As the autumn air turns cool and crisp, our thoughts drift to family gatherings around a sumptuous feast and thanks to the Almighty for the blessings we enjoy in the tradition of the Pilgrims whose Thanksgiving feast celebrated the providence of the Almighty God in their deliverance from the hardships of their first year in the New World.
It is exceedingly easy to trivialize the significance of the endeavor embarked upon by the Pilgrims when they set sail for the New World in 1620 given our modern global transportation network which can deliver us to any point on the globe in a matter of hours. Christopher Columbus had only discovered the New World some 130 years prior, and attempts at colonization had not always gone well. The journey took some two months through the treacherous waters of the Atlantic, and colonists then faced an uninhabited land filled with savage Indians and none of the comforts of home. When the Speedwell departed Delfshaven with the Leiden colonists in July of 1620, they were saying goodbye to their friends and family forever, for they were well aware that the trip they made had no return prospects. For better or for worse, they were committed to surviving in a strange land for the freedom to practice their religion and live their lives as they saw fit.
After rendezvousing with the Mayflower in Southampton, Hampshire, they set off on August 15 bound for the New World. Apprehension soon became apparent as the crew of the Speedwell sabotaged the ship to prevent her further journey and avoid their year-long commitments to the endeavor at hand. The Pilgrims transferred to the Mayflower and persisted in their journey to the New World, finally getting underway on September 16 oblivious to the dissention and pessimism of the Speedwell’s reluctant crew. Unbeknownst to them, their late start in September guaranteed their arrival in the New World at the beginning of winter given the two months required for the Atlantic crossing. They would be completely dependent for their survival with the stores they brought with them and whatever they could forage when they reached the New World.
The Pilgrims had embarked upon their journey to the New World to escape the religious persecution under which they suffered at the hands of the King James I of England. In 1534, King Henry VIII separated the Church of England from the Catholic Church over the Pope’s refusal to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Despite this, Henry maintained a strong preference to Catholic practices and forbade Protestant reformers from making changes to the Church of England. The 1559 Act of Uniformity made it illegal not to attend official Church of England services, with a fine of one shilling assessed for each missed Sunday and holy day.
The Brownist English Dissenters, from whose ranks the Pilgrims came, found it impossible to obey both the laws of England and their duty to God, and a significant faction left England around 1606 for Leiden, Holland to escape English persecution of their faith. Although this group prospered in Holland, they had difficulty attracting new members from England due to problems with the language and integration issues, and the decision was made in 1617 to prepare for a departure to the New World while the group was still young enough to endure the voyage and establish a colony.
And so the Pilgrims set sail for the New World having left behind their friends and families to establish a colony founded upon religious freedom in an inhospitable land teeming with savages and wild animals and other unknown privations confident in their Divine calling by the Almighty God. There would be no ports in which to dock, no houses in which to live, and no villages in which to purchase supplies. They would be forced to start from scratch colonizing the area and creating this new life from out of their own resourcefulness. Their arrival on November 9 meant there would be no time to plant a crop to harvest for the winter, and about half of the contingent died that first winter. Still, they persisted and began the spring of 1621 planting seed corn they had scavenged from Indian graves along with their persistent belief in God’s providence over their endeavor.
God did indeed bless the Pilgrims with a bountiful harvest, and they gathered afterwards to show their gratitude to Him by offering humble thanks around the cornucopia He had provided for their feast. They invited the Indians whom their friend Squanto had convinced to assist them in sharing this bountiful feast and thanksgiving offering of prayers to a benevolent God. For God had provided the Pilgrims a place to worship freely which they had suffered many hardships to build up into a colony.
These days, we run down to the local market and shop for the traditional Thanksgiving feast and all of its trappings with scarcely a thought of the hardships endured by the Pilgrims or the immense sacrifices they made to have the opportunity to worship freely in the New World we know as America. Just imagine, in less than 400 years America went from discovery and colonization to the world’s lone superpower with the highest standard of living known to mankind, and it all started with a leap of faith by a group of Pilgrims seeking religious freedom.
We gather with our families on Thanksgiving to offer humble thanks to God for bestowing His blessings upon us and reverently ask for His continued blessing upon our families and our country before enjoying a feast provided by His blessings. We have much for which to be thankful, and we have the Pilgrims for which we should be thankful for taking that leap of faith and enduring the hardships that provided the foundation of our lives of ease. To get a sense of their sacrifice, imagine leaving the comfort of America for the shores of a foreign land of which you have no knowledge and from which you have no way to return, realizing that you must build a new life from scratch all for the sake of an idea. Now prepare to offer thanks for all God has blessed you with this year and for the Pilgrims who made all of this possible.