As we draw close to Thanksgiving, it is natural for Americans to contemplate the Pilgrims and the occasion of the “First Thanksgiving.” I suspect that many of us immediately envision the drawings and pictures presented to us as children – pictures of happy Native Americans with even happier Pilgrims, all gathered around a large outdoor table so laden with food that it looked ready to collapse.
The real story is much more winsome, but rarely told in its fullness. That first Thanksgiving, held in October of 1621, came at the end of a horrific year of suffering and privation. I doubt that many of us today, with all our modern conveniences, can even conceive of the scene that unfolded in the lives of these men, women, and children, almost from the moment they set foot on the Mayflower. Storms battered them at sea, their first winter battered them on land, and when it was over they had lost 47 of their members. Their pain must have been great. For instance, of the 18 wives who landed at Plymouth, only five survived that first winter. Of the families who left the English coast, only three remained intact and unscathed by death after the worst winter months.
Most people would be rendered useless by vicissitudes of this magnitude. The Pilgrims, however, continued to praise and pray to God, and in March, 1621, one of many miracles walked into their small settlement. Samoset was a friendly Native American and member of a tribe in Maine. He seems to have been an intrepid adventurer, and learning about the Pilgrims he brought another Native American, named Squanto, to meet them. Squanto was a Patuxet and had been raised on the very land where the Pilgrims had settled. His remarkable story began 16 years earlier when he was kidnapped and taken to England by the explorer Captain George Weymouth. Weymouth taught English to Squanto in order to question him about the favorability of land in the New World. Squanto then spent nine years in England, and was able to return to his home across the ocean via the 1614 voyage of Captain John Smith.
Unfortunately for Squanto, Captain Thomas Hunt was part of Smith’s expedition and was tasked with remaining on Patuxet land to finalize some of Smith’s trades. After Smith left, Hunt determined that the slave trade would be the most lucrative, and grabbed twenty Patuxets – including Squanto – and sailed for Spain. They were all sold as slaves, but miraculously, local friars rescued Squanto. After leaving the friars, Squanto made his way to London, then once again to his home across the Atlantic by attaching himself to another trading expedition. He arrived in 1619, six months before the Pilgrims landed, and was heartbroken to discover that his entire tribe – every man, woman and child – had been wiped out by a plague. No one was left. Not knowing where else to go, he stayed with his adventurous friend Samoset and they both went to visit the Wampanoag tribe 50 miles to the South.
Now fast forward to March of 1621. Imagine the shock of the remaining, half-starved Pilgrims when, after a grueling and heartbreaking winter, an English-speaking Native American strolled into their little camp. Not only did he speak English, but after spending time with friars in a European monastery, Squanto must have had at least a passing understanding of Christianity. William Bradford and Edward Winslow recorded in their diaries that Squanto spent the next several months deeply engaged in teaching the entire Pilgrim settlement how to survive. He introduced them to corn and to the Native American way to plant and harvest it. He taught them when, where, and how to catch fish and eels. Squanto introduced them to beaver pelts, which became a significant form of capital for trade. In short, God provided for them richly in the most unlikely of ways. Who would have guessed that a Native American, who was kidnapped not once but twice, would be so used by God on their behalf?
Even Bradford, in his History of Plymouth Plantation, noted that when Samoset left to return to the Wampanoag, “Squanto continued with [the Pilgrims], and was their interpreter, and was a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation (111).” Thanks to Squanto’s expertise and God’s Providence, by October of that year the harvest was so plentiful that the Pilgrim’s Governor Bradford declared a day to give thanks to God. It was what we call the First Thanksgiving. Not only were the Pilgrims giving thanks, but Chief Massasoit (of the Wampanoag) brought all 90 of his warriors! And even then, God provided. Feeding so many would have taxed the stores of food that the Pilgrims were preparing for the next winter, but Massasoit’s warriors arrived with five fully dressed deer and other assorted game already prepared. Jehovah Jireh – God provides. The story does not end there, however. The next several years tell a fascinating tale that many tend to overlook. There were two more times in the next decade that the Pilgrims faced near starvation – first in 1623 and then in 1631. Both times their dire situations were not due to negligence or sloth, but to circumstances beyond their control. And in both instances, their leaders declared a day of fasting, asking God to miraculously intervene on their behalf. He did. In 1623 the Pilgrims were facing famine because of ships that had been sent to them – not with supplies, but with hungry mouths to feed. They had accepted the new settlers, fed them, restocked the ships, and rationed the remaining food. Finally, with their rations almost completely gone and a horrific drought gripping the land, they feared the end was near. “‘These and the like considerations,’ says Mr. Winslow, ‘moved not only every good man privately to enter into examination with his own estate between God and his conscience, and so to humiliation before Him, but also more solemnly to humble ourselves together before the Lord by fasting and prayer’.” They gathered and prayed for nine hours. Just as they ended, the sky became overcast and “on the next morning distilled such soft, sweet, and moderate showers of rain, and mixed with such seasonable weather, as it was hard to say whether our withered corn or drooping affections were most quickened or revived. Such was the bounty and goodness of our God.” [Journal of the Pilgrims, 284.] Even more remarkable was Governor Bradford’s note that there was no wind or violent storm, which would most certainly have destroyed the fragile and near-starved crops. And God was glorified in yet another way. Several Native Americans were in the Pilgrim settlement, and wondered among themselves why every single colonist was at the meetinghouse, engaged in prayer – in the middle of the week! One of them, Hobbamock, found a little boy and demanded an explanation – which was given – and only hours later the soft, perfect rain began to fall. “[Hobbamock] and all [the Native Americans with him],” said Winslow, “admired the goodness of our God towards us.” What a mighty God we serve!
The other day of fasting came in 1631. Some reports say that the Pilgrims’ last loaves of bread were literally in the oven when an unexpected Irish ship arrived laden with food. In both instances, in 1623 and in 1631, the Pilgrims changed their Fast day to an official day of Thanksgiving. So the story of the First Thanksgiving is not just about eating and making merry. In its proper context, taken with a view of the first decade of the Pilgrim settlement, it is a far more beautiful story of praise, provision, and perseverance. The Pilgrims knew that fasting and praise are two strong pillars that we as Believers may use to express our faith in a mighty God.
Dear friends, as you and your families celebrate Thanksgiving this year, take some time apart to consider these Pilgrims and the courage their lives represented. Not just at their First Thanksgiving when times were good, but their deep and abiding commitment to fasting, prayer, and praise even when times were desperate. These men, women and children were well acquainted with Scripture and they followed the examples set before them in ages past. I pray that when our own trials advance, we may do likewise.
Frank Wright President & CEO National Religious Broadcasters