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Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD . . . – Psalm 33:12
Each year we celebrate Thanksgiving in the tradition of the Plymouth colony’s harvest at the end of their first year in the New World, 1621. Did these early settlers have cause to thank an Almighty God for their condition? Consider the following facts:
The Pilgrims did not come to America to seek religious freedom.
As a group, they had sought and found asylum in Holland from religious persecution more than twelve years earlier. They, like the Puritans, believed that the Church of England was corrupt. Unlike the Puritans who sought to “purify” the Church from within, these “Separatists” believed the Church was beyond purification. The Church could only be under the headship of Jesus Christ. Therefore, no one, not even the Queen of England could claim title as “Head of the Church.” Because of their convictions these believers were hounded unmercifully. The bishops of the Church of England feared these believers who “spoke enthusiastically of experiencing an encounter with Jesus Christ” might create little clusters of “fanatics” with no semblance of order and no conformity! Under the rule of James I and Charles I, they were literally driven underground and fled to Holland. It should be noted that James I was the sponsor of the King James Version of the Bible, first published in 1611.
Strong conviction led 102 men, women and children to brave sixty-six days at sea confined to an area one-half the size of a volleyball court.
As described by author and historian Peter Marshall, among the several reasons for their leaving was the fact that they “cherished a ‘great hope and inward zeal’ of at least playing a part, if only as a stepping stone for others, in carrying the Light of Christ to remote parts of the world.” They were taking Christ’s words in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) to heart and believed that America was the site God had chosen for them. Were they right?
How committed were they?
The captain and part owner of the Mayflower, Christopher Jones, was hired to take them to just south of the Hudson River—the northernmost boundary of the Virginia Charter. In turn of funding their voyage, they would become indentured servants to English investors who expected 100% return on their investment in the New World. The love and worship of money, it turns out, is not a characteristic of only the 21st century.
They landed 100 miles north of their intended site.
Despite being tossed about by severe storms, they landed less than 100 miles north of their intended site on the Hudson. The area was Cape Cod. All attempts to move south, approximately a five day journey, were frustrated by headwinds, shoals, riptides, and the approach of winter. After much prayer, they decided to remain at the northern end of the Cape. However, this placed them outside the jurisdiction of the Virginia Company’s charter. They were ungoverned—accountable to no one, and totally unsupported. The fear of mutiny led them to quickly draft the Mayflower Compact. This document, founded on the ancient Hebrew tradition that all men are equal in the sight of God, was the “first time in recorded history that free and equal men had voluntarily covenanted together to create their own new civil government.” The Compact is two short paragraphs—only 200 words long.
Was this the landing site God intended for them? Consider the following:
The site located by a scouting party consisted of over twenty acres of cleared land ready to plant but obviously uninhabited for several years. The area also had four nearby streams, excellent drainage, a beach and protected harbor, in addition to an open field of fire for defense with muskets and cannons.
- They were later to learn that the land had belonged to the fiercest tribe of Indians on the coast—the Patuxet—who had brutally murdered every white man they encountered. The entire tribe had been wiped out by a mysterious plague just four years before their arrival. Neighboring tribes shunned the area fearing bad spirits. The land they “found” literally belonged to no one!
- The Pilgrims lost forty-seven, almost half of their number to illness during the first winter. Although horrifying by today’s standards, this was still better than the 80-90% mortality rate of the Jamestown Settlement. Sunday worship was the high point of their week. The Bible was still a new and fascinating book for them, having only been in the hands of the common man for less than ten years. Do we take our access to God’s word for granted?
The first two Indians they encountered spoke fluent English!
Samoset was the adventurous exploring chief of the Algonquin tribe of Maine. He had been exploring the area for eight months when he strolled into their camp in the spring of 1621. Squanto is not a legend—he was the sole remaining Patuxet Indian. Squanto (Tisquantum was his real name) had been captured and taken to England for nine years and returned to America before being recaptured and sold into slavery in North Africa. He was subsequently rescued by friars who introduced him to the Gospel.
- The Pilgrims were indebted to Squanto’s teaching for their survival the first year. These city dwellers appeared to become his personal mission. He taught them how to fish, plant corn, and trap for furs. The trading and farming skills he taught them became their economic and physical deliverance. Was Squanto an agent of God?
The First Thanksgiving
Governor Bradford declared a day of Thanksgiving in October of 1621. The celebration of safety, blessing, and a prosperous harvest, accompanied by over ninety Indian guests, ended up lasting more than three days.
Thus was born the tradition of the first Thanksgiving in America. A God-fearing people who had placed their very existence in a hostile new land solely in His hands responded with prayer, worship, love, and gratitude for His provisions; then shared it with their pagan neighbors with whom they were living in peace. Are we expected to do any less?
America’s heritage is a Christian heritage!
The majority of this information and all quotes are taken from The Light and the Glory by Peter Marshall.
Questions to Share:
1. What were you taught about the history of Thanksgiving in America? Were there any details in this writing which reminded you of what you were taught?
2. What are you thankful for this year? Has your time of geographic separation from loved ones during deployment been a time during which you could reflect on your life?