Many equate Thanksgiving to shopping, football, traveling with family, and eating exorbitant amounts of food! But the true of story of Thanksgiving is fascinating. It shows us where our country came from, our heritage, and what it means to us today!
In the early 1600s, a group of people believing in the freedom of worship, fled England under the rule of King James I. During that time period, if anyone didn’t recognize the absolute civil and spiritual authority of The Church of England, they were imprisoned and in many cases executed for their beliefs. They first fled to Holland and after 11 years, decided to journey to the New World, or modern-day America. It was a dangerous journey with many hardships, but it was worth it to them since they could worship God as they chose!
On August 1, 1620, 102 Pilgrims under the leadership of William Bradford boarded the Mayflower and set sail. During the journey, Bradford set up an agreement called the Mayflower Contract, which established just and equal laws for all members of the new community, regardless of their religious beliefs. The ideas in the contract were revolutionary at the time, and were taken from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. They were confident society needed to be based on these principles for future success.
When the Pilgrims landed in New England in November of 1620, they didn’t find a Walmart or Four Seasons to get started. Bradford’s journal states that it was cold, barren, and desolate. There was nothing! It was called New England by John Smith four years earlier, the same John Smith that is associated with Pocohontas and which Disney made some good money off of!
Unfortunately that first winter, half of the Pilgrims died either from starvation, sickness, or exposure, including Bradford’s wife. Thankfully, when spring came, the Indians they had befriended taught them how to plant corn, fish for cod, and skin beavers for coats. It was still a very tough life to live, but bearable. Although many stories end here and equate “The First Thanksgiving” as a thanksgiving feast for the Indians, it actually goes much deeper than that.
In 1621, the “First Thanksgiving” was a three-day feast celebrated by 53 Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans. The New England colonists were accustomed to regularly celebrating “thanksgivings” or days of prayer thanking God for blessings such as military victories, a good harvest, or the end of a drought.
Under Bradford’s leadership, each family got a plot of land to work and manage. He each gave them the incentive to reap what they sowed and to benefit from their individual responsibilities. They were not going back to Europe, it was do or die and they had to rely on their faith, each other, and themselves. They worked hard under the difficult environment, and they eventually paid off their lenders in London for the journey, were able to work with and share with the Indians, and had plenty left over!
Best of all, they were able to worship God as their conscience allowed, establishing true freedom of worship. This success and prosperity of the Plymouth settlement attracted more people in Europe and began the “Great Puritan Migration” where over a hundred and fifty years later, our founding fathers forged the documents that formally established the United States of America.
The first Thanksgiving feast was about William Bradford giving thanks to God for the guidance and the inspiration to set up a thriving colony. It was about working with the Indians and sharing with them the blessings. It was about taking the gigantic step of starting a new life under God and the establishment of the Mayflower Compact, the precursor to our Constitution, and one of the most revered documents in the World. It was about the risks and extremely difficult circumstances they had to overcome just to survive.
Through all of this, the greatest country was born, where any individual had the freedom of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. George Washington in 1798 acknowledged that hard work and “Scripture…saved the day.” Abraham Lincoln later recognized the importance of Thanksgiving and “God’s blessings” and codified it as a National Holiday. It was about reminding us about the many things we have to be grateful for. It was about Thanksgiving for all that we have had, what we have now, and what we will have in the future!