This year’s Thanksgiving is quite a milestone. It was in 1621, 400 years ago this month, that the Puritans of Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts celebrated the first Thanksgiving.
Giving thanks to God in all circumstances may well have been on the minds of those souls as they struggled to practice their faith freely and make a life in the howling wilderness of North America.
William Bradford, governor of Plymouth Plantation would later write of the first year in America, “All great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courage.”
The Puritans had intended to get to the New World early in summer, in time to put in a crop and build houses before the onset of winter. But their voyage was delayed when one of their ships, the Speedwell, proved unseaworthy. They had to turn back and load her passengers and supplies aboard the already cramped Mayflower.
The result was what came to be called “The Starving Time” for the Plymouth colony. One hundred and two Puritans had crossed over on the Mayflower; nearly half their number died that first winter from disease and starvation.
Only four married women, along with 22 men and 25 teenagers and children lived to see the first spring in the New World. William Bradford would later write of it: “It pleased God to visit us then with death daily, and with so general a disease that the living were scarce able to bury the dead.”
Those who survived had established good relations with the Native Americans, who helped the Puritans plant crops that eventually became a fair harvest in the fall. They were moved celebrate the first Thanksgiving and praise God for their survival.
We’ve all seen artists’ renditions of what that looked like, with a great many Puritans and a few Native Americans joining in the feast, but those images are misleading.
So many Puritans had died that they were actually outnumbered at the feast two to one by Native Americans, about 90 of whom were at the first Thanksgiving. The Native Americans brought with them five deer and other game and foods to the feast. It’s funny to think that the first Thanksgiving was something of a potluck affair.
“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them from a distance, admitting they were foreigners and strangers on earth. They were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.”
Many have forgotten the reason the Puritans had dared to venture into the harsh New World in the first place— religious freedom. Persecuted for their faith in England, they had first fled to Holland. English authorities continued to persecute them there, leading many to undertake the perilous voyage to America.
Since they landed hundreds of miles farther north than their charter permitted, the Puritans felt they must draft some form of government for the colony, which became known as the Mayflower Compact. In it, we read:
“Having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honor of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God, and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together.”
Bradford would later write of those times, “Thus out of small beginnings greater things have been produced by His hand that made all things of nothing, and gives being to all things that are; and, as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone unto many.”
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