The Pilgrims’ Experiment with Socialism

Rebekka Parry


The Pilgrims and economics don’t usually fall in the same textbook chapter, but maybe they should. The story of the Pilgrims shows us sacrificial commitment, self-government, and an example of honest relations with Native Americans. William Bradford, in Of Plymouth Plantation, describes their vision in the following: “Lastly, (and which was not least), a great hope and inward zeal they had of laying some good foundation, or at least to make some way thereunto, for the propagating and advancing the gospel of the kingdom of Christ in those remote parts of the world; yea, though they should be but even as stepping-stones unto others for the performing of so great a work.”


Often our study of their “good foundation” ends with the first Thanksgiving. But the story certainly didn’t end there. Shortly after that historical event, another ship arrived from England with more people and almost no supplies. The food supply continued to be a severe struggle for the new colony. By the spring of 1623, they were desperate. What made the difference? They added private enterprise to their farming. Up to this point, they had committed to sharing everything equally, no matter the age, effort, etc. It would be all distributed “fairly” in a communal plantation.


This socialistic system always sounds attractive. We all want fairness. Our kids are constantly reminding us of that, right? But does fairness mean we should all receive equally? We are constantly bombarded with the idea that the “rich” in our nation haven’t paid their “fair share” in taxes. Politicians push for their concept of economic equality in our society. It’s our job to show our kids that this isn’t God’s way. The Pilgrims provide a great example of perfect “fairness” failing.


You couldn’t ask for a godlier group of people to give socialism a shot. And it failed miserably! Motivation dwindled when effort, strength, or rank led to no greater benefit. Bradford summarized it in the following: “The failure of this experiment of communal service, which was tried for several years, and by good and honest men proves the emptiness of the theory of Plato and the other ancients, applauded by some of the later times,—that the taking away of private property, and the possession of it in community, by a commonwealth, would make a state happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For in this instance, community of property (so far as it went) was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment which would have been to the general benefit and comfort.”

The young men didn’t like working for other families without added profit. The older men thought this system was disrespectful to their age and experience. This communal/socialist system sapped motivation and energy. But once their farming system changed, starvation was no longer an issue. Bradford records that even the women and children went “willingly into the field” once they were planting for their own families. They turned to private enterprise!


We are wired to work and be rewarded according to our effort. As Psalm 62:12 states, “and with you, Lord, is unfailing love’; and, ‘You reward everyone according to what they have done.’”


Now the challenge to us is to make this practical for our younger kids to understand. And we must train our older kids to see the deceptive tactics used today that mask socialism as fair and good. We need to prepare them to understand the values behind the various political/economic theories they will encounter. Is welfare biblical? Should the government offer free college as some propose? What is a fair and constitutional tax? Can they define what is fair? Our teens need our help in developing a godly worldview. May God grant us wisdom as we disciple the next generation of Americans to apply the Bible to all of life, including the economy. Resources for Further Study: