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Thanksgiving Day: Pilgrims were a surprisingly worldly, tolerant lot

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Pilgrim experiences "in the cosmopolitan Netherlands are a reason they are less rigid or dogmatic in their views about what people must and must not do," argues Jeremy Bangs, curator of the American Pilgrim Museum in Leiden and author of "Strangers and Pilgrims, Travellers and Sojourners: Leiden and the Foundations of Plymouth Plantation," a 900-page reappraisal published this year on the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims' arrival in Leiden.

"The pilgrims didn't have witchcraft hysteria, they didn't kill Quakers. These are big differences!" notes Mr. Bangs, a former curator of Plimoth Plantation whose work draws heavily from untapped Dutch and New England archives. "Pilgrim leaders were less prone to persecute…. The possibility that others may be right and they may be wrong is something influenced by their time living in an extraordinary community of other exiles in Holland."

Living among other castouts

In Leiden, the Pilgrims lived packed in a warren of houses near the university, amid Gypsies and Jews, refugee French and Poles, exiled Swiss, and other castouts from the turmoil of the Reformation. They were given sanctuary as one of some 19 groups. Eager to explain why they left England, the Pilgrims ran a free press around the corner from where the painter Rembrandt was living.

The first Pilgrim Thanksgiving likely derives from scripture in Leviticus and Deuteronomy 16 in the Geneva Bible used by Puritans. (The text requests that all within the borders of the community be invited – which Bangs says explains the presence of the native American Indians.)

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