although I wouldn't say the Mayflower Compact really influences that trajectory, it reflects that basic principle, which then gets articulated in different ways over time.

Albert Mohler:

So, you actually didn't disappoint me. I expect this how you would answer it. That sets me up to ask another question, which is another one of those questions that maybe we ask more as people of our own times than we might expect others to ask. To what extent would you have thought that, say, the framers of the constitutional order, those who were arguing out the arguments of this new federal system, how and where would they have been of the Mayflower Compact that time?

Because one of the strange twists and turns of history is that some of these documents and events are actually better known to people now, especially to historians, than they would have been to people in between.

John Turner:

Sure. Absolutely. No. This is another example. So, for the Mayflower passengers, they become known as the pilgrims after the American Revolution. This agreement, which at the time is referred to, I think, sometimes as a compact, sometimes as a combination. It becomes known as the Mayflower compact in the decades after the American Revolution as well. I think they would probably have been aware of it because in 18th century histories of New England, certainly, Plymouth is part of the story. I think the agreement on the Mayflower would have been referenced.

In terms of being a source for political principles, I don't think it is something that the framers of the American republic are looking to. I think one reaction against Plymouth in recent decades stems from the fact that 19th century Americans placed far too much historical weight on the pilgrims, and Plymouth colony. They did draw pretty straight lines from what happened in the cabin of the Mayflower to the constitutional convention.

That argument really couldn't hold water over time. So, I think there is the reaction against that, which was to say that Plymouth colony really doesn't matter very much. I think you can conceive that 19th century lionization of the pilgrims sometimes just bordered on the ridiculous, but I think nevertheless the one can find value in thinking about how 17th century Plymouth colonists debated the meaning of liberty. For me, there's a lot of importance in the story if we get away from some earlier superficial conclusions.

Albert Mohler:

In recent decades, the scholarly pursuit of history has shifted a great deal, and there would be many ways to look at that shift or those shifts. One of them would have to be the shift from writing about the major figures of history, the so-called ‘Great Man Theory of History’, to writing about the lives of people otherwise hidden from history. The best history now combines both. This book by Professor John G. Turner is an example.

They Knew They Were Pilgrims looks at the pilgrims and at the Plymouth colony not only the names that resound to American history, but the names that do not. Sometimes those are the stories that are most interesting.

Albert Mohler:

You deal a lot with the realities of life from the primary sources that you've been basically ransacking in the best historical sense. I appreciated much of the tangibility of that. I was particularly touched by your 17th chapter on The Children of Life and Death. Childhood, in such a context, so difficult.

I was particularly touched within that chapter by a quotation from the Massachusetts Bay poet Anne Bradstreet, who spoke of young children in an age of such high rates of infant mortality saying that they were light as a bubble or the brittle glass. That's a heartbreaking statement. Talk about that.

John Turner:

That really resonated with me as well as a parent. It's actually my favorite chapter in the book. So, I'm really tickled that you mentioned it. Yeah. Rates of infant and child mortality were extremely high in 17th century New England as they were in most parts of the world. So, I kept coming across families that would lose a number of children and infants.

There is an older idea that 17th century people were inured to this loss because it was common. They didn't feel it as much because they expected it. Just the opposite is true. There was one Massachusetts Bay colonist, Samuel Sule, who half of his, I think, 14 children died in childhood. He at one point records in his diary that he dreamed that they were all dead. It's just that tangible sense of loss and grief.

I found it very interesting the way that Puritan ministers addressed this. They warned people against excessive grief. They even condemned excessive grief as idolatry. Even though they certainly would have understood themselves as good theological descendants of John Calvin, they made an exception in terms of the decrees of predestination when it came to infants and very young children. They assured themselves and each other that those children were in the bosom of their Savior in heaven. I find it very touching to read about the way that they grappled with these issues not just theologically, but then also practically within their households.

Albert Mohler:

Sometimes the mist of history, it's hard to imagine the actual context in which something happened or is recorded, but I was particularly also touched by your recounting of references to John Clap, a 13-year-old boy who had died. As you said, there's no particular obvious transgression in his 13-year-old life, but nonetheless, he evidenced mournfulness for his sinfulness. He longed to be with Christ. He sought and avidly gave himself to the preaching of the Word of God, but he had a very long illness, which he died at age 13.

