FamilyLife Today® Podcast

Pilgrim Families, Part 1

with Jack Cavanaugh, Ruth Tucker | November 2, 2006
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On the broadcast today, award-winning author Jack Cavanaugh and Ruth Tucker, author of the book The Family Album: Portraits of Family Life Through the Centuries, shed some light on what life was really like at Plymouth Bay in the early 1600's.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • On the broadcast today, award-winning author Jack Cavanaugh and Ruth Tucker, author of the book The Family Album: Portraits of Family Life Through the Centuries, shed some light on what life was really like at Plymouth Bay in the early 1600's.

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

Jack Cavanaugh and Ruth Tucker shed some light on what life was really like at Plymouth Bay in the early 1600’s.

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Pilgrim Families, Part 1

With Jack Cavanaugh, Ruth Tucker
November 02, 2006
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Narrator: After 65 days at sea from Plymouth, a total of 97 days from the first launch at Southampton, the pilgrims caught a glimpse of their destination – the new land where God would be worshiped freely and, in time, where freedom would flourish.  Shouting for joy and falling to their knees to pray, they celebrated by reading Psalm 100.  "Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth, serve the Lord with gladness.  Come before him with joyful singing.  Know that the Lord Himself is God; it is He who hath made us and not we ourselves.  We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.  Enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise.  Give thanks to Him, bless His name, for the Lord is good.  His lovingkindness is everlasting, and His faithfulness to all generations."

Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, November 2nd.  Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine.  Today we're going to talk about what it must have been like for families living in America almost 400 years ago.

 And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us on the Thursday edition.

Dennis: I just like the sound track.

Bob: That is nice, isn't it?

Dennis: It is a nice piece.

Bob: Well, and to hear Psalm 100 recited like that – it's wonderful to hear.  We are focused this week on Thanksgiving, and we're going to have a little bit of a history lesson for the rest of this week, and you brought the history major into the studio with you, right?

Dennis: My wife of 34 years, welcome to FamilyLife Today, sweetheart.

Barbara: Thank you, I'm glad to be here.

Dennis: Her name is Barbara, by the way.

Barbara: Not sweetheart.

Dennis: Not sweetheart.

Bob: Well, we have a treat for our listeners today.  We had an opportunity to sit down and talk with a history professor and a novelist who writes historical fiction.

Dennis: Let's say a real history professor.  Barbara is a history major, she's not a history professor.

Barbara: A long time ago I was a history major.

Bob: We talked a while back with Dr. Ruth Tucker.

Dennis: Right.

Bob: And Jack Cavanaugh about Thanksgiving and, Barbara, this was actually back before you had written your book on Thanksgiving.  Do you remember when we did these interviews and when Dennis brought them home?

Barbara: Yeah, I do remember them, because this was an author that I was familiar with.  My girls and I had read some historical novels during that time period, and we had actually read his books, so it was really fascinating to hear him tell the story and share some of the research he'd done about the book that he wrote.

Dennis: This was more than a decade ago when Barbara had already been working on celebrating Thanksgiving in our home for – well, I guess, at that point, about 10 years prior.  Back in the mid-'80s we started celebrating Thanksgiving with some certain traditions that she built for our family and certain readings, certain traditions that we would do and ultimately they became a book a number of years later, and it's been a bestselling book here at FamilyLife.  We've been thrilled to share it with a lot of families who now know how to celebrate Thanksgiving.

Bob: It is interesting, as you read your book and as we talked with Ruth Tucker and Jack Cavanaugh about the first Thanksgiving, we really have kind of a Hollywood picture – and I don't know where it came from, but we have this idealized picture of what life was like in pilgrim America.  And in this conversation with Jack Cavanaugh and Ruth Tucker, we had a chance to ask them to straighten us out and give us a more accurate picture.

[begin audiotape]

Dennis: Take us back to the first Thanksgiving.  Let's go all the way back to Plymouth Bay in the early 1600s, and let's pretend that we could be guests at that first Thanksgiving celebration.  What would we experience?

Jack: Well, a lot of the experience, of course, is going to be very happy, because they are celebrating the fact that they've survived.  I mean, this isn't just a matter of, "Well, God has been good to us this year."  More than 50 percent of those who came over died, and so it was really a bittersweet time for them as well.  They were greatly thankful to God for His blessing them and allowing them to survive yet, at the same time, there were fresh graves nearby of all the loved ones that came over.  And so it was a great celebration, to be sure, but sort of bittersweet.

Dennis: What did it look like physically?

Jack: Well, physically, it was, I guess, similar to our picnic today, because, of course, everything was crude, made out of wood and, again, many of the homes at that particular time, many of them were mud huts.  In fact, through the first winter, a lot of them had even dug into the hills in order to survive, and that's where they sheltered themselves from the cold winter.

