It’s November, there is a chill in the air, the leaves are changing color, and we are beginning to think about the holidays just around the corner. Glenn, too, has been thinking of the holidays and our country’s origin as a covenant nation. Glenn has been preparing his audience to recommit to our national covenant, harking back to the Pilgrims' vision of a nation surrendered before God in preparation for Thanksgiving. This got us thinking about the Pilgrims' historic journey and how important and special Thanksgiving is as a holiday.
What makes Thanksgiving so special
Thanksgiving is unique as it celebrates a larger concept, something everyone, regardless of religion, race, or creed, can relate to and recognize—something uniquely American. There is a reason we, as grade schoolers, are taught about the Mayflower and the first Thanksgiving before we are taught about the first English colonies in the New World, like Roanoke and Jamestown. These original English colonies in North America emerged either for economic gain or in pursuit of royal glory. However, the Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower and the communities they established went beyond mere colonies; they were the architects of America.
Why the Pilgrims came to North America
If not motivated by gold or glory, why did the Pilgrims make the journey across the Atlantic to settle on a strange and hostile coast? It is important to note, that these were NOT adventurers—young men with strength and experience, nothing to lose and everything to gain—but rather established professionals with families, children, jobs, and everything on the line. This was a dangerous trek in which survival was by no means guaranteed. In fact, the Mayflower had a famously deadly first winter; 44 of the 102 original passengers died from a combination of disease and malnutrition.
Again, why leave in the first place? Many of the Pilgrims were Separatists, a religious group originating from England that was inspired by the Protestant Reformation which was raging on the continent. They believed that reforms to the Church brought by King Henry VIII’s divorce from the Catholic Church and the creation of the Church of England were insufficient, and the only way to correct them was to break away and build a new, separate Church (thus Separatists). But the King couldn’t allow that. He couldn’t allow them to live their lives as they saw fit because it would be a direct challenge to his “divine right to rule." So the Separatists were persecuted, driven out of their homes, and fled across the ocean to fend for themselves in a remote and hostile land. The Pilgrims risked all for a chance to lead their lives in the way they believed God wanted for them.
The Pilgrims faced many hardships during the crossing, including a severe storm that nearly shattered the Mayflower and sent it far off course. This meant that where they landed, Massachusetts, was hundreds of miles away from Virginia, where they had intended to land. This created a problem for the Pilgrims: the documents establishing their rights to be there, in Virginia, and the authorities that governed them, were now void. But these courageous men and women who had just braved the Atlantic to escape the King were not about to limp back to England to grovel at the King's feet and renegotiate their charter, nor would they risk making the turn south towards Virginia around Cape Cod with its dangerous winds and shoals.
So on November 11th, 1620, the pilgrims gathered and decided to write their own charter, and in doing so, began a legacy of self-governance that we can follow to the present day. This new charter, which would eventually be known as the Mayflower Compact, had profound meaning for the Pilgrims, who saw it as an important part of their original mission: to create not only a new Church but also a new nation joined by a covenant with God. The Mayflower Compact would continue to be read at the beginning of government meetings for years, despite it being legally superseded only a year after its creation.
The First Thanksgiving
If you think back to grade school, you probably know where this story goes next. In March of 1621, an English-speaking Wamponaog Native American named Samoset made contact with a Pilgrim named Edward Winslow, and before long, the Wampanoag were teaching the Pilgrims how to survive in New England. That autumn, following a successful harvest, the Pilgrims decided to celebrate with a three-day festival of prayer. They invited their new Native American friends, brought out the pumpkin pie (Well, pumpkins at least. The pie would come in later years.), and the First Thanksgiving was born.
But what did these sojourned souls have to be thankful for? They were forced to flee their homes, their ship barely made the crossing, they landed in the wrong place, half their number died before the year was out, and they were reliant on strangers for their survival. It seems like everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. So why were they so thankful?
They were thankful for their lives and the lives of their surviving friends and family. They were thankful for their relationship with God, which was strengthened not only by their hardships but also by their newfound religious freedom that permitted them to worship God in the way they saw fit. They were thankful for the generosity of strangers, who saw them in their struggles and stretched out a hand (and what are the odds that there was an English speaker among the Native Americans, over 3,000 miles away from England, in an area previously untouched by Europeans? Do you believe in coincidences?) While these things, family, food, and freedom, may seem trivial or basic to many of us here and now, they were everything and more to the Pilgrims. Thanksgiving gives us an opportunity to put ourselves in the shoes of the first Americans, look around at all we have, and be full and content with the grace of God.
“And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.” —Edward Winslow; (Pilgrim and diplomat) on the First Thanksgiving.