The Real Story of Thanksgiving
November 23, 2010
Rev. Dallas Henry
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This Thursday, across America, families will gather around the table for a wonderful meal and people will give thanks. Few have an accurate and complete understanding of the Thanksgiving holiday, or what they are thankful for except that it is a day off from work with lots of food to eat.
The first Thanksgiving began with a group who joined together in the early part of the 1600's. It was a time when King James I was on the throne in England and the Church of England, under his authority, persecuted anyone who did not recognize its absolute civil and spiritual authority, including a state church which was known to hunt down, imprison and even execute those who believed in freedom of religion.
There was such a group who left England for Holland and after being there for about 11 years, forty of them agreed to make a dangerous journey to the New World; they were coming to America. This small band of believers knew they were going to face hardships. But they knew they would also be able to live and to worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences. And so they set sail on August 1, 1620 aboard the Mayflower. The ship carried 102 passengers.
Halfway across the Atlantic the Mayflower and her crew faced near disaster in a fierce storm that caused one of the main beams to bow and crack. Passengers had urged Captain Christopher Jones to turn back but he assured them the vessel was strong and firm enough to complete the voyage. He ordered the crew to secure the beam with a great iron screw the pilgrims had brought with them from Holland. With the beam raised, they committed themselves to the will of God and resolved to proceed.
On November 19, 1620 the Mayflower caught sight of Cape Cod, which the pilgrims described as "a goodly land wooded to the brink of the sea." A true statement of Cape Cod at that time, but lacking a sanction to go ashore, they continued to sail on for their charter had been issued for the Virginia Colony which was south of Cape Cod.
As the ship continued to sail south, those on board pondered what to do. Their decision, the Mayflower Compact, was intended to being a temporary pact to keep law and order among themselves in the wilderness where there was no law. This historic document laid the foundation for law and order in America.
This revolutionary idea for the Mayflower Compact came from the Bible. The Pilgrims were people who were totally immersed into the Old and New Testament. They were people who looked to the biblical precedents set forth in Scripture and the ancient Israelites for their example. They never thought that their experiment in religious freedom would fail.
At the heart of the Compact lay the undisputed conviction that God must be at the center of all law and order and that law without a moral base was really no law at all. The compact also rested on a covenant agreement that all law would rest not upon a monarchy or a dictatorship, but upon the consent of the governed.
The Mayflower was no Princess luxury cruise for the Pilgrims. [I recommend any who are able, to visit the Mayflower replica in Plymouth, Mass.] The journey was long and hard and when they landed in New England that November, they found, according to Bradford's journal, a cold, barren, desolate wilderness. They had no friends to greet them when they came ashore. There were no houses for shelter, no inn in which they could refresh themselves.
And the sacrifices they made for religious freedom were just beginning. That first winter, half the Pilgrims, including Bradford's wife, died either of starvation, sickness, or exposure. When spring came, the Indians taught the settlers how to plant corn, fish for cod, and skin beavers for coats. Life improved for the Pilgrims, but they did not yet prosper. This is what the modern history books leave off. In fact, some explain Thanksgiving as a holiday for which the Pilgrims gave thanks to the Indians for saving their lives rather than as a devout expression of gratitude grounded in the tradition of both the Old and New Testament.
Below is Governor Bradford's first Thanksgiving Proclamation which was given three years after the Pilgrims settled at Plymouth Rock. There were 51 Pilgrims who survived that first year and in attendance at this first festival. There were; 4 married women, 5 adolescent girls, 8 adolescent boys, 13 young children and 21 men.
Gov. Bradford's Proclamation:
"Inasmuch as the great Father has given us this year an abundant harvest of Indian corn, wheat, peas, beans, squashes and garden vegetables, and has made the forests to abound with game and the sea with fish and clams, and inasmuch as He has protected us from the ravages of the savages, has spared us from pestilence and disease, has granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience; Now I, your magistrate, do proclaim that all ye Pilgrims, with your wives and ye little ones, do gather at ye meeting house, on ye hill, between the hours of 9 and 12 in the day time, on Thursday November 29th, of the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred and twenty-three and the third year since ye pilgrims landed on ye Pilgrim Rock, there to listen to ye pastor and render thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all His blessings."
And to show how the hand of the Lord was in the formation of our nation; in 1492 the ships of Christopher Columbus were headed for the Carolinas. If he had landed there, the U.S. would have been claimed by Spain and we would have the language and religious culture of Latin America here. God desired America to be a Christian nation. Columbus and his men thought they saw land toward the south, thus turning their ships in that direction. They soon realized that it was a cloud they saw. This turn headed them toward Florida. After a few days a flock of birds flew overhead directing them further south to find where they were headed. Thus they landed in San Salvador.
Just as a side note, in 1588 (thirty-two years before the arrival of the Pilgrims) Spain attempted to conquer England and force them to fall under the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. This "invincible" Spanish Armada was determined to destroy and crush England once and for all. A storm destroyed a great number of their warships. In this weakened condition they ended up fleeing from the British toward Scotland where the Spanish Armada was completely destroyed by storms. God was preserving Britain from which would come the Pilgrims to establish a Christian nation.
