Squanto sculpture at Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, Mass. (Credit: Wall Street Journal)
If you are a Christian, you have probably heard of the story about Squanto and the Pilgrims, at Plymouth, generally retold around Thanksgiving. If not, I would encourage to read or listen to it. You can find it at the BreakPoint blog online, or through a wonderful children’s book written by Eric Metaxas. I will not retell the whole story here, but I will touch on the highlights.
Before the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts in the early 1620s, a young Patuxet Native American had been kidnapped by an English sea captain, and brought back to Europe. Squanto was bought from slavery in Spain by a Catholic monk, and eventually Squanto made his way to work in a horse stable in England, where he learned English and the Christian faith. He longed to go back home to his people in America. But when he finally returned across the Atlantic, he discovered that his Patuxet tribe had been completely wiped out by disease, most probably small pox.
As providence would have it, Squanto then met the near-starving English Pilgrims. Squanto soon acted as an interpreter between the English and the native Wampanoag tribe, thus establishing peaceful relations between the English and the Wampanoag for at least fifty years. Squanto taught the English how to grow corn and catch fish, enabling the fledgling community to survive. Squanto appeared at just the right time… God’s time… to help establish this small Christian community in a new and hostile world.
It is a great story to tell around Thanksgiving. But often, as in the Breakpoint article/podcast linked above, some important details are left out when Christians typically retell it. Since the Christian aspect of Squanto’s story is hardly ever told in our public schools or secular media, it is understandable that the neglected details of God’s providential care be emphasized to try to balance out the history.
However, this particular Christian retelling of the story gives the false impression that Squanto was some type of angelic character, without sin, spot or blemish. But as Wheaton College historian, Robert Tracy McKenzie, tells us, there is more to the story.
As it turns out, Squanto felt at home neither with the English Pilgrims, nor the Wampanoag tribe, who essentially held Squanto as prisoner. William Bradford and Edward Winslow, the chroniclers at Plymouth who told the story, both described Squanto as someone who would play the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag off of each other. Squanto would use his unique role as language translator to enhance his standing in both communities, spreading false information about the intentions of both parties, setting himself up as the only one who could heal the divisions and prevent war. When the Wampanoag realized that Squanto was double-dealing, they sent a message to the Pilgrims, encouraging them to kill Squanto. But the Pilgrims still needed Squanto’s services, so they offered him protection. This made the Wampanoag mad, but neither did the Pilgrims trust Squanto the way they had before. Just a few years later, Squanto died of disease living among the English, confessing Christ as His Lord, but much remains unknown as to how much of a rift remained between Squanto and the others around him at the time of his death.
This does dampen our image of Squanto, but it still fits within a Biblical view of reality. The patriarchs of the Bible are hardly examples of moral perfection: Abraham offered his wife up as a prostitute, Moses was a murderer, and David was an adulterer and a murderer. Every human under the sun, including folks like Squanto, including you and me, are sinners in need of grace. When we fail to grapple with our insecurities and other sins, just as Squanto did, we break down relationships of trust.
The lesson is appropriate these days: After perhaps the most contested Presidential election in recent memory, the American nation is in many ways very divided today. Trust has broken down between many groups in American culture, and many are fearful. Trust has broken down even within the church, the household of God. The civic bonds that have traditionally held Americans together in the past have become greatly strained. The loosening of those civic bonds have further shown us where Christians, those of us in the church, have sought for unity in the wrong places. However, as followers of Jesus, if we really know and believe the Gospel, we can trust God and model for the non-believers around us what it means to love God and love one another. If we really wish to see healing in our land, such healing must begin within the household of God.
Yes, let us learn from the positive example of Squanto regarding the providence of God. But let us also keep in mind the negative example of Squanto, that we should re-examine ourselves, deal with our own sin before being quick to mistrust others, and model for others what it means to live in a community that loves God and loves one another.