Dennis: I think sometimes we have a way of idealizing Thanksgiving, and we have the picture of the adults being well-dressed and the kids prim and proper.  That wasn't the case, was it?

Jack: No, in fact, in many ways, it's sort of like what we do with our Sunday school pictures as well.  I mean, if you take a Sunday school picture of Joseph or Moses or something, I mean, they're all clean cut, there's not a spot of dirt on them.  But if you take a look at the nomads in Israel today, that's about what they look like with their dirty tents, and they're out in the filth all day long and just dust, and they don't have Jacuzzis or baths or anything like that to keep clean.

 Well, it's the same way with the pilgrims.  It's romanticized the things that they had gone through and so their kids were running around, and they were filthy and dirty, oftentimes shoeless, and this is just sort of typical of their day.  It was very crude living.

Dennis: You know, one of the things that my wife, Barbara, has really helped me appreciate, as well as our family, as we sit around the dinner table on Thanksgiving Day, we read the history of that first Thanksgiving.  And they talk about the foods that were there, and then the next Thanksgiving.  Take us back and tell us the kind of foods that were there.  What was prepared, and what did they enjoy?

Jack: Well, the traditional turkey came from that.  They had wild turkey, they had maize, they had pumpkin.  In fact, pumpkin was plentiful in the area and, boy, they had pumpkin everything.  They had pumpkin bread, they had pumpkin pie, they had – any way that you could fix a pumpkin, they ate it.  And these are typical things from the early days.  And then, with the maize, the corn, as well, these traditions that we have handed down to us are based on elements of truth.

Bob: Jack, we've made a tradition at our home.  Each year around Thanksgiving time, the kids make hardtack.  That's something that the pilgrims ate as they were coming over on the ships, is that right?

Jack: Yes, and that's because it's an unleavened bread type of material, and that's because it would not spoil as quickly as a leavened bread.

Ruth: One thing that isn't romanticized is the family togetherness that we have in Puritan times with the pilgrims.  The mother, the father, and a lot of care and concern for the children.  The children were so important to these families.  There were small houses, often one-room houses, but they were together there, and they spent time together and especially as they spent time around the Scripture and studying the Bible, studying the Word of God, and really coming together as a family unit.

Bob: Were they big families?

Ruth: They were big families, although children often died, but there were a lot of children born to families.  There might be 11, 12, that's often a number, or sometimes up to 15, and out of those 6, 7, 9 might survive.  So that's a big family.

Bob: Dr. Tucker, we hear in our grade school classes that the pilgrims came because of religious persecution back in England.  What was going on?

Ruth: Well, the Puritans wanted to purify the Church of England, and there was opposition to those who wanted to – especially singing hymns and things like that, and they wanted more freedom.

Jack: It might be helpful at this point to distinguish between the Puritans and the pilgrims.  They were two separate groups.  The pilgrims, however, thought that the Church of England could not be saved, and so they left early.  In fact, the other name for them is Separatists.  And they separated themselves from the Church of England.  They went to Holland first, and then found that their children were being raised not as Englishmen any longer, and that concerned them, and so then they came over and settled in Plymouth, and those are the pilgrims.

 The Puritans, however, felt that the church could be saved, and they wanted to purify the church from within, and so this is the takeoff for the novel, "The Puritans," because here were a people who were committed to the church, committed to staying in England, and what kind of forces would uproot them and drive them into the wilderness. 

Most of the Puritans were wealthy people, and they left great houses, they left vast wealth and, in fact, John Winthrop, who was the governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, almost personally financed the Massachusetts Bay Colony for an entire year out of his own pocket just so that they would survive.

And so these were the issues that brought them over – great persecution.  Bishop Laud – he didn't want them preaching out of the Bible, he didn't want them having more than one service during the day, and he wanted them to have everything arranged.  It was a matter of control – everything in the church arranged just so.  He wanted the order of service just so; he wanted all the sermons to be pre-approved printed sermons that were read.

And the people, of course, chose to follow God's Word rather than the bishop's word, and this created a conflict, and he literally drove them out of the country.

Bob: And the danger, or the harm, that they faced from the elements, that was less severe than remaining in England and facing the persecution there?

Jack: At least they were free to live as they believed, and so they were willing to risk the wilderness over against being punished very severely at times for the things they were doing there.

Ruth: We have to understand how important religious faith was to these people, so they were willing to risk the dangers of the North American continent just for the freedom of religious faith.  That's hard to imagine today.  Most Americans wouldn't be willing to risk that for their religion.

Dennis: No, our convictions today are convenience.

Ruth: They really are, and we can learn so much from the Puritans, the Separatists, our forefathers of this era.

Dennis: You know, when we think of the Puritans, we always think of prudishness.  Talk to us about the dress of youth during that time.

