Updated: Dec 1, 2022
Pilgrims giving thanks in the New World
Dr. RB McFee
Every Thanksgiving season I make it a point to head out to Plymouth, Massachusetts. There is a powerful spirituality that captures heart and soul as much as the imagination when standing on the shore, looking across the water, then entering a place that represents life among the Pilgrims and Indigenous People (Wampanoags) 400 years ago.
And frankly, it puts me into the right frame of mind, taking me away from the clutter of modern living, to a time when the essentials of life – survival, relying on others as well as self, fortitude, faith, and gratitude were daily necessities, and daily ingredients
Most importantly for me, it helps get me into a thanksgiving mindset.
Although most of you will be at least somewhat familiar with the story of how 102 pilgrims left Leiden in the Netherlands, headed onto England, and finally, over to North America, some things might surprise you.
Did you know originally two boats were supposed to travel together? Unfortunately Speedwell, the companion ship to Mayflower, developed a leak, and stayed behind.
Originally planned for an earlier departure, Mayflower left England in September of 1620, and arrived at coastal Massachusetts 66 days later.
Having moved (been moved, as a child) from civilization (Philadelphia), to the wilderness (New England) in November, I can sympathize with the Pilgrims. A week later we had a blizzard. At least I could fly “home!” the Pilgrims, not so lucky.
Speaking of which, there’s a reason people fly across the ocean during winter. Anyone who has ever sailed the Atlantic, she can pack quite a punch in late autumn, and get pretty challenging to cross in the winter. Even modern super ocean liners try to avoid a winter crossing. Now add to this, Mayflower was not exactly a luxury liner, as my photo of a crew member (likely officer) bunk reveals.
Unlike this private, spacious crew accommodation, the 102 passengers, along with animals, slept on one deck, together. And I won’t go into how primitive the bathroom situation was, but trust me there wasn’t a bidet or whirlpool bath.
Not surprisingly William Bradford – who would ultimately become governor – offered prayers of thanks. It was a rough ride. Most of the passengers were not people of the sea. And sadly, meclizine hadn’t been invented yet. Although one hopes they had ginger, which can help.
Did you know, of the 100 or so who survived the voyage, by winter’s end, nearly half would have died of disease. Only four of the 18 women survived. Half the married men died. About a third of the unmarried men died. While most children survived, it could not have been easy seeing death all around them.
In spite of great deprivation, Bradford often invoked Biblical verses of thanksgiving, including Psalm 107. Bradford is quoted saying the following after a challenging winter by a group of people unaccustomed to the types of storms New England can offer, facing no homes but the Mayflower for shelter, and only the food that was brought, or could be scrounged, fished or hunted. Consider….
“May not and ought not the children of these fathers rightly say: “Our fathers were Englishmen which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in the wilderness; but they cried unto the Lord, and He heard their voice and looked on their adversity,”…”Let them therefore praise the Lord, because He is Good, and His mercies endure forever.” “Yes, let them which have been redeemed of the Lord, shew how He hath delivered them from the hand of the oppressor. When they wandered in the desert wilderness out of the way, and found no city to dwell in, both hungry and thirst, their soul was overwhelmed in them. Let them confess before the Lord His loving kindness and His wonderful works before the sons of men.”
From Of Plymouth Plantation
The people used the Mayflower as home while sending parties ashore in blustery conditions to hunt, and to start establishing the community. Eventually houses were built, small farms established, and closer ties between Indigenous Peoples and the English settlers.
Home sweet home – a settler’s home from 1621
Take a moment to imagine having to build houses in New England after a harrowing two month boat ride. Imagine being one of the people shuttling back and forth from a pitching boat to a smaller one so you can get near shore, then wading through freezing water, so you can start to fell trees and try to create a settlement. Anyone who has ever volunteered at Habitat for Humanity, or fixed a backyard deck, or build a boat, knows this doesn’t happen overnight.
Even the Indigenous hut I am “working on” took time and skill.
Oh and have you ever had to cook on an open fire in the cold? That is after catching your meal? Ever try to catch a rabbit? And I can assure you their winter coat was not as insulated as mine, and it was still a bit brisk with the gusts of wind coming onshore.
Thankfully by harvest season, through God’s Grace and the help of Massasoit and his people, the Pilgrims were able to survive and establish themselves.
The Native People and Englishmen developed a camaraderie, and, according to eyewitness Edward Winslow, in a letter home to England described the first great meal between the two people, and what we call Thanksgiving….
“At our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after 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….and 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 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.”
How many of us have endured such deprivation, only to find God’s bounty awaiting us? How many of us have challenges, and cannot imagine anything good coming our way. We are in the winter of our soul, the winter, the wilderness?
This time of year for many among us, it must feel, at least spiritually, like a time of bone painful cold, isolation, a period of soul crushing hunger for something lost or for too long elusive.
The Pilgrims experienced death, sickness, deprivation. And yet they held together as a group, and held it together as people. Gratitude prayers were offered, even when the cupboards were bare, and the ships rats seemed better fed and warmer than the people. Lack and sorrow could have infiltrated their souls, yet somehow God was still a focus, and they held to His promises, to their faith, and offered thanks for what little remained.
And yet, if we have faith, there is light for the dark nights of our soul. There is something to be thankful for even in the midst of death, grief, loss, disappointment, sadness, deprivation. It is not an easy choice, but it is a choice.
Consider the Apostle Paul – a man who at one time was among the religious privileged, and power elite. He could have someone killed on just his word. He was trained by great religious scholars.
And he gave it all up for Jesus. After which time, Paul was flogged, imprisoned, and suffered much pain and deprivation as a servant of Christ. Yet in the midst of challenges most of us will never experience (which is not to minimize the pain all of us experience physically, spiritually, or emotionally), Paul managed to practice what he preached, and reminds us the power of doing the same.
His counsel to the Thessalonians is timely….
“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
1 Thessalonians 5:18
To be sure it isn’t easy. But then if it was easy, Jesus wouldn’t have offered to partner with us in all ways and all times; even when we feel alone, and away from His Presence.
Were I to mix iconic and beloved stories, I would end this article by saying, And that’s why, Charlie Brown, I go to Plymouth Plantation and the Wampanoag village at Thanksgiving. It is a powerful reminder, looking out at the vast body of water, imagining crossing it without modern thermal clothing, adequate provisions, bottled water, necessary medicines, or even basic bathrooms, and yet the people who did this, were grateful.
Even after the horrific winter where death tugged at them every day - brides became widows, grooms became widowers, children became orphans - gratitude came.
Were these folks like a Hallmark movie where everyone whistles a happy tune? Of course not! But no one can argue against their faith, sense of gratitude, sense of community or trust in God, after reading the various Pilgrim diaries and documents
“Thanksgiving” is much more than a day, or word. It is a sensibility; one that the Bible frequently reminds us to experience, and express.
And that’s the power of Thanksgiving – taking time to be appreciative, then and now. It is a mindset more than an action, aligning us with Christ in a powerful way.
Wishing you and your family a blessed Thanksgiving.