Posted by: Calmseas (Mike) | November 26, 2008

To Give Thanks

In 1620, a group of 102 pilgrims—along with 30 sailors—stepped off a small wooden vessel in Plymouth Bay (within present day Cape Cod Bay, Massachusetts) and stepped into history and into lore. The pilgrims had not come to America seeking fortune, as others had done in the previous century, but seeking freedom—freedom to practice their religion as they pleased and freedom to build a society of their own making, not as dictated by others.

While still at anchor in Plymouth Harbor, they created a covenant—the Mayflower Compact—that provided for self-government by majority-rule.  And, thus, they created the basis for an ordering of their fledgling society in the New World, a framework of government that was remarkable in an age of kingdoms and monarchs.

In the coming months, these pilgrims were decimated by decease and the unforgiving conditions of the New England winter. One writer describes their desperate condition this way:

“Of the original 102 Mayflower passengers, four died before reaching Plymouth. By the summer of 1621 there were another 46 deaths among the passengers, and about 25 deaths among the crew. After the ‘General Sickness,’ only 12 of 26 men with families and 4 of the 12 single men and boys survived. ‘All but a few’ of the women survived. William White died in the sickness, though Susanna survived. (Susanna must have been a very strong woman, having survived the ocean crossing while very pregnant, then the General Sickness shortly after giving birth to Peregrine.) In order to hide the number of deaths from the Native Americans, the Pilgrims buried their dead in the night on what is now called Copt’s Hill. (In 1920, the remains of all the buried who could be found were placed inside a monument on top of the hill.) Bradford calls this period ‘The Starving Time.’” —The Story of the Pilgrims IV: The First Year & the First Thanksgiving,” Mills, McLaughlin, Radloff, Ruth genealogy pages.

Yet, by the end of the summer of 1621, these Pilgrims were beginning to prosper in spite of the terrible hardships and loss of life that they had endured in the previous months. They decided to, therefore, have a traditional English “Harvest Home” festival. They gave thanks to the Good Lord for carrying them through their first year in a strange and untamed land, and ate of the bounty of that first harvest. The Indian Massasoit and 90 of his people came to share in the festival, and they brought freshly hunted venison to the meal.

Of course, we know this harvest festival of so long ago as the first “Thanksgiving” feast. And so tomorrow we celebrate this great American Thanksgiving tradition in homes and other gathering places across the continent, as we give thanks to God in much the same way as those Pilgrims did on that first Thanksgiving: We thank God for freedom, especially the freedom to worship as we please; and we thank him for sustenance and, indeed, for the rich bounty that he has granted to all of us who call ourselves Americans.


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