The Cause and Custom of the American Thanksgiving, Part 6

Final Thoughts on the Pilgrims, the Trip and the Mayflower Compact

Mayflower_Compact2As we discussed in earlier sections, the Pilgrims of American Thanksgiving yore, were Christians who had serious theological differences with the established churches in Europe and England. The Pilgrims called themselves Separatists, and for good reason. The Separatists believed the State Church and much of the Protestant movement were, in fact, violating vital biblical foundations and therefore, not truly Christian. The established state churches  as well as certain other protestant groups were becoming corrupt and oppressive. So, the Separatists fled from England to Holland in the early 1600s, they did so with dreams of a better, peaceful life. But God did not let their dreams pan out. Eventually the Separatists realized that things were not going to work out in Holland, and the political climate could end up actually being much worse.  

So the decision was then made to migrate to North America where they believed they could be free to worship God as they chose, and hopefully, in peace. Most Separatists or Pilgrims as we call them, were just simple, ordinary people who valued “peace and their spiritual life above any other riches…”

MayflowerAtSeaCroppedThe Leaders struggled preparing for the move, but nothing went well.  God’s hand did not seem to be with them as a number of adverse mishaps, misadventures and heart-breaking setbacks delayed their journey. To top it off, while in Holland, they bought a lemon of a ship called the “Speedwell,” which just as easily could have been called the “Sinkwell” because it was not in the least bit seaworthy. After crossing the English Channel to join with the larger Mayflower, the “Speedwell,” despite ongoing efforts, continued to leak badly. The Separatists tried twice to set out to open sea, but eventually the “Speedwell” was a lost cause. To make matters worse for the Separatists, their delays and setbacks caused the them to leave in September of 1620, which is near the peak of what we now call the “hurricane season.” 102 men, women, and children of the Separatist party had packed into the Mayflower, along with a crew of about 36 sailors as well as various live farm animals for their settlement.

PilgrimFathers1After 11 weeks of being seasick in high winds and rough seas, they arrived far north of their intended destination. Unfortunately, their authorized charter only permitted them to settle in the Virginia territory, which at the time extended from Jamestown up to New Amsterdam (which we now call New York). But unfortunately, the high winds had ultimately driven the ship well away from the area which they had been given a legal right to settle. So with no legal authority for settlement, the Pilgrims had to make a serious decision as to what they should do. Affecting this decision was the fact that the weather was still rough, and the stormy winter seas were preventing them from sailing farther south, not to mention that after being seasick for so long, and weak from their voyage, they had little appetite for setting out again on in such rough water to brave treacherous shoals and unknown beaches, so they decided  to explore the shoreline on foot for potential settlement sites. A series of scouting expeditions led them to decide on settling at an abandoned village of Pautuxet (now Plymouth, MA).

embarkation_pilgrimsIt must have felt like that they were stumbling around all on their own, but God had not abandoned them. While the Mayflower was still anchored, there was much debate over what to do. It was reported that “discontented and mutinous speeches” were made which threatened to dissolve the group. William Bradford’s graphic account in his History of Plymouth Plantation explains that it was this dissension which led to drawing up the famous Mayflower Compact. Bradford indicated that all the adult males would submit to “such government and governors as [they] should by common consent agree to make and choose.” John Carver, who had been a key organizer in the journey and had chartered the Mayflower, is believed to have led in drawing up the historic document. Even here, God used the dissent of a discontented people to accomplish his good.

The Mayflower Compact contained the seeds of a democratic-republic.

The_Mayflower_Compact_1620_cph.3g07155John Carver was elected the first governor of the settlement and he must have had tremendous leadership skills, because to lead a group of non-conforming, discontented Separatists must have been a lot like herding cats. However, despite his initial success in maintaining unity within this small band of non-conformists and organizing a democratic government for “the good of the colony,” one difficulty seemed to lead to another.  Think about it, the Pilgrims had arrived in the dead of winter. Their food supplies were low to non-existent, and they had no shelter from the harsh weather. Further, they were weak from the long rough trip at sea. But if the eleven weeks of bad seas and seasickness was over, the worst was yet to come…a very cold, wet winter!

pilgrimsWilliam Bradford explains that they had extreme difficulty surviving that first, harsh winter. According to Bradford, that winter, “was most sad and lamentable… In two or three month’s time half of [our] company died… being the depth of winter, and wanting houses and other comforts [and] being infected with scurvy and other diseases.” Ironically, it was a majority of the women and children who had stayed aboard the Mayflower who died due to the unsanitary and disease-bearing conditions on the ship. Yet, not one of the Pilgrim survivors chose to go back with the Mayflower when it returned to England in the spring.

If you had been a Pilgrim, at this point, what would you have thought?

Would you have thought that God was not with you? “That this was a foolhardy adventure dreamed up by fools, and how did I get roped into it?” “That maybe you were just wrong… about everything?”  “That it wasn’t worth it?”  What would you have thought if your spouse had died, or your child? Would you have believed that “God doesn’t care?”  I think all of those thoughts would have gone through each of our minds, and I am very sure that it went through their minds as well.  But their focus was putting God first in their lives, and leaving the results with him.

First-ThanksgivingUnfortunately, things did get worse before they got better, Carver and Bradford, who would be the future governor, both came down with illness that winter. However, by March, Wampanoag Indians made contact with the struggling Pilgrims. Through Samoset, and then Tisquantum (Squanto), who spoke better English (after living in England), the Pilgrims met Massasoit the chief.  Carver entered into a peace agreement with the Indians on March 22, 1621. And by late spring, both the weather and food supplies had improved, thanks to the Indians, and the survivors began regaining their health.

09 Bradford William Coastal Scene 1860In April, with high hopes, Carver sent the Mayflower back to England; but sadly, not long after, he too passed away, and William Bradford was elected as the new governor. Fortunately, the Indians kept the peace agreement, and proved to be a gracious friends.

It was that help which prompted Bradford to invite the three Wampanoags over for a thanksgiving service. However, instead of those three Indian friends, 90 Indians showed up and turned the first Thanksgiving gathering into a real celebration. But, the Indians did not come to devour the settlers’ precious harvest, because it was they, the Indians, who provided most of the food.


Illustration of Mother and Children Carrying Thanksgiving Dinner by Douglass CrockwellOn this Day of Thanksgiving, may God give you rest for your heart and mind, may He bless and keep you and your family, and may He continue to extend His blessings upon our great nation, guiding us one and all by His Word. May He grant us patience and perseverance in the unexpected turns and tests of our age. May He impress upon us the spirit of our forefathers, their soul-deep craving for freedom, expressed with courage and wisdom, as we meet the particular challenges of our days.

thanksgiving-wallpaper-6And let us always approach our Heavenly Father with true thankfulness — not just today, but every day — not only in our triumphs, but also in our trials — by acknowledging our utter dependence on Him to supply our wants and needs, for in Him we live and move and have our being. Even our self-reliance is, at its root, reliance on Him:

“Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” –Philippians 4:6-7


I urge all citizens to make this Thanksgiving not merely a holiday from their labors, but rather a day of contemplation. I ask the head of each family to recount to his children the story of the first New England thanksgiving, thus to impress upon future generations the heritage of this nation born in toil, in danger, in purpose, and in the conviction that right and justice and freedom can through man’s efforts and perseverance come to fruition with the blessing of God.

– President John F. Kennedy

Taken from “A Puritan Mind.”