History tells us, “Nothing can be trivial which relates to the voyage of the Mayflower or the first four years’ experience of the Colony at Plymouth Plantation.” There’s a huge difference between the Jamestown settlement and Plymouth Plantation. While Jamestown was founded in 1607, before the Pilgrims came, it was founded by Adventurers — no women, no children, no self-government, no intention to stay and build homes and churches for others to come to. It was founded under the auspices of the Church of England and the King.
In contrast, the Pilgrim colony were coming from England by way of 12 years of living in exile in Holland because of the persecution by the Church of England. In Leiden, Holland, their Christian character was formed as they struggled against the horrible poverty they experienced. They did not know the language, nor were they familiar with the trades or the climate and culture. Yet, they had each other, a common faith in God, and the freedom to worship Him in Spirit and in Truth! The freedom proved to be temporary, however, as Holland’s peace treaty with Spain, was running out and the threat of the Spanish Inquisition was upon them. So, they began the process of finding a place to remove to – the whole Church at Leiden!
After reading John Smith’s account of the New World, they decided that was the place to which God was calling them. The arrangements necessary for such an undertaking deserve an account all by themselves, but for now, suffice it to say, they were formidable! Much prayer, discussion, soul searching, and research went into the task of making weighty, life-changing decisions, and finding investors to finance the voyage. They knew when they left that they would probably never return.
Much is written about the voyage of the Mayflower, but our focus now is on what happened between the time they arrived and the time of their Thanksgiving days, the very first one and the others, for they were always giving thanks for even the hardest circumstances.
After that incredibly difficult and challenging voyage, upon landing and scouting out a suitable place, which is another tale of God’s special providence, they began the arduous work of laying out the main street, building a palisade, and began the common house. “The building of shelter went slowly, when hands were so cold that they had difficulty keeping hold of axe or adze”
Their bodies weakened from three long months at sea, finally succumbed to scurvy, despite what was left of the lemon juice. Often a lingering cold, contracted after wading ashore, trudging through the snow and sleeping on the damp ground flared up into consumption or pneumonia. There was no stopping to rest and recover, for the amount of work to be done before winter truly set in was formidable. They could not stop working just because of a cold!
Then the Pilgrims started dying. There were six dead in December, eight in January — falling like casualties on a battlefield. And in a sense, that is what they were: locked in a life-or-death struggle with Satan himself. For this was the first time that the Light of Christ had landed in force on his continent, and if he did not throw them back into the sea at the beginning, there would be reinforcements.
But the more adversity mounted against them, the harder they prayed — never giving in to despair, murmuring, or any of the petty jealousies that split and divide. They drew ever closer together, and trusted God all the more. And still the death toll mounted.
In February, they were dying at a rate of two a day, even three on some days. The 21st of February claimed four lives. And at one period, in the whole company there were only five men well enough to care for the sick. One of them was Captain Myles Standish, who tended Bradford among the others. Standish, Brewster, and three or four others chopped wood, cleaned, clothed, cooked, and tended. Periodically they showed themselves at the palisade, just in case the Indians were watching. They buried their dead at night in unmarked graves so the Indians would not know how many of their number they were losing. In February there were seventeen deaths!
When the worst was finally over, they had lost forty-seven people, nearly half their original number. Thirteen out of eighteen wives died; only three families remained unbroken. Of all the first comers, the children fared the best: of seven daughters, none died; of thirteen sons, only three.
And through it all their hearts remained tender towards God. They had trusted Him and He had proved faithful. Winter of 1620 finally passed, and spring brought the time for the Mayflower to return to England, their last link with the Motherland. And in spite of all the hardships, the deaths, the continued lack of supply, not one Pilgrim went back. Not one!!
They had found something special in the freedom and the hardship as their character was forged into that of Christ. They had shared the love of Jesus Christ in a way that only happens when people are willing to suffer together in His causes. This was what they had come to the wilderness to find, and now none of them wished to leave it. So they bade farewell to Captain Jones and watched as the Mayflower slowly raised anchor and pointed its bow toward the harbor entrance.
