Jamestown was the first English colony established in America in 1607 in what is present-day Virginia. A little over a decade later, the Plymouth colony was established in 1620, in what is now Massachusetts. They were about 500 miles apart, and there was no known communication between them. Yet, they had a remarkably parallel experience with their initial economic systems. Both began with a communal system in which property was owned by the collective and the harvest of the common garden was shared collectively.
In their first winter, each colony suffered massive starvation, with two-thirds of the Jamestown colonists perishing and half of the population dying in Plymouth. The next winter, half of each colony again died of starvation. Both colonies then did away with the communal system and gave each colonist their own plot of land to cultivate. No one ever starved to death again in these colonies.
William Bradford, the leader of the Plymouth colony, wrote about the evils of their attempted communal system. With it the lazy did little or no work, but shared equally in the harvest with the diligent and hard-working. This injustice caused the industrious to lose heart and stop working hard. After each colonist was given their own land to cultivate, everyone became motivated to work, and the harvest dramatically increased.
Not only did no one in these colonies starve again, but after they started to reap what they had each cultivated, there was an abundance left over that many began to sell, export back to the mother country, or trade with the Indians. Both colonies went from deprivation and starvation to having more than they needed. The only factor was that they did away with the socialist system and implemented basic free-market economics.
When William Bradford first mandated the communal system, he considered it “the Christian thing to do.” He noted that it was what the first Christians had done in Jerusalem. After this experience, he called the communal system “evil,” contrary to human nature, and contrary to the teachings of Scripture. Bradford did not change his theology just because of this experience, but the experience helped illuminate many Scriptures he had not noticed before, such as the Apostle Paul’s exhortation in II Thessalonians 3:10-12:
“If anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either.
For we hear that some among you are leading an undisciplined life, doing no work at all, but acting like busybodies.
Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to work in quiet fashion and eat their own bread.”
What Bradford did at first is what many zealous Christians do when they base their beliefs or practices on one Scripture without seeing the counterbalancing ones. We do not want to base our theology just on experience, but truth that is life will also often be illuminated by experience. As Bradford came to understand, there was a good reason why having all things in common like the first church in Jerusalem was never duplicated by any other church.
Again, we should never base our beliefs on just one text, especially when it stands in contrast to the rest of Scripture. These exceptions are there for a reason and should keep us open to being led into doing the exception, but our practices should be based on the norms and not the exceptions—unless we have very specific guidance to do otherwise.
William Bradford was a strong leader, but he had a humble, teachable heart. He may have had the best of intentions when implementing the communal system, but many people paid a terrible price for this mistake. This may be why the saying was coined, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Idealism can be a most deadly enemy of revelation, causing even the distortion of The Scriptures as Peter warned in II Peter 3:14-16.
Bradford’s mistake had been costly, but his humility and willingness to accept responsibility for it became a pattern for future leaders of the colonies. Because he wrote about it openly, others could learn from his experience and did not have to repeat this mistake. Since God “gives His grace to the humble,” the grace of God was abundant in the colonies and the nation they became, as long as they kept seeking His ways.
It was also from these profound lessons at Jamestown and Plymouth that prosperity and wealth in the colonies became based on diligence and hard work, not finding treasure. By this, diligence and hard work became the culture of the colonies. In Scripture there can be a difference between wealth and riches. Riches tend to come fast and depart fast, but wealth is built by such things as wisdom, endurance, and hard work, and can last for generations. This enabled the colonies to build wealth, not just riches.
This is not to imply that prosperity of the colonies came fast and easy. There were many challenges and setbacks. They were also building on a solid foundation that would not only endure, but prosper.
Even though he was not a Christian and did not believe in God, Vladimir Lenin, the first communist leader of Russia, actually came to the same conclusions that Bradford did. Lenin began to see that communal economics was causing a collapse in productivity in Russia, and mass starvation was looming. To counter this, Lenin began to allow some basic free-market practices again, such as limited private property and the right of the people who produced more than their quotas to sell the excess and keep the profits. This had an immediate positive impact on productivity and the expected massive starvation was avoided, until Lenin suddenly died.
Stalin took over after Lenin. He was a Marxist purist and canceled Lenin’s reforms. Soon millions were starving in Russia each year. Some estimated that as many as 30 million starved in Russia before World War II broke out and massive aid was sent to the Soviet Union by the Allies.
Perhaps following Lenin’s example, in the 1980s China began to allow small steps toward a basic free market into their rigid Marxist system. What they achieved by this is one of the remarkable stories in human history. In just two decades, more people were raised out of abject poverty than in all of human history before this. In just two more decades, China was rivaling the United States as the most powerful economy in the world.
To date, there is not a single example of socialism not impoverishing any nation where it is implemented. Why does anyone still promote Marxist socialism? “Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.”
Children should be educated and instructed in the principles of freedom. – John Adams
Socialism works until you run out of other people’s money. - Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of Great Britain.
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