The First Thanksgiving

Everyone has heard the nutshell version of the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving feast with the Indians. Ever wonder what really went on? Let me take you back several hundred years…

England was still feeling the influences of the Renaissance (a European surge of learning and relearning) and the Reformation (a Christian movement to reform the church). More common people were reading, and the printing press made the Bible more readily available – and in English. The Church of England had recently broken away from the tradition and power of the Pope. “Puritans” hoped to purify the church further, and “Separatists,” (our Pilgrims) were the extremists in this movement, creating their own congregations. However, King James, hoping to avoid conflicts among factions, had made the Church of England the only legal church. The Separatists suffered fines, imprisonment, beatings, loss of businesses, even death for their principles, so as a group they chose to leave England.

Holland was extremely tolerant of such matters, so the congregation settled there, but after eleven years their children were becoming “Dutchified.” Hoping to preserve their heritage, they gained permission to settle in Virginia in the New World, not far from Jamestown, the only surviving colony to date.

They procured two ships, but one was deemed unseaworthy, so 102 courageous Pilgrims, less than half of which were actually Separatists, crowded onto the Mayflower, suffered a stormy, six-week autumn passage, and arrived the New World in November of 1620. They missed Virginia by a long shot, landing instead in Massachusetts, where there was no charter or rule of law. Before they disembarked, the settlers agreed on a temporary system of government, written down as the Mayflower Compact, which would serve until a new charter was granted by the King.

Of course November in Massachusetts is an unforgiving time of year. They had little food and no shelter. Already weakened from the difficult crossing, they struggled to build homes in the midst of winter snows. Also, pressured to find fur or timber to pay back their creditors, they explored their surroundings, often becoming drenched and ill on these excursions. Half their number died that winter, starving to death one by one, or giving in to the elements. They were buried at night so the Indians would not know how small their numbers had become. Out of necessity, survivors quickly remarried, and the many orphans were taken into new homes. No one was untouched by tragedy.

Yet their faith endured.

In the spring, nearby Indians made contact with the Pilgrims. An English-speaking brave named Squanto, who has his own remarkable tale, became the Pilgrims’ best friend, teaching them to survive in this new land – how to fish, where to find game, what wild plants were good to eat, how to plant corn. The Pilgrims, with faith that translated into actions, treated the Indians with respect and dignity. English and native forged a friendship that would last a remarkable fifty years.

At the end of this summer, with a wealth of food for winter, Governor Bradford set aside a day to thank God for his provision. Chief Massasoit and some of his men were invited, but NINETY braves showed up. Massasoit had to send them out to hunt for more food. They came back with plenty, and the feast lasted three days.

Usually, that’s the end of the story, but let me tell you just a little more, to further illustrate the remarkable faith of these settlers and the continuing faithfulness of God. The next year, the harvest wasn’t as good. And in late autumn two ships arrived bearing more settlers, including some of the Separatists left in Holland. (It actually took 10 years for them all to get to the New World.) Again, there was hunger, though not as deadly.

The third year, there was a terrible, long drought. The crops were dying, and it looked as if the coming winter would be another starving time for Indians and Pilgrims alike. The Indians performed dances and other rituals to please the Great Spirit, but no rain. At last, Governor Bradford called for a day of fasting and prayer. The whole town assembled outside, with the Indians gathered to watch. For fourteen hours they called on God, and He was faithful! Soon after, clouds darkened the sky, and for three days, a gentle soaking rain revived their crops. That November, they celebrated a second Thanksgiving.

Even this was not the end of their story. Squanto died that year, an unfriendly tribe of Indians threatened war, a townsman created all sorts of trouble with creditors in England, but the Pilgrims endured with a solid and real faith in a solid and real God. This month, as we follow their tradition, may we also follow their example.

Originally posted Nov. 2009

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