A developer planned to build a wharf. But town residents protested. Why, this was a historic landmark! Sacred ground, they claimed. And so the planned development became mired in public debate. Sound familiar? Sure, this sort of thing happens to developers all the time in our country. And some of us feel glad about that.
But this particular town was Plymouth, Massachusetts. And the year was 1741.
The foremost protester against the wharf development was a 94-year-old elder of the Puritan Church, named Thomas Faunce. He had been born in Plymouth in 1647, and remembered many of the original pilgrims who had arrived on the Mayflower.
Elder Faunce claimed that the pilgrims landed on the very spot where the wharf was planned. And he pointed out a rock, which he claimed had been stepped upon by these pilgrims as they came to shore. He wept during his public protest, his tears splashing upon the hard surface of the rock, as he contemplated aloud the thought of the wharf covering it up.
Many who witnessed this protest felt moved. And who could doubt him? He claimed that this is what he’d been told by the very people who landed there. And nobody else alive had lived long enough to know any better. Plus, Faunce was a revered, respected elder of the church.
Just the same, Faunce’s protest failed. He was shoved aside, and the wharf was built in spite of his story. And in spite of the fact that everyone believed the story. Progress is progress, you know. We mustn’t stop our holy quest for progress.
But as a show of good faith the developers compromised, and preserved the rock uncovered, that Faunce had championed. From then on, this boulder became known as Plymouth Rock. It gained fame, and began attracting curious visitors.
In 1774, the good citizens of Plymouth split the famous rock in half. They then moved the top portion to their meeting house, to stand upon and deliver fiery speeches advocating independence from Britain. Over the years it was moved around some more, until 1867, when it was returned and rejoined to its lower portion. That’s when “1620” was chiseled upon it, commemorating the year the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth.
Souvenir hunters have, over the centuries, chipped away at this rock that Thomas Faunce made famous, so that now it’s only about one-third of its original size. Today it only measures about six feet long and three feet wide.
Now it sits on public display on the Plymouth beach, ensconced within a memorial at the spot where Faunce said the pilgrims had landed. And the wharf was finally torn down, so Faunce finally won out in the end. Today, Plymouth Rock continues to attract tourists from far and wide, to this unwharfed location.
I don’t know if this is where the movement actually began in America, to conserve public lands and curtail development. But I like the story. It seems that deep within the heart of many Americans, both young and old, we treasure that which is pure and pristine.
Thomas Faunce was 94 years old. So his protest could not have been for himself. It was for future generations. I’m thankful for people like him. Because of such magnanimous activists of our past, today we can enjoy National Parks and historic landmarks.
If most tourists are anything like my wife and me, they leave Plymouth Rock with amused disappointment. We imagined this fixture to be some sort of majestic, Gibraltar-style edifice, jutting into the sea, with waves lapping upon its rugged, granite face. We had no idea it was just a puny stone, barely larger than a welcome mat.
But I’m thankful for Plymouth Rock, anyway. It reminds me of Thomas Faunce, one of the first American protesters against development. And it reminds me of the pristine seashore he sought to protect.
Faunce was a Puritan. And his religion was marred with many flaws that made it anything but pure. But I believe Faunce was an exception. He was one Puritan who understood the true nature of purity.