Thanksgiving of 2021 marks a uniquely American holiday embodied by a humble band of people who lived out their Christian faith with integrity in relationships with their king, country, and community. For it was 400 years ago in 1621 when 53 Pilgrims and 90 Wampanoags held a celebratory feast. Fall harvest festivals were nothing new. They have been practiced by many tribes and tongues.
Just two years prior, in Virginia on December 4th, 1619, American newcomers displayed similar reverence. At the Berkeley Plantation 20 miles upriver from Jamestowne, Captain John Woodleaf held a service as 38 newly arrived colonists fell to their knees and gave thanks to the Almighty God.
The colonies, and eventually states which formed the Union, had days of humiliation, fasting, and prayer, along with days of thanksgiving. However, the three day long feast in Plymouth became known as the First Thanksgiving which inspired our national holiday.
Why did the thanksgiving in Plymouth become immortalized in our national conscious to represent Thanksgiving?
In 1837, Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Ladies Book, persistently petitioned presidents to create a national day of thanksgiving for four decades! In her letter to then president Abraham Lincoln in late September, 1863 she wrote of the need to “awaken in American hearts the love of home and country, of thankfulness to God, and peace between brethren.” Three months after the Battle of Gettysburg, President Lincoln received her letter and on October 3rd, 1863, he issued a Proclamation to be observed each year on the last Thursday of November.
Plymouth Governor William Bradford, in his book Of Plimoth Plantation, described how the Christians who “covenanted (made a vow before God to worship) together…” experienced tremendous persecution by the Church of England. Yet, their integrity in living out their convictions was remarkable, “for by these so public troubles in so many eminent places our cause became famous and occasioned many to look into the same, and our godly carriage and Christian behaviour was such as left a deep impression in the minds of many.” After multiple failed attempts, they escaped into the Low Country of Holland, where they could follow their conscience and live out their Christian faith. After 12 difficult years of toil, as the peace treaty with Catholic Spain drew to an end, and as their children were becoming Dutch and worldly, the Pilgrims purposed to sail to what was known as the New World. Their stated purpose was, “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.”
After being blown far north above their intended destination, Bradford described that “discontented and mutinous speeches” made by some caused the Pilgrims (both those from the church that worshipped in Holland and the “strangers” amongst them) to establish a foundation of government. They voluntarily consented to a “form” of government, which became known as the Mayflower Compact. The words included, “We… solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God, and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.”
The integrity of the Pilgrims with the neighboring Wampanoag was remarkable as well. While it is true that relationships between Indian nations and the colonies of New England disintegrated over the course of the 17th century, the Pilgrim experience is a remarkable exception worth celebrating. In fact, every single treaty in the history of our country between the U.S. government and native American tribes was broken within the lifetimes of those who signed the treaty… except ONE. That was the peace treaty signed between the Pilgrims and the Pokonoket tribe in the Spring of 1621. That simple treaty lasted over half a century and only ended in 1675 during King Philip’s War at the warring initiative of a young, arrogant tribal leader.
The Pokonoket and Plymouth Colony enjoyed a great friendship that lasted throughout the formative years of the Colony before it too was subsumed into the greater Massachusetts Bay Colony by the end of the century. If anything, the Pilgrim and Pokonoket relationship offers an object lesson on how two ethnically diverse communities could forge a mutually edifying relationship amidst hostile and warring neighbors. This friendship led to the three day harvest feast in the Fall of 1621 that has come to symbolize the Thanksgiving spirit of family and goodwill to our friends and neighbors.
Perhaps equally remarkably was the serious illness the Massasoit experienced in March of 1623, where Edward Winslow was credited by Massasoit himself as having saved his life. Winslow wrote, “But upon his (Massasoit’s) recovery he brake forth into these speeches; ‘Now I see the English are my friends and love me, and whilest I live I will never forget this kindness they have showed me.” Massasoit was true to his word! This incident was to seal a lifelong trust and commitment to friendship and mutual edification between Massasoit and the Pilgrims. If anything, this relationship offers an object lesson that integrity may produce peace.
The authors of this article, Aaron and David Bradford, are direct descendants of Plymouth Governor William Bradford. They are part of an exciting project to create an eight-part mini-series and other educational resources to accurately share the truth of American Liberty and its foundations within the experience of the Pilgrims.
Please visit the1620experience.com to learn more. Aaron offers Colonial Georgia tours and learning adventures in Savannah, Georgia. Please visit libertyencounters.com to learn more. Aaron has worked for over 9 years at Old Fort Jackson, which is named after Georgia Patriot James Jackson. Jackson earned the nickname of the “Avenging Angel of Corruption” after fighting over 20 duels against corrupt politicians, chiefly from the Yazoo Land Scandal. His convictions are a powerful reminder of the importance of integrity in our relationships with family, church, civil magistrates, and fellow countrymen.
As we give thanks to God, may we give thanks for and be inspired by those gone before who pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to secure the blessings of liberty for themselves and their posterity.
Image by Ms Jones