Thanksgiving and the Legacy of the Pilgrims
The legacy of the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving extends to all Americans and especially to believers. In 1621, for three days, 53 English colonists entertained and feasted with 90 Wampanoag Indians at Plymouth, Massachusetts. According to Plymouth Diplomat Edward Winslow, this was to “rejoice together in a special manner after bringing in their harvest ... by the goodness of God.” This feast occurred after a winter in which half of the Plymouth colonists died. For generations, American leaders looked back to and upheld the Pilgrims as a shining example of living out the American ideals of faith, freedom, and virtue.
The faith of the Pilgrims in God guided their thoughts and actions. Plymouth Governor William Bradford described this motive for the journey from England to Holland and eventually to North America, “Lastly (and that which was not least), a great hope and inward zeal they had of laying some good foundation, or at least to make some way thereunto, for the propagating and advancing the gospel of the kingdom of Christ in those remote parts of the world.” Further, as Pastor Paul Jehle described, “Pilgrim theology focused on the expansion of the King of Christ through love, service and the voluntary reception of the gospel; this is why they came to the shores of America.”
The Pilgrims understood that all authority comes from and is accountable to God. Constitutional Scholar Herb Titus noted, “Of the several English colonial charters establishing a civil government in the New World, the 1620 Mayflower Compact stands out … but unlike the other charters, the Pilgrim fathers did not receive from the King authority to constitute a civil order. Rather, without the King’s blessing, they undertook “one another [to] covenant and combine [them]selves into a civil Body Politick.” The Mayflower Compact was formed by consent of the governed. This was the same philosophy in how the Pilgrim Church was formed, by voluntarily joining together and promising to one another and God to live out their faith by His Word.
In his account, “Of Plymouth Plantation,” Plymouth Governor Bradford described the virtuous love of Christ displayed during the suffering of the first winter. “In a word, did all the homely and necessary offices for them which dainty and queasy stomachs cannot endure to be named; and all this willingly and cheerfully, without any grudging in the least, showing herein their true love unto their friends and brethren; a rare example and worthy to be remembered.”
This virtue was displayed with the Wampanoag Nation. We see an example from the 50-year peace treaty that was honored for the lifetime of those who signed on behalf of their nation — Governor Bradford and the Massasoit (or Great Chief) Ossequeum of the Wampanoag. A genuine friendship was honored during a time of strained relations when Ossequeum was deathly ill. Winslow of Plymouth nursed him back to health. Afterward, Osseqeum declared, “Now I know the English are my friends, and love me, and as long I live, I will never forget their loving kindness.”
The Pilgrim legacy of giving thanks was continued by future American leaders. In his Thanksgiving proclamation of 1789, President George Washington declared it the “duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor.” In light of this duty, Washington continued, “I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be…”
Daniel Webster, in his Plymouth Oration, gave a stirring reminder of the need to pass along the vision of faith, freedom, and virtue to future generations. “And we would leave here, also, for the generations which are rising up rapidly to fill our places, some proof that we have endeavored to transmit the great inheritance unimpaired…” America’s founding principles can be traced to the groundwork laid by the Pilgrims and their faith in God. Thanksgiving is a day rooted in the Pilgrims’ expression of living out their reliance on God and giving thanks to Him for His providential hand in caring for them in the New World.
A common theme seen in the history of Thanksgiving is thanks given in the midst of or in light of great loss. President Abraham Lincoln answered a request by Sara Josepha Hale to have a national holiday, to “awaken in American hearts the love of home and country, of thankfulness to God, and peace between brethren.” In 1863, during the bloodiest war in American history, Lincoln issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation.
The Apostle Paul in his letter to the church in Thessalonica wrote about the Day of the Lord when the children of darkness and of sin will face the reality that Christ is King and will experience the peace that God brings. He wrote, “But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” He later exhorts us to “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
In whatever situation or circumstance we find ourselves, like our Pilgrim brothers and sisters in Christ before, we are to live out our reliance on and give thanks to God. For, as believers, we are simply passing through, pilgrims with an inheritance imperishable. In abundance or in need, we are content and thankful for Christ, who took on God’s wrath and has set us free. Thanks be to God.
Jacob Kersey serves as operations coordinator for FRC Action.
Aaron Bradford is a direct descendent of Plymouth Governor William Bradford, educator, and living historian.