Springtime was also planting time, and God blessed them with the arrival of Squanto, a Patuxet Indian. (His story of the providential hand of God will have to wait for another time, and believe me, it’s better than what you learned in school!). Squanto helped them fish and hunt, plant corn with the moisture of fish around the seeds, and introduced them to the beaver pelt. Beaver was in plentiful supply and in great demand in Europe. He helped them barter and get the best price for their pelts, and proved himself a true gift from God in numerous ways.
In 1621 the summer was beautiful and the fall’s harvest provided more than enough corn to see them through their second winter. Brimming over with gratitude, Governor Bradford declared a day of public Thanksgiving, to be held in October. Massasoit of the Wampanoag tribe was invited and came . . . with ninety of his braves! To feed that many more would cut deeply into the food supply that was supposed to get them through the winter. Again they turned their hearts to God in complete trust and were not disappointed.
These ninety braves arrived with five dressed deer, more than a dozen fat wild turkeys, helped with the preparations, taught the Pilgrim women how to make hoecakes and pudding out of cornmeal and maple syrup. And then, to top it all, they showed them how to roast corn kernels in an earthen pot until they popped, fluffy and white —POPCORN!
November of 1621 brought the first ship from home, the Fortune with thirty-five more colonists . . . but not one bit of supply for themselves, much less for the Pilgrims already there. Not one piece of equipment, no food, no clothing, no tools, no bedding. Nothing!
After a sobering meeting to appraise the situation, a grim decision was made: they would all have to go on half-rations through the winter, to ensure enough food to see them into the summer season, when fish and game would be plentiful.
Thus they entered their own Starving Time that winter of 1621-22 with all the extra people to feed and shelter, and were ultimately reduced to a daily ration of five kernels of corn a piece. And with their five kernels of corn, they had a choice: either to give in to bitterness and despair or to go deeper into Christ. They chose Christ. And in stark contrast to what happened at Jamestown, not one of them died of starvation.
In 1623 they decided to make two plantings of corn and soon after the second planting, the dry spell which had begun between the two plantings was turning into a drought. Week after week with no rain. Not even the oldest Indians could remember anything like it. And again, they turned their hearts to God and declared a day of fasting and prayer, all other work to be set aside.
They assembled together in the morning of the appointed day and the heavens were bright and clear and the drought as like to continue as it ever was. Indeed it lasted twelve weeks in all!. Their prayers lasted some eight or nine hours before they departed, but when then did, the weather was overcast, the clouds gathered on all sides. And the next morning distilled “such soft, sweet and moderate showers of rain . . .” Bradford records, “ . . .It came, without either wind or thunder, or any violence, and by degrees in that abundance as that the earth was thoroughly wet and soaked therewith. Which did so apparently revive and quicken the decayed corn and other fruits, as was wonderful to see and made the Indians astonished to behold . . . .”
The yield that year was so abundant that the Pilgrims ended up with a surplus which they were able to use in trading with northern Indians. A second Day of Thanksgiving was planned, Massasoit was again invited and this time brought over 120 braves along with venison and turkey as well. And at each place, an empty plate held five kernels of corn . . . lest anyone should forget!
And now, 400 years later, Thanksgiving, is upon us again. The year is now 2020 and we have seen a global pandemic, injustice, widespread rioting, looting, murders, uprisings and anarchy. . . the just consequences of a nation forgetting its God. We have experienced a national election still unsettled because of the fraudulent activity involved. We recognize that we, too, have a choice: either to give in to bitterness and despair, or to go deeper into Christ. A vast number of Americans have chosen to go deeper into Christ with public gatherings to repent and return to God, with national prayer marches, Christian concerts in cities all across this nation declaring the name of Jesus. We are remembering that we are in covenant with the God of the Pilgrims and that He does not forget those who have put their trust in Him.
This year as we gather together with friends and loved ones, and give thanks for the good and the bad, let us set a small empty plate with five kernels of corn as a reminder that our forefathers choice to trust in God, and rest in His providence. His mercies fail not. They are new every morning. So let us remain faithful in giving Him the thanks He deserves, in seeking His face, and in putting our trust in Him.
(This true history of the Pilgrims and their first two Thanksgiving Days has been taken from two main sources: William Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation, and The Light and the Glory, by Peter Marshall and David Manuel. Both should be in every American Christian’s home.)
Tricia H. Smith (c) 11/18/2020