Urian Oakes, the minister at Cambridge and President of Harvard, and you spoke to him as "quietly breathing his soul into the arms of his blessed Savior". It's just an amazing, heartbreaking, very poetic theology there.

John Turner:

Mm-hmm. Yeah. That I found touching also, the idea of families gathered around the bedside of a dying child maybe not in fully theologically consistent ways, but really it's a strong belief that their prayers would usher their loved ones into the presence of God and Jesus Christ. I find those scenes very touching. They give a window into really the practical theology or practical religious lives of the people at that time.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah. By the way, Oakes, that minister at Cambridge and President of Harvard spoke of John Clap who died at 13 in such incredible language saying that the boy was "a young old man full of grace".

John Turner:

Right, wise beyond his years. Some of those stories, they could have elements of the legendary to them, and I think sometimes maybe were held up for others is almost impossible ideals of piety, but I wouldn't discount them either.

Albert Mohler:

The words he spoke saying that the boy had been full of grace, not full of days, there was also—just jumping to another issue here—there was a facility with the English language, with both poetry and prose. By the way, you recount the fact that there was a lot of poetry in this culture. I think the average American thinks of Puritanism and the pilgrims in a monochrome of black and white and maybe some gray, but there was an enormous amount of color here.

John Turner:

Mm-hmm. I think that's very much true of William Bradford. His history of Plymouth colony is the single most important source for anyone writing about the pilgrims and Plymouth colony. His prose history, he also wrote some poetry, which I actually think isn't so great, but his prose history is just full of wit. It is full of eloquence. He could joke about non-separatists who couldn't hack it because of the mosquitoes in New England that they should stay away, and so they become mosquito-proof, things like that. So, yeah, there can be a lot of pleasure in reading the writings of 17th century New Englanders.

Albert Mohler:

On the issue of liberty and freedom, that's really where we began, and I think to that we must return. You conclude your book by saying that the pilgrims and the other inhabitants of Plymouth colony left behind both the complicated legacy of human bondage and unresolved debates about liberty. Your book begins with argument, it ends with argument, and it's a continuing argument. What does it mean that the pilgrims sought liberty, and in many ways defended liberty, but then also denied other's liberty? How do we, 400 years later from their departure from the Netherlands, how do we think about that?

John Turner:

So, one thing to recognize is that from the start, there were natives deprived of their freedom in New England. That was the case even before the Mayflower reached Cape Cod. Some European ship captains and traders would sometimes kidnap native people, bring them back to Europe, sometimes sell them as slaves, sometimes groom them as navigators and interpreters. Native slavery was not common during the lifetime of the pilgrims themselves, but in the later years of the colony. Native slavery was actually rather ubiquitous in Plymouth colony and in other parts of New England. So, I think that it is a really important part of the story.

There were also African slaves in Plymouth colony during its later decades. So, it's very important to have that be part of the story as well. Then in terms of what you just quoted from my book, maybe it would be easier and more comfortable if the pilgrims could teach us a really simple story about liberty.

One of the things that Plymouth colony teaches us is that debates about liberty proceeded throughout the colony's 70-year history. Americans who might be today distraught at the amount of disunity and conflict over the meaning of liberty in contemporary America, they might take some comfort from the fact that those debates were very much present from the start, and they didn't have a clear conclusion. That's not necessarily the end of the world.

Albert Mohler:

The middle point between 400 years ago and when we're having this conversation now would be marked by the bicentennial when 200 years ago Daniel Webster spoke of Plymouth. So, what role was played by Daniel Webster in inventing the pilgrim story as we know it now and the significance of the Plymouth colony?

John Turner:

So, Webster's bicentennial address in Plymouth with lavish references to the rock, certainly does set the stage for a lot of 19th century lionization of the pilgrims. There's no doubt about that. He's certainly not the first or the only American at the time to uphold them as paragons of republicanism, but no, that is significant. That regular celebration of the pilgrims persisted and really grew to be more than a local or even Massachusetts thing, but really grew to be an American tradition in the 19th century.