Jack: The dress was conservative according to today's standards, there's no doubt about that.  All the dress was – everything was covered from head to toe, but part of the prudishness, I think, is, again, a misconception about the Puritans.  Again, we think of them as people as stiff-necked, straight-laced, weaned on a dill pickle, never had any fun and, you know, that's a misconception about who these men and women really were.

 It was in the 1920s that they got that stereotype of who they are, and they received it mostly from a very liberal New York newspaper editor, H.L. Mencken.  He gave us a definition of who the Puritans were.  He said that they were people who had a haunting fear that somebody, somewhere was having fun.  And that sort of stuck with them. 

 In the 1800s and the 1700s, these people were models of industry, they were the epitome of the American spirit and courageous, and so just in our day and age, they've gotten that bad rap.  And we tend to dehumanize them in all of this – that they never fell in love, they never smiled, they never laughed, and these are people.  They are human beings with lives and loves and desires and growing up wanting to make something of themselves just like today, only they dressed differently.

Bob: Now, the pictures that the kids being home from school around Thanksgiving time with the black and the white and the frocks and the smocks – is that accurate?

Jack: Yes, that's accurate.  They did stay away from ostentatiousness and how they interpreted that was with plain dress.

Bob: Dr. Tucker, your book, "The Family Album," deals not just with the Puritans, but you really look at families throughout history, don't you?

Ruth: It's a picture book, a family album, from Adam and Eve and the boys right up to the present dealing with Billy Graham and James Dobson and Tony Campolo – their families and what we can learn from our heritage.  The Puritans is just one chapter in that book.

 I think there's been a little tendency recently, though, to idealize the Puritans too much.  I think they got a bad press a couple of generations ago, but now a lot of people are jumping on the bandwagon to see them as a real idealized group of people, and we have to be careful about that.

 There were divorces, there was adultery in colonial New England, and a lot of problems that we see today were present them even as now.

Dennis: Take us to the family altar of a Puritan family.  What occurred there?

Ruth: Well, the father was the one who usually headed up the family devotions, and it was a stern religion.  This was a stern environment that they were living in, and a very stern religion, and a lot of concern about hellfire and brimstone and where these children would end up, and they were to be concerned, as they went to bed at night, were their sins forgiven and were they ready to meet the Lord?  There was a lot of death in colonial New England, and so little children grew up knowing other children who had died and being very concerned about their eternal destiny, and that kind of reigned over everything as religion goes in the colonial New England.

Bill: But the father saw a part of his role as the catechizing of his children, didn't he?

Ruth: Oh, absolutely.  The father was more important than the pastor.  Now, today, we don't see that.  Often, the mother is the more important one in the family, and even she is secondary to the pastor, but not so in colonial New England.

Jack: I came across an interesting diary, a man's diary, about his family and their daily ritual.  He would get up earlier, about 4:00 in the morning before everybody else, and he would go out and have his prayer time.  Then he'd come back and wake them up, and he would continue his prayer time and Bible reading while all the dinner – I'm sorry – the breakfast was being made.  They'd all gather together at one table.

 His standard question when they came to the table was, "What are we going to do for the Lord today?"  And they'd start talking about that, and while they ate breakfast, then, they had a Scripture passage read, and they all discussed that particular passage of Scripture.  They repeated that same practice at the dinner meal, and then once the chores were done, they were all sent to their rooms, if they had rooms, or separate areas, and they then wrote in diaries. 

 Very introspective people – they were analyzing themselves and their spiritual relationship with God on a daily basis, and their diaries reflect that as they struggle with their life and love and the relationship with God, and they recorded this, and it's just fascinating reading to watch these men and women with their spiritual struggles on a daily basis.

Ruth: There are so many lessons to learn from the Puritans, from our colonial forefathers, and, you know, they learned so many lessons from daily life themselves.  They were always making analogies between what was happening around them and what the Lord was trying to show them.  They were very close to God.  Heaven was closer back then than today, with all our modern technology, and there was so much to learn.

Bob: Well, you've got to believe that when your fourth or your fifth child dies, the prospect of heaven being closer is right before your eyes.  You're longing for that reuniting as you lose members of your family.  That's got to instill, in a man or a woman, a desire to be home with the Lord and reunited with his family.

Dennis: You know, as I hear you two describe life in the colony experience, I hear two extremes that really are interesting for me to reflect on.  One is the danger, the lurk of death, and the threat of that being imminent to members of the family, whether young or old; that is was harsh; that it was tough; it was a hard life; not any luxuries.

 But, on the other hand, I hear a simplicity that my soul longs for; that even as I listen to today, I think, "Would I be willing to trade out all of the luxuries and the conveniences of today for 35 short years that perhaps knew God better than we, in today's complex littered society, will ever know Him?

