America’s Thanksgiving tradition is a time to focus on God and His blessings on us and on our nation. In a year that has provided America with hardships and economic challenges, perhaps it is even more important to focus on God this Thanksgiving and on the good things He has provided in the midst of our difficulties. It is also a year to focus even more on our neighbors and fellow citizens who are hurting to provide a good Thanksgiving for themselves.
Our Pilgrim forbearers faced difficult times in the year before their first Thanksgiving in America. Nevertheless, they found reasons to praise God for their survival in a brutal wilderness.
The original Pilgrims fled to Holland in 1608 and then to America in 1620 because they were suffering persecution and imprisonment in England for their Biblical faith. Their stay in Holland was short because although they found spiritual liberty there, a disjointed economy failed to provide adequate compensation for their labors, and a degraded and corrupt culture was tempting their children to stray from the faith.
Determined to protect their families from these spiritual and cultural dangers, the Pilgrims uprooted their community and sailed for a New World in America that offered the promise of both civil and religious liberty. Despite the hardships they encountered in these wanderings, the Pilgrims considered themselves to be “stepping stones” for future generations, whether they lived or died. Their focus was on the future and on faithfulness to God. They trusted God to sustain them in good years and bad.
The Pilgrims set sail for America on September 6, 1620, and for two months braved the harsh elements of a storm-tossed sea. Upon disembarking at Plymouth Rock, they held a prayer service and then hastily began building shelters. Nearly half of the Pilgrims who had so joyously disembarked from the Mayflower died before spring after facing an unusually harsh New England winter.
Imagine their joy and surprise after that first grueling winter, when an Indian named Samoset approached their depleted colony and greeted them in their own language. He explained to them that he had learned English from fishermen and traders.
A week later, Samoset returned to the Pilgrim colony with another English-speaking friend named Squanto. Squanto lived with the Pilgrims, accepted their Jesus as his Saviour, and taught them how to live in the New World. Squanto and Samoset helped forge a 50-year-long peace treaty between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians. Pilgrim Governor William Bradford described Squanto as, “A special instrument sent of God for [our] good . . . [who] never left [us] till he died.”
The First Thanksgiving
That summer, the Pilgrims, persevering in prayer and assisted by their new Indian friends, reaped a bountiful fall harvest. Pilgrim Edward Winslow expressed the colony’s thanks. “God be praised, we had a good increase of corn,” he said, and “by the goodness of God, we are far from want.”
The grateful Pilgrims declared a three-day feast in December 1621 to thank God and celebrate with their Indian friends at their first Thanksgiving Festival. Ninety Wampanoag Indians joined the fifty remaining Pilgrims for three days of feasting on shellfish, lobsters, turkey, cornbread, berries, deer, and other native foods. The young Pilgrims and their Wampanoag friends also engaged in races, wrestling matches, other athletic events, and, of course, prayer.
While the Pilgrims enjoyed times of prosperity for which they thanked God, they also suffered extreme hardships. For example, in 1623 they experienced an extended, prolonged drought. They knew that without a change in the weather, there would be no fall harvest. They anticipated another winter filled with death and starvation.
Governor Bradford’s response was to call the Pilgrims to a time of prayer and fasting to seek God’s direct intervention. Shortly after that time of prayer, to the great amazement of the Indians who were watching, clouds suddenly appeared in the sky and a gentle, steady rain began to fall.
Governor Bradford explained: “[The rain] came without either wind or thunder or any violence, and by degrees in abundance, as that ye earth was thoroughly wet and soaked therewith, which did so apparently revive and quicken ye decayed corn and other fruits as was wonderful to see, and made ye Indians astonished to behold; and afterwards the Lord sent them such seasonable showers, with interchange of fair warm weather as, through His blessing, caused a fruitful and liberal harvest.” The drought had been broken, the fall harvest was abundant, and there was cause for yet another Thanksgiving celebration.
Neighboring colonies later followed the Pilgrims’ example—calling for days of thanksgiving, as well as times of prayer and fasting. In fact, it became common in all the New England colonies to call for a day of prayer and fasting in the spring, and a day of prayer and thanksgiving in the fall. They understood very well that their bountiful harvests came directly from the hand of a beneficent God.
Many Americans in the 21st Century seem to believe that we can expect an annual bountiful harvest without continuing to trust and honor the loving God Who alone provides it. As you celebrate Thanksgiving this year, remember to retain the original gratefulness to God that has always been the spirit of this oldest of all American holidays. Continue to remember that it is God alone Who provides.
President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November 1863 as a day “of Thanksgiving and Praise to our benevolent Father,” even as winds of war continued to batter a divided nation.
He said: “The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, 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.”
He continued, “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, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.”
In 2012, we must continue to praise and thank God this Thanksgiving, even as we also petition Him to send us revival and to once again have mercy on America.