Albert Mohler:

You deal with a lot of very serious theological material in your book. It's not the history of theology. It's not even the major theme, but you deal with them from the halfway covenant to arguments and controversies over the sacraments, the nature of the church, the responsibility of Christians in this age and in the age to come. This is a massive work of research and of scholarship.

You've dedicated a significant portion of your life to this. So, it seems to me that having written on Brigham Young and Bill Bright, it leads to ask, what are you working on now? Did this lead to another subject area that you're now seeing as a major project or are you turning from this entirely to something else?

John Turner:

That's a great question. There's no stories of great topics out there. You referenced my biography of Brigham Young, which is about 19th century Mormonism. I'm actually doing a project next that is closely related to that. I'm working on a biography of Joseph Smith at the moment. I had some unanswered questions that that next project hopefully will answer.

Albert Mohler:

Well, I will look forward to that with tremendous anticipation because there are multiple reasons why the story of Joseph Smith has a lot of gaps at the present time. This may be exactly the right time to try to go back and tell that story anew. You became a historian as a profession. Now, you've written several major works, this one published by Yale University Press. Tell us the story a little bit about how you became a historian. How did that happen?

John Turner:

Well, for me, it actually has a relationship to growing up in church, first of all, reading the bible, which is not only history, but has a lot of history in it. So, that genre of history I think appealed to me simply because of that. When I was in high school, I read a biography of Martin Luther by Roland Bainton, Here I Stand. That really resonated with me.

So, in part, I became a historian of Christianity because I wanted to figure out what had shaped the Christianity of my own day and life. So, actually, I began with a project on late 20th century American evangelicalism because that's the subculture in which I grew up, and I wanted to understand it better. Since then, I tried to do a little bit less navel-gazing and moved a little further back in time, and have become more taken with the longer history of Christianity.

Albert Mohler:

Well, you have moved from the 20th to the 19th to the 17th century. So, that's a certain trajectory as well. By this token, you'd be writing about the reformation next. I say that tongue in cheek, but I did know that you've moved backwards in history. That changes your source material, doesn't it? Because you wrote about Bill Bright in Campus Crusade for Christ first, and that would appear to me to present several challenges.

One is that it's really close in history. So, you have the advantage of having so many people alive who would have known Bill Bright. Well, but at the same time, historical verdicts and even some materials are probably distant. Then Brigham Young for which there's a huge historical record, but obviously no way to talk with anyone who was this contemporary even more so with the Plymouth colony. Those appear to be different historical challenges.

John Turner:

They are. So, I did a lot of oral histories when writing the history of Bill Bright in Campus Crusade for Christ because I didn't have access to as many documents. So, no, the projects from the 19th and 17th century, they are different. If I were going to go further back in time, I'd really have to brush up on my Latin, though, which is really in an embarrassing state. So, maybe that's why I'm moving back forward to the 19th century.

Albert Mohler:

Well, I think the language issues explained at least in part in so many dissertations and really outstanding works done on the English-speaking Reformation and Puritanism and so many other topics. As president of an evangelical theological seminary, I'll tell you one of the difficulties is hiring people over time who are scholars of the Reformation because in almost every case, other than the English-speaking Reformation, that requires enormous facility in another language. So, there are some really challenges going both ways in this historical work.

John Turner:

One handicap that I face both when I began writing about Brigham Young and then even, well, just as much with the 17th century is I didn't grow up with the King James Bible. So, when I read sources or at least at first, I didn't necessarily pick up on all of the biblical illusions that were there. It took me a while to get a little bit up to speed that way. So, that was one interesting challenge for me. I think that's a challenge for a lot of historians today doing earlier periods of marathon or English history. They don't have facility with the King James. You actually missed a great deal.

Albert Mohler:

Well, I should say, I can't let that just go. How in the world did you grow up in American evangelicalism as a subculture and not have pretty close proximity to the King James Bible?

John Turner:

Well, I grew up Presbyterian, not Baptist. It might be that simple.

Albert Mohler:

There you go.

John Turner:

I grew up on the NIV, really.

Albert Mohler:

That's also a generational thing, Professor. So, just to say that I am too old to have grown up with the NIV, but there is a Baptist subculture there as well. I didn't mean to interrupt you. Go right ahead.