[end audiotape]

Bob: We've been listening back to an interview recorded a number of years ago with Ruth Tucker and Jack Cavanaugh talking about the first Thanksgiving and, in the same way that Dennis was talking about the hardship and the simplicity mixed together, Barbara, you're kind of drawn to that same picture of simple life where dependence on God is right at the center.

Barbara: Well, I think that, to me, what is so intriguing about the pilgrim story, it's because when you read in their words – so much of this is their story that was penned by William Bradford in his journals, and when you read what he wrote about their literal conditions and their actual circumstances, you can't help but compare that to how we live today.  And it's so amazing that they continued to be so strong in their faith, and that their spirit of gratitude didn't waver.  And it's such a remarkable story that you feel drawn to it because you admire what they did, and you respect how they endured difficulty with such faith.

 And so every time I read it, and we've been reading this every year now since at least 1985 – every year when we read the Thanksgiving story, I just an amazed again at their courage and their faith, and I want my life to be more like theirs and less like mine.

Dennis: The contrast is so clear.  They had so little yet they were so grateful.  We have so much and yet today …

Barbara: We're so gripey, actually.

Dennis: We are.  We grumble a lot, you know, and I think there's a need for us to – we're not going to recapture that simplicity.  I just don't – I don't know that that's realistic, but we can recapture a heart of gratitude, and that's really what Barbara tried to do in her book is tell the story in a way that we could read it at the Thanksgiving meal and have people relive it, either in a 25-minute version or a 45-minute version depending upon how much you want to read.

 And then go around the table and share what you're grateful for – five things for the past 12 months that you're most grateful for.  Bob, do you know what one of yours would be.

Bob: I'd have to have at least the turkey and the mashed potatoes to think about, you know, you just put me on the spot here.

Barbara: You need to eat first?

Bob: That's right, and I'd be grateful for that.  You know, one of the things I love about what you put in your Thanksgiving book, Barbara, is the pictures that are here on page 56 of some of your children's cards that they filled out at past Thanksgiving meals.  A lot of families, instead of using the cards now, just use the back of your book, because you've included a lot of pages where families can keep a record of their family's blessings from year to year, and I know many of our listeners have gotten a copy of your book, "Thanksgiving, A Time to Remember."

 We have it in our FamilyLife Resource Center, and if any of our listeners would like to get a copy either of the book or the audio book, we have had your content dramatized and put on CD.  They can go to our website,, click the red "Go" button in the middle of the screen, and that will take you right to a page where there's more information about Barbara's book, about the CD.  You can hear an audio sample of the dramatized CD, if you'd like.  Again, it's on our website at  Click the red button that says "Go," and if you order either the book or the dramatized CD, we'll send along at no additional cost the CD audio of our conversation with Ruth Tucker and Jack Cavanaugh, and that's something you and your family can listen to again as well.

 Again, our website,, click the red button that says "Go," and that will take you right to the page where you can order these resources or call 1-800-FLTODAY, 1-800-F-as-in-family, L-as-in-life, and then the word TODAY, and we'll make arrangements to have these resources sent out to you.

 You know, this issue of wanting to cultivate a sense of gratitude in the heart of our children, I was thinking about the book, "While They Were Sleeping," which is a book that we've recommended to a lot of parents as a guide, a prayer guide.  One of the chapters in that book is on the subject of contentment, and I was thinking contentment really is a parallel to gratitude, I think.  You can't be thankful and discontented at the same time.

 In fact, the book reminds us that contentment comes when we understand that God is the one who supplies all our needs, and this book gives parents a systematic way to be praying for specific character qualities to become evident in the lives of our children.  We wanted to send a copy of this book to any of our listeners who, during the month of November, would be able to go to our website and make a contribution or call us and make a donation to the ministry of FamilyLife Today.  We are listener-supported, and so those donations are critical for the ongoing work of this ministry.

 If you go to our website,, click the "donation" button.  There's a form you'll fill out on that page and, as you fill it out, you'll come to a keycode box.  Type the word "Pray" – p-r-a-y in that box, and that will let us know that you'd like to have a copy of the book, "While They Were Sleeping" sent to you as our way of saying thank you for your financial support for the ministry of FamilyLife Today.  Or call 1-800-FLTODAY, make a donation over the phone, and just mention that you would like a copy of the prayer guide for parents, and we'll be happy to send that out to you.  Again, it's our way of saying thanks for standing with us financially in the ministry of FamilyLife Today, and we appreciate your financial partnership.

 Well, tomorrow Dr. Ruth Tucker and Jack Cavanaugh are going to be back.  We're going to hear more about what life was like for families in America almost 400 years ago.  I hope you can be with us for that.

 I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team.  On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine.  We'll see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

 FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas, a ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ. 

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