Close to 400 years ago in the early 1600's, a mere 102 people who had come from a small group of separatists in England sailed from Europe across the Atlantic in the autumn, in the hope of escaping the persecution of the corrupt Church of England, which had established royalty as head of the Church, in favor of establishing their own form of worship where Christ was recognized as the head of the Church as dictated by their Christian conscience. They had initially left to Holland and the Netherlands where religious tolerance was common but they found that the worldly debauchery and materialism of Amsterdam, even back then, was a troubling environment and so the more daring of them suggested sailing to new lands. They sought a place where they could honor their relationship with Christ without interruption or compromise. These separatists who came to America were what we know as the pilgrims.
William Bradford who later became the governor of Plymouth colony documented the journey. He wrote: When they [the pilgrims]came to Delfshaven, they found the ship and all things ready and such of their friends could not come with them followed after them and sundry came back from Amsterdam to see them shipped and to take their leaves of them. One night was spent with little sleep but with friendly entertainment and Christian discourse and other expressions of true Christian love. The next day they went on board and their friends with them where truly doleful was the sight of that sad and mournful parting to hear what sighs and sobs and prayers did sound amongst them. What tears did gush from every eye and pithy speeches pierced each others heart that sundry of the Dutch strangers that stood on the [dock] as spectators could not refrain from tears, but the tide which stays for no man calling them away that were thus loathe to depart. Their reverent pastor falling down on his knees and they all with him with watery cheeks commended them the most fervent prayers unto the Lord and His blessing. And then with mutual embraces and many tears they took their leaves one of another which proved to be the last leave for many of them.
Upon the Mayflower and the Speedwell, an smaller ship that accompanied the Mayflower, most of the passengers were crammed into stuffy, dark, wooden rooms where the stench of human, the pains of hunger from having little to eat but salted pork, sickness, and the incessant rolling of the sea made the journey particularly unpleasant. The deeply religious separatists were also accompanied by bigoted sailors who would often mock and harass them for their pious devotion, that is until the self-identified leader of them, who had laughed at their sea-sickness and told them how he looked forward to sowing up their shrouds and feeding them to the fishes, came down with a mysterious fever and died. It was his body ended up being thrown to the fishes and no one harassed the pilgrims again.
The Mayflower had intended to reach New York but the navigation of the sailors was not exactly accurate and instead they ended up in Cape Cod. Unfortunately, the land was too desolate to build a colony and the windy air and sea were too turbulent and bitterly cold. It was late November already. So the crew sent out a small boat of men to explore the coast of the bay and against all odds and the miserable, lethal weather that turned the spray of the sea waves into ice on their clothing, they found the harbor of Plymouth which proved to be much more hospitable and suitable for habitation. The exploring party then returned to the Mayflower only to find that William Bradford's wife had committed suicide by throwing herself into the sea in despair.
Upon first seeing the new land that is now America, Bradford wrote in his account: Being now past the vast ocean and a sea of troubles before them and expectations, they had now no friends to welcome them, no inns to entertain or refresh them, no houses or much less towns to repair unto to seek for succor, and for the season it was winter and they that know the winters of the country know them to be sharp and violent, subject to cruel and fierce storms, dangerous to travel to known places much more to search unknown coasts. Besides, what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness full of wild beasts and wild men and what multitudes of them there were they then knew not, for which way so ever they turned their eyes save upward to heaven, they could have but little solace or content in respect of any outward objects. For summer being ended, all things stand in appearance with a weather-beaten face and the whole country full of woods and thickets represented a wild and savage hue. If they looked behind them, there was a mighty ocean which they had passed and now as a main bar or gulf to separate them from all the civil parts of the world. Let it also be considered what weak hope of supply and succor they left behind them what could now sustain them but the spirit of God and His grace?"
Winter came and the new settlers did not even have enough provisions and had to little time to build much more than crude shelter, mainly an unfinished church building which they called the "meeting house." The separatists did not believe that any building should be called or considered a church because they emphasized that THE Church is the body of believers and so they used ordinary meeting houses for worship as well as many other activities. Out of 102 people, half of them died during the grim winter from sickness and malnutrition. By February the death rate was at least two people per day or more. By March, 13 out of 18 wives had died, mainly because they devoted their energies to protecting their children of whom most survived. Keep in mind that there had been several other attempts to set up colonies that proved unsuccessful because most of the people either died or disappeared entirely. It must have seemed utterly hopeless to the bereft pilgrims.
At last, a ray of hope seemed to shine on the devastated settlers in the middle of March when the weather cleared and the sky was fair. On that day, the 16th, they saw a very formidable native, tall and muscular coming towards them and they shouted "Indian coming!" and picked up their weapons to face him. But then the Indian shouted with a deep and resonant voice, and in perfect English surprisingly enough: "Welcome!" The pilgrims responded in kind and then, at one of the most pivotal and profound moments in American and human history, the great native asked the stirring question of the ages...
"Have you got any beer?"
Unfortunately, the pilgrims had no beer but they did have Brandy to offer instead and the Indian, a sagamore (subordinate chief) of Chief Massasoit and originally from the Abenaki tribe named Samoset, gladly accepted. Through Samoset, the pilgrims were introduced to Squanto, a Christian Native American who was literally considered a godsend because he ended up helping and teaching the pilgrims how to find and best utilize resources, where to build, where to fish, and where to plant crop.