John Turner:

Oh, no, no, no. That was the extent of the answer.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah. It is interesting that in the evangelical world, so the bible church movement, even in people about my generation, literally younger, many of them lack a real familiarity with the King James because of the New American Standard that became the obvious text to preach with its formal equivalents. So, then there's NIV, and the Presbyterian ties there make perfect sense.

In the years I've been president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, but that's been a long time, almost three decades, especially in the beginning, my secretary would put on my travel itinerary whether a church was King James or not. So, that doesn't happen anymore. By the way, but it used to be that she would tell me, just remember, and there was one time in particular I arrived at the wrong church with the New American Standard, and was told I needed to bring a bible.

I'm just old enough to remember because that has not happened in a very, very, very long time, but I could see where that would be an issue. I loved your book, They Knew They Were Pilgrims, for many reasons, but one of them is I loved the primary source material not just for the obvious historical value, but just because so much of it was fascinating to me just as a Christian and as a theologian and a historian theologian.

I'm afraid future historians aren't going to have as much material when they look back if they're allowed on the 20th and 21st centuries. For one thing, a lot of this is just not going to be written down anywhere.

John Turner:

Right. Well, I think that's actually a real issue. So many things are ephemeral now, digital sources, social media, email. I think in a way there will be an overabundance of sources. The question is whether there will be the same level of access to intimate sources, but you say get from 19th century journals and diaries and memoirs. I don't know. We'll see.

Albert Mohler:

You're teaching now on the history faculty of George Mason University. You did your PhD in American History at the University of Notre Dame. Speak to a young person thinking about history as a scholarly pursuit and perhaps even as a profession. What would be your words to that young person now?

John Turner:

That's a great question. I think the first thing I'd say is history can both be an interest, and it can be an academic discipline and a career. I think my own belief as a Christian is that all of us actually do have some interest in the past and are very reliant on it. I think we can all cultivate that curiosity.

John Turner:

In terms of history as a career, the academic discipline of history is a little bit different than just curiosity about the past. It's being enticed by arguments about the past, arguments that should be rooted in primary sources, but often, arguments that are shifted by debate with other historians. So, that's the academic practice of history.

John Turner:

There are also historians doing all sorts of different things, obviously, education, curation, archival work, digital history. There's many ways to be a historian besides holding an academic post and writing monographs. So, I think if history is something that people love, they can find many ways to make it a career, and I certainly think there are more opportunities for history majors than articles about the decline of the liberal arts and the job market might lead one to believe.

Albert Mohler:

The book is They Knew They Were Pilgrims: Plymouth Colony in the Contest for American Liberty. The author is Professor John G. Turner. Professor Turner, thank you for joining me today for Thinking in Public.

John Turner:

Thank you very much, Dr. Mohler. Great to be with you.

Albert Mohler:

I'm thankful for this conversation with Professor Turner. I think there are a lot of Americans who all of a sudden remember and maybe think about the pilgrims, about November of every year. We even talked about why that's so, and we've also talked about why the story is so much larger, it plays out on such a larger canvas that Americans and their imagination often conceive. It's a bigger story in American history, in the history of the English-speaking peoples, in the history of American Christianity, and American political science and history.

All of it gets woven together in this story and woven together extremely well. Again, the title: They Knew They Were Pilgrims. By the title, Professor Turner indicates it's not just that we call them the pilgrims, it's not even just that they were pilgrims, they knew they were pilgrims, using language going all the way back to William Bradford.

Of course, the subtitle, The Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty reminds us that there are arguments to be found here, as is always the case in history at its best and history done well. This is a book that presents the arguments in a way that is very honest in the year 2020. The arguments will continue. Future generations, if they have the opportunity, will pick up these arguments and take them far beyond what we might even now imagine, but they're not going to be able to make those arguments without retracing these arguments just as Professor Turner has gone back to the arguments as they emerged in the 17th century and beyond.

They knew they were pilgrims. Yes, indeed. They were very ardent in their concern for and their yearning for liberty. That's true. How does this argument continue? That's a story still to be told.

Thanks again to my guest John Turner for thinking with me today. If you enjoyed today's episode of Thinking in Public, you'll find more than a hundred of these conversations at the website, albertmohler.com under the tab Thinking in Public.

For more information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, go to boycecollege.com. Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I'm Albert Mohler.

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