In 1606, just fourteen years before the arrival of the Pilgrims, the French, represented by Pierre DeMonts made three attempts to settle in the New World. The first two attempts were stopped by strong winds that drove them away from the coast. In the third attempt the storms were so violent, the ships were destroyed and DeMonts was killed.
In 1746, many years after the Pilgrims had established the thirteen colonies, the French planned to take over the colonies. Rev. Mr. Prince of the Old South Church in Boston received word of the plan. He stood up before his congregation in Boston and called for a day of fasting and prayer. While they were praying the shutters of the old church began to shake as a violent gale wind began to blow. The entire fleet of French ships were destroyed by the storm. Once again God was working to preserve a Christian nation from those who would be a threat.
The Pilgrims were a group of Puritans who were victims of religious discrimination in England. Because they believed that the teachings of the Church of England were not true to the Bible, the Puritans wanted to "purify" the church.
Even thoiugh many such voyages had ended in disaster and death for other voyagers, God protected the Pilgrims and all of them survived the journey. The only death on the ship was a crew member who hated the Pilgrims.
God had already prepared the place for them to land. The area around Plymouth had been plagued about three years previous to their arrival and the hostile Indian tribes in the area had nearly all died. The Pilgrims found the land empty and tilled waiting to be planted. One Indian survived the plague, knew English and was glad to show the Pilgrims how to plant corn for food. His name was Squanto. The winter was harsh and many Pilgrims did not survive, but it was this corn that kept them all from starving.
That's not the end of the Pilgrim's Thanksgiving story. The facts of "the rest of the story," are not the ones usually heard in contemporary accounts of the Pilgrims' history.
There are events during the days that followed that first Thanksgiving celebration at Plymouth. Though the Pilgrims rejoiced that they had food to tide them over, and gave God the glory for his providential care, they ran severely short of food in the following months, which was a grim situation. Just one month after their celebration, the first ship from home dropped off 35 unexpected people, called "Adventurers," but they brought no food, no clothing, no tools, and no bedding with them.
So, the Pilgrims, true to their Christian heritage, made the decision to go to half rations in November and share their food with the newcomers, with hopes that they would all make it to the summer.
They nearly starved that winter; eating their tiny little meals; praying the whole time, and not one person was lost to starvation which was a miracle in itself. Spring finally arrived, but the hardship wasn't over yet. There was a severe drought that lasted through the summer. In fact, the Indians had no recollection of such a drought ever happening before. Week followed after week with no rain at all. The crops had been planted and had sprouted and come up in the spring, and had grown about midway up, and now they were just sitting there in the fields - literally dying. The success of this particular crop was critical to the Pilgrims after having such hard times in their first year and a half in America. The situation was desperate, and people's hopes were starting to die. Not knowing what to do, Governor Bradford decided to have everyone turn to God by ordering the colony to set aside a whole day for nothing but fasting and prayer.
Here's the actual account of the miracle, as recorded by Governor Bradford in his own journal:
"I may not here omit how, not withstanding all their great pains and industry, and the great hopes of a large crop, the Lord seemed to blast, and take away the same, and to threaten further and more sore famine unto them. By a great drought which continued from the third week in May, till about the middle of July, without any rain and with great heat for the most part, insomuch as the corn began to wither away though it was set with fish, the moisture whereof helped it much. Yet at length it began to languish sore, and some of the drier grounds were parched like withered hay, part whereof was never recovered. Upon which they set apart a solemn day of humiliation, to seek the Lord by humble and fervent prayer, in this great distress. And He was pleased to give them a gracious and speedy answer, both to their own and the Indians' admiration that lived amongst them. For all the morning, and the greatest part of the day, it was clear weather and very hot, and not a cloud or any sign of rain to be seen; yet toward evening it began to overcast, and shortly after to rain with such sweet and gentle showers as gave them cause of rejoicing and blessing God. It came without either wind or thunder or any violence, and by degrees in that abundance as that the earth was thoroughly wet and soaked and therewith. Which did so apparently revive and quicken the decayed corn and other fruits, as was wonderful to see, and made the Indians astonished to behold. And afterwards the Lord sent them such seasonable showers, with interchange of fair warm weather as, through His blessing, caused a fruitful and liberal harvest, to their no small comfort and rejoicing. For which mercy, in time convenient, they also set apart a day of thanksgiving."
We should never forget that God, in His great mercy, has given us more than we deserve, and more than we appreciate at times. It is human nature to take for granted the many blessings that we experience each moment. God wants us to always give thanks for all things so that each day; as Winslow said, will be: "a solemn day set a-part and appointed for thanksgiving, wherein we return glory, honor, and praise, with all thankfulness to our God, who deals so graciously with us, whose name for these and all other His mercies towards His Church and chosen ones, by them be blessed and praised now and evermore, Amen."
Wouldn't it be wonderful if some of the true Thanksgiving story could be shared around the Thanksgiving table this year?
May God help us to recognize His countless blessings on us and be thankful for them.