As the summer passed and autumn fell upon them again, the pilgrims where fairing much better and they declared a day of thanksgiving to celebrate their survival and success. They invited Massasoit to join them in the first thanksgiving feast sometime in October of 1621 but they had not expected the 90 Indian men who came along with the chief. It was up to four women to prepare and cook the food for 140 people. Fortunately, the braves helped to lighten the load by providing several dressed deer, wild fowl and fish.
The typical menu of the modern day American Thanksgiving feast is quite different from the original. Venison, duck, goose, cod, and sea bass, made up the bulk of the main meat dishes. There was some turkey but it certainly was not the central focal point. There may have been cranberries but certainly no cranberry sauce and no pumpkin pie I'm afraid. The first thanksgiving feast also lasted for three days, not just one.
It was not until much later that Thanksgiving became an official holiday recognized by the government. Samuel Adams was the first since after the American Revolution to call for a national day of thanksgiving on December 18, 1777 after the colonists had won the battle of Saratoga. Adams issued a resolution which said: with one heart and one voice the good people may express the grateful feelings of their hearts, and consecrate themselves to the service of their divine benefactor; and that together with their sincere acknowledgments and offerings, they may join the penitent confession of their manifold sins, whereby they had forfeited every favour, and their humble and earnest supplication that it may please God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of remembrance; that it may please him graciously to afford his blessing on the governments of these states respectively, and prosper the public council of the whole; to inspire our commanders both by land and sea, and all under them, with that wisdom and fortitude which may render them fit instruments, under the providence of Almighty God, to secure for these United States the greatest of all human blessings, independence and peace; that it may please him to prosper the trade and manufactures of the people and the labour of the husbandman, that our land may yet yield its increase; to take schools and seminaries of education, so necessary for cultivating the principles of true liberty, virtue and piety, under his nurturing hand, and to prosper the means of religion for the promotion and enlargement of that kingdom which consisteth "in righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost."
Later in 1782, John Hanson made a proclamation that was unanimously agreed upon and adopted by Congress.
IT being the indispensable duty of all Nations, not only to offer up their supplications to almighty God, the giver of all good, for his gracious assistance in a time of distress, but also in a solemn and public manner to give him praise for his goodness in general, and especially for great and signal interpositions of his providence in their behalf: Therefore the United States in Congress assembled, taking into their consideration the many instances of divine goodness to these States, in the course of the important conflict in which they have been so long engaged; the present happy and promising state of public affairs; and the events of the war, in the course of the year now drawing to a close; particularly the harmony of the public Councils, which is so necessary to the success of the public cause; the perfect union and good understanding which has hitherto subsisted between them and their Allies, notwithstanding the artful and unwearied attempts of the common enemy to divide them; the success of the arms of the United States, and those of their Allies, and the acknowledgment of their independence by another European power, whose friendship and commerce must be of great and lasting advantage to these States:----- Do hereby recommend to the inhabitants of these States in general, to observe, and request the several States to interpose their authority in appointing and commanding the observation of Thursday the twenty-eight day of November next, as a day of solemn thanksgiving to God for all his mercies: and they do further recommend to all ranks, to testify to their gratitude to God for his goodness, by a cheerful obedience of his laws, and by promoting, each in his station, and by his influence, the practice of true and undefiled religion, which is the great foundation of public prosperity and national happiness.
And finally, there was Abraham Lincoln who issued the Thanksgiving proclamation in 1863 where he said: “the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies...which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God....No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God…[and] they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people.”
When you look at the history of the United States, particularly the story of Thanksgiving, a common theme, a single thread, a singular song seems to weave and dance through it all: the hand of providence, the hand of God. First and foremost the extraordinary "coincidences" and near miracles such as the fact that only two people had died on the Mayflower voyage when other ships had lost almost their entire crew to sickness, the improbable chance that the exploring party managed to find such a beautiful and practical location to set up their colony in such abysmal weather conditions, an area that had been previously inhabited by a tribe of natives who just happened to die not long before hand leaving the land free for the pilgrims, the fact that even sick men rolling on the floor in agony found the unnatural strength to save their meeting house from burning to the ground, the fact that the first native was both friendly and English speaking, and that through him they met another Indian who just happened to be a devout Christian (an extreme rarity at that time) willing to show and teach the pilgrims all the techniques on how to survive and prosper in the new land.
Moreover, the entire tradition of Thanksgiving is a deeply religious one, nay a Christian one. It was established by profoundly religious (and also scholarly) people who came to this land not to seek and establish a secular society based on pluralistic relativism but a free Christian utopia based on the inherent and absolute nature of divine moral law and human dignity. Without God, Thanksgiving could not exist because it was precisely God who was the subject of gratitude. The pilgrims and most of the Founding Fathers were thankful to God for the freedoms and blessings they received because they understood that all freedom, goodness, and blessing originate and emanate from God and God alone. And we certainly should thank God, for the very reason why the United States is what it is today is because of the devout nature of the pilgrims' legacy. The very reason why the United States is such a richly diverse amalgam of culture, thought, and worldviews is because of the reformed Christian ideals like religious freedom and respect to personal conscience that the separatists brought with them.