Pilgrims, Property and Piety

During my daily commute I have been listening to Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower, a history of the Pilgrim’s first decades in New England . One episode caught my ear.

During the first years of the settlement at Plymouth, the colony struggled to produce enough food for the harsh winters. They were a pious refugees who were seeking a more perfect Christian community.  They decided at first to have a communal farm and share both the labor and the harvest equally. However their harvests were so meager that the Governor Bradford decided in 1623 to stop communal farming and allowed each family to grow and keep their own corn crop. After this decision the colony rarely struggled for food.

The failure of the communal farm reminded me of a short passage in the book of Acts. (Resurrection LC has been reading the book of Acts in worship as part of the Narrative Lectionary.)

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. (Acts 4:32)

This early vision of communal living seemed to be short-lived in the church as well. Paul does not refer to it in any of his letters directly. Rather he practiced his own tent-making vocation and funded his own missionary journeys (Acts 18:3, 2 Cor. 11:7-9). The early church met in people’s houses, which means that someone must have owned the homes. Private property was never abolished by the church.

There have been some successful versions of communal living in church history, the monastic communities being the best example. Yet the vast majority of Christians continue to own private property and prosper from a free market society.

The Acts 4:32 experiment still has a purpose for all Christians: the call to be good and generous stewards of our possessions. Like the early pilgrims, we may be more industrious when we directly benefit from our labor. Still Christ calls us to be compassionate neighbors, one to another. Our new relationship with God calls us into compassionate service towards others.  Generosity will always be part of a mature Christian piety.

Lord Jesus, teach me to be generous as you are generous towards me.

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