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by David O. Beale
Is any story in America’s religious heritage better known than that of the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving? The following account of the Pilgrims and the circumstances behind that celebration demonstrates how much they had to thank God for. It also stresses that God’s beneficent providence had brought them through for more than a single harsh winter to a plentiful harvest; Thanksgiving is the celebration of God’s preserving grace for His people.
It was time to declare “a day of solemn humiliation” to seek God’s guidance. The group of Separatist Christians had come to Leyden, Holland, from Scrooby, England, twelve years earlier. Now they were preparing to move to the New World, where they might carry the gospel, preserve their own language and culture, and bring up their children according to the dictates of their own consciences.
At Leyden, they gathered early at Pastor John Robinson’s home in Bell Alley and heard him preach from Ezra 8:21: “Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river of Ahava, that we might afflict ourselves before our God, to seek of him a right way for us, and for our little ones, and for all our substance.” Robinson then declared it a day of fasting and prayer to prepare them for the arduous voyage ahead. At the day’s end they enjoyed a farewell dinner of goose and pudding. One of the Pilgrims, Edward Winslow, described the scene: “We refreshed ourselves, after our tears, with singing of the Psalms, making joyful melody in our hearts as well as with voice, there being many in the congregation very expert in music; and indeed it was the sweetest melody that ever mine ears have heard.”
The next morning they boarded canal boats for the twenty-four mile trip to Delftshaven, Rotterdam, where the sixty-ton Speedwell would be waiting. As Leyden’s red-tiled roofs, and spires, and great windmill receded into the distance, Pilgrim hearts flooded with tender memories—and perhaps some regrets. Some, like the Bradfords and the Winslows, had begun their married lives in Leyden. Any homesickness, however, was only momentary, as William Bradford himself explained: “And so they left that good and pleasant city, which had been their resting place near twelve years; but they knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on these things, but lifted up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits.”
At Delftshaven the voyagers spent the remainder of the day loading food and cargo into the Speedwell. William Brewster brought along his printing press and a library of almost two hundred books, including his beloved Geneva Bible, which would become a schoolbook for the young people.
Dawn on July 22, 1620, arrived with a fair wind, and it was time for final embraces. The Pilgrims knelt on the dock as Pastor Robinson solemnly invoked God’s blessing on the mission. In a few minutes they were sailing for Southampton, England, where they would join the ninety-ton Mayflower.
The two ships sailed for the New World on August 5, 1620, but they were hardly three days at sea when the Speedwell began taking water. The voyagers turned back to Dartmouth for the ship’s recaulking. After about a week they set sail again. Almost three hundred miles later, however, water was again rising in the Speedwell’s hold. Once more they must turn back; this time they limped into Plymouth, where the Speedwell was finally declared unseaworthy. Her passengers and cargo would have to go aboard the Mayflower.
About twenty of the Speedwell’s passengers willingly dropped out. God was using the ship’s problems—whatever their human explanations—to separate chaff from wheat, or as William Stoughton later put it, “God sifted a whole nation, that He might send choice grain into this wilderness.” “Like Gideon’s army, Bradford explained, “this small number was divided, as if the Lord, by this work of His providence, thought these few were still too many for the great work he had to do.”
The Mayflower, with her six white sails in the wind, finally departed with 102 passengers. By now, however, it was September 6—more than a month behind schedule. The voyagers had already consumed the provisions calculated for the voyage, which would last at least two more months in an ill-lighted, rolling, stinking vessel. They were now eating food which they might need in order to stay alive in a wilderness in the dead of winter. They could not turn back. Having sold their houses and possessions, they had no place else to go.
Unmerciful harassment came from some of the sailors, whose self-appointed leader gloated at the Christians’ seasickness and boasted that he would soon sew them all in shrouds and feed them to the fish. Ironically, this very crewman came down suddenly with a strange fever and died within a few hours. No one else contracted this “mysterious” disease, and his was the first shrouded body to go overboard. The mocking ceased.
One passenger nearly paid with his life for disobeying the order to remain below deck during the storms. During one prolonged storm, John Carver’s servant, John Howland, could no longer endure the stench of the crowded living quarters. Climbing out onto the sea-swept main deck, Howland lost his balance and fell into the huge, boiling waves of the Atlantic. Providentially, the vessel was rolling over so far that the lines from her spars were trailing in the water. As one of these snaked across Howland’s wrist, he instinctively grabbed it and hung on. Rescued from the jaws of death, Howland never again raised his head above the deck without an invitation.
The most terrifying moments came when the Mayflower was about halfway across the Atlantic. A violent storm was heeling the ship over dangerously. Children’s screams were echoing through the lantern-lit darkness of the low-ceilinged ‘tween-decks. Suddenly a tremendous sound of cracking timber resounded throughout the ship. The huge cross beam supporting the main mast had been broken. The situation was desperate. Then someone remembered the great iron screw of Elder Brewster’s printing press. They hauled the press into place beneath the beam and raised it back to its proper position. The printing press supported the beam the rest of the voyage. Praise ascended to God.
