For the Pilgrims, Thanksgiving Was a Way of Life

Image: Jennie A. Brownscombe / Creative Commons
Image: Jennie A. Brownscombe / Creative Commons

Studying all extant eyewitness accounts of the first Thanksgiving is not difficult. It requires reading just 152 words, written in late 1621 by Plymouth colony statesman Edward Winslow:

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after have a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the company almost a week, at which time amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain, and others. 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.

The celebration bore marked differences from some traditional portrayals. The 90 Wamponoags present were nearly double the 50 Englishmen still alive after their first grueling winter in Plymouth, down from 102 who arrived on the Mayflower. It probably took place outdoors, in September or October rather than November. They ate more venison and seafood than turkey, berries rather than pumpkin pies.

In some quarters, it has become popular to suggest even deeper differences between traditional American Thanksgiving celebrations and what occurred at Plymouth in 1621. Contrary to the traditional portrayal of families gathered around their tables with heads bowed in prayer, some historians question whether Christian spirituality should be associated with the first Thanksgiving.

James Deetz and Patricia Scott Deetz claimed, for example, that “Thanksgiving as we think of it today is largely a myth.” The original celebration was a “secular event,” which “transformed over time,” because America “needed a myth of epic proportion on which to found its history.”

Indeed, of the surviving Englishmen at the first Thanksgiving, only about half were Separatists, those who came to the New World in search of freedom to live out their Christian faith. The rest were “strangers,” who made the journey out of nonreligious motives.

New England historian Joseph Conforti described the first Thanksgiving feast as “disorderly,” not the mythologized “placid feast dominated by pious settlers.” American religious historian Sydney Ahlstrom described the Pilgrim Fathers as “not theologically minded, nor … self-conscious in their churchmanship.”

Yet Americans long have assumed a spiritual heritage in their Thanksgiving celebrations, from President George Washington’s proclamation “rendering unto [God] our sincere and humble thanks” to Donald Trump’s last year, harkening back to the Pilgrims and saying, “we remember with reverence and gratitude the bountiful blessings afforded to us by our Creator.”

Conflicting interpretations of the 1621 Thanksgiving celebration may make us wonder whether it is reasonable to draw spiritual lessons from the first Thanksgiving. Was it merely a secular harvest festival, or did the Pilgrim Fathers celebrate in deep gratitude for God’s providential care? Even the most cursory reading of Pilgrim literature strongly favors the latter option.

Despite the relative scarcity of primary sources and the wave of historical revisionism, a wealth of spiritual instruction may be gleaned from the first Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims’ approach to providence, gratitude, and the priesthood of all believers.

Thankfulness Flows From a High View of Providence

The Pilgrim Fathers’ assessment of themselves as “partakers” of “plenty” on the first Thanksgiving comes into sharper focus when we consider the mediocrity of their first harvest. Though they brought in 20 acres of corn thanks to the help of their native friend Squanto (who showed them how to grow the strange North American crop), all the Pilgrims’ English crops failed. Yet amid that failure, the Separatists still deemed their first harvest “plentiful” by “the goodness of God” and worthy of a thanksgiving celebration.

The Pilgrim Fathers could be thankful for mixed success because they viewed every good thing in life—no matter how small—as the provision of a sovereign God. A True Confession, the 1596 creed adopted by the Separatists who set sail on the Mayflower, declared, “God hath decreed in himself from everlasting touching all things, and the very least circumstances of every thing, effectually to work and dispose them according to the counsell of his own will, to the prayse and glorie of his great name.”

This was the same doctrine of meticulous providence articulated by the Reformers and upheld in the Reformed tradition up to the present. As John Calvin put it, “God’s providence governs all” such that “nothing takes place without his deliberation.” A quarter century after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, the Westminster divines expressed the same doctrine: God “doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least.”

When the Pilgrims decided to leave the Netherlands for America—seeking better economic prospects, continued religious freedom, and a removal from the influence of poor Dutch morals on their children—they knew their journey would be difficult. Yet they believed many potential difficulties “by providente care and the use of good means might in a great measure be prevented.”

In hindsight, “endured” might have been a more appropriate word than “prevented.” The Mayflower encountered serious storms in the mid-Atlantic for days on end, growing so leaky that there was discussion of turning back. However, the captain declared his vessel seaworthy, and the Pilgrim Fathers “committed themselves to ye will of God.”

During their first winter in Plymouth, disease struck the Pilgrims hard. Over a span of three months, half the English settlers died. Of all the married couples among them, both husband and wife survived in just three instances. Still, the Separatists saw God’s providential care. “The Lord so upheld these persons,” Pilgrim statesman William Bradford wrote. After native people fell victim to illness too, the surviving tribes caused the Pilgrims no harm, which they also attributed to providence: “It has pleased God so to possess the Indians with a fear of us, and love unto us.”

Such a high view of providence led naturally to thanksgiving. The smallest positive occurrence in life could not be overlooked because it was a gift of God no less than the major victories. That’s why the Pilgrim Fathers could pause for a thanksgiving holiday following their mediocre harvest and abominable first winter in Plymouth.

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Source: Christianity Today