The Pilgrims stood on the deck of the Mayflower, exhausted from a three-month ordeal at sea. With every breath of fresh air came the hope of a new beginning for the devout Christians who left all they knew for the sake of God’s call. But, that raw, cold wind brought with it a bitterness that foretold of hardships to come.
That first winter of 1620-21 was difficult. Of the 102 passengers, 45 died, including William Bradford’s own wife. Only four of the couples who boarded the Mayflower still had each other when Spring arrived. By April 1621, the Mayflower‘s captain determined that he had to return to England. Even though the ship’s stores were low, he offered to take anyone who wished back to England. None of the Pilgrims took him up on his offer.
In an act of divine Providence, an Indian arrived named Squanto who spoke English, to the amazement of the Pilgrims. He had been captured in 1605 by an English explorer Captain George Weymouth. Similarly to the story of Joseph, what these English explorers did for evil, God turned into good. Squanto was taken to England where he spent nine years and learned English. In 1614, Captain John Smith took Squanto back to the American shores where he was reunited with his Patuxet people. However, sailing with Captain Smith was another captain, Thomas Hunt. Captain Hunt ignored Captain Smith’s orders to trade with the Indians, and instead lured many Patuxet men onto his ship, including Squanto, and shackled them in irons. Most of the captured Indians were sold into slavery and sent to North Africa. Squanto, however, was rescued by local friars who purchased him, and taught him Christianity. Later, Squanto attached himself to an Englishman bound for London. He found himself back in New England just six months prior to the Pilgrims’ arrival.
The Spring and Summer of 1621 Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to catch eels, when to “harvest” fish swimming upstream to spawn, and how to plant corn the Indian way. In a thousand such ways Squanto helped the Pilgrims survive. The harvest that year was bountiful, and the Pilgrims invited the local Indian chief, Massasoit to their public feast of thanksgiving. Massasoit arrived a day early and brought 90 of his warriors with him. Such a large entourage cut deeply into the winter stores.
On top of that, the Fortune arrived in November and dropped off 35 more colonists who had brought no provisions with them. That winter, known to some as the “starving time,” required the daily rations to be reduced to just five kernels of corn. Instead of giving into despair and resentment, they continued to put their hope in Christ. Unlike the Jamestown settlement, not one of the Plymouth colonists died of starvation that winter. Unexpectedly, a ship arrived, on its way back to England, and gave them trade goods—beaver pelts, beads, knives, trinkets—with which to trade for corn. The Pilgrims would thus survive 1622.
In 1623, a drought hit the New England area and threatened to destroy the Pilgrims’ second planting. The Indians performed their rain dances to no effect. The Pilgrims got on their faces, sought the Lord, and repented. God opened up the heavens and poured out his mercy for 14 straight days. The Indians took notice and “admired the goodness of our God towards us” Edward Winslow remarked. The yield of crops that year was so abundant, that the Pilgrims had a surplus of corn which they used for trading with the Indians.
Another thanksgiving feast was planned. Massasoit was again invited and he brought his wife, three other chiefs, and 120 warriors. Emmanuel Altham wrote to his brother of the feast, describing the abundance of food, from venison, hogs, hens, goats, plums, nuts. “A better country was never seen nor heard of, for here are a multitude of God’s blessing.” Before they all enjoyed the feast, however, each plate was provisioned with just five kernels of corn, lest they forget to give thanks to God for bringing them out of such hardship.
Giving thanks to God is what American Thanksgiving is about. It is about remembering the fledgling settlement, where a small group of Christians began a new nation, conceived in liberty, and with the desire to be a City on a Hill for the world to see God’s glory. Since then, America has liberated Europe twice, and Asia once, from tyranny. America leads the world in spreading the Gospel by sending out missionaries. America is the most generous nation in the history of mankind. We’ve fought a war that ended slavery in our midst. We finally embraced our principle that all men are created equal despite some opposition. Without God’s blessings and the perseverance of the first Americans, the world would most likely have been ripe for global tyranny without the prospect of liberation.
Our Thanksgiving celebration is not just a reminder for us to be thankful for our own blessings, our families, our homes, our jobs, our churches, our neighbors. It is a reminder that all Americans should give thanks for God’s blessings bestowed on our forebears. Without them, the world would not know the blessings God provided because of America.