By now the food in the hold was almost inedible. Records indicate that the bread had to be broken with chisels. The cheese was hard and stale, the butter rancid. The peas and grain were inhabited with crawling things. The salt meat and fish had to be choked down. There was no fresh water, and the ale was rapidly becoming sour.
Near the end of the tenth week, William Butten, Dr. Samuel Fuller’s twenty-two-year-old servant, took to his bunk with fever, agonizing pain, and stabbing lances of fire in his limbs. Before morning Butten was dead: it was the first case of scurvy. The young man had refused his master’s warning to take the daily portion of lemon juice.
Finally, on November 9, at 7:00 in the morning, the Pilgrims heard a cry from the crow’s-nest—“Land-Ho!” Tears of relief mingled with shouts of joy. Many fell on their knees in simple thanks to God. Then Elder Brewster suggested a song of praise, and the words of Psalm 100 soared from the crowded main deck. They were sixty-five days from Plymouth, ninety-seven from Southampton.
Captain Christopher Jones informed them that the long, low shore was part of a great arm of land called Cape Cod—far north of the territory which their patent entitled them to settle. With winter setting in along dangerous shoals, however, the expedition could spend no more time searching for the territory of the Virginia Company. Pastor Robinson had told them in his farewell letter to form a “body politic.” Their own Scrooby Church Covenant would serve as a model for the Mayflower Compact.
As they had begun their long voyage by kneeling on the dock at Delftshaven to ask God’s guidance, so they ended it by kneeling on the sands of Cape Cod to thank Him for His providence. Bradford marveled at
this poor people’s condition . . . no friends to welcome them, nor inns to entertain or refresh their weather-beaten bodies, no houses . . . to repair to . . . Whichever way they turned their eyes (save upward to the heavens) they could have little solace . . . . For summer being done, all things stand upon them . . . and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hue. If they looked behind them, there was the mighty ocean . . . What could now sustain them but the Spirit of God and His grace?
Providentially, they found land already cleared at “Plymouth.” It seemed as of some unseen friend had prepared this very spot in anticipation of their arrival, but more storm clouds of trials were yet to come.
The first winter was dreadfully bitter. By April 1621 the Pilgrims had lost twenty-eight of their forty-eight male adults, including Governor John Carver. When the worst was finally over, forty-seven people had died, nearly half of their original number. They buried their dead at night in shallow unmarked graves so that the Indians could not know their losses. But God’s hand of mercy guided the struggling colony to survival and fulfillment. Governor Bradford said, “They fetched them wood, made them fires, dressed them meat, made their beds, washed their loathsome clothes . . . . In a word, did all the homely and necessary offices . . . which dainty and queasy stomachs cannot endure . . . and all this willingly and cheerfully, without any grudging in the least, showing therein their true love unto their friends and brethren; a rare example and worthy to be remembered.”
The high point of their week was Sunday worship, held in the blockhouse at the top of the hill. Four cannons from the Mayflower stood in place on the flat roof. Inside, on roughhewn log benches, the men sat on the left, the women on the right, as Elder Brewster preached “powerfully and profitable.”
One day an Indian walked into camp speaking English. “Welcome!” he said in a deep resonant voice. His name was Samoset, an Algonquin who had learned English from various fishing captains. The story he told gave the Pilgrims cause to thank God once again for His providence.
According to Samoset, this area had been the territory of the Patuxets, a large hostile tribe who had killed every white man who landed on these shores. Just four years prior to the Pilgrim’s landing a mysterious plague had devastated the entire tribe. Convinced that some great spirit had destroyed the Patuxets, neighboring tribes had shunned the entire area. So the cleared land on which the Pilgrims had settled actually belonged to no one. Their nearest neighbors, explained Samoset, were the Wampanoags some fifty miles to the southwest. These Indians numbered about sixty warriors, and Massasoit, their chief, also ruled over several other tribes.
Samoset returned to Plymouth the following week with another English-speaking Indian named Squanto. Squanto and Samoset soon arranged a meeting between Massasoit and the Pilgrims. From this meeting came a peace treaty which would last forty years.
In October of 1621 Governor Bradford declared a day of public thanksgiving. From their gardens, the Pilgrims could now enjoy turnips, cabbages, carrots, onions, parsnips, cucumbers, radishes, and beets. They invited Massasoit, who arrived not only with ninety hungry Indians, but also with several dressed deer with wild turkeys. They taught the Pilgrim women how to make hoecakes and pudding from cornmeal and how to make maple syrup. The Pilgrims used the Indians’ dried fruits to introduce them to blueberry and apple pies. All enjoyed the games that followed. It was a joyous occasion indeed.
The most memorable moment, however, was Elder Brewster’s humble prayer to God, whose providence had guided and protected them in mercy. “We have noted these things,” said Bradford, “so that you might see their worth and not negligently lose what your fathers have obtained with so much hardship.”
Excerpt from Faith of Our Fathers: Scenes from American Church History, edited by Mark Sidwell, PhD.
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