top of page

12 - Thanksgiving

Around 1530, Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church and formed the Church of England. The Catholic Church refused to annul his marriage with Catherine, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, the hyperpower of the time, whose coffers annually filled with New World gold and silver. Henry VIII desperately wanted a male heir, and his Spanish Queen had only provided Mary, later known as Bloody Mary to history for her persecution of Protestants. Now, she was past the age of child-bearing. Hence, Henry formed his own church- the Episcopalian. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther had nailed his 95 theses on the Wittenburg Cathedral and begun the Protestant Reformation. (This Oct 31 just past was the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. It is the 100th year since the Balfour Declaration and the taking of Jerusalem and Palestine from the Turks by Great Britain, both in 1917. It is the 50th year since Jerusalem was retaken by the Israelis in June, 1967. Finally, it is the 70th year by the Hebrew calendar which began in late September this year since Israel became a nation again in May, 1948.) Henry had earlier been vehement in writing against the "heresy" of Martin Luther, and for this was given the title by the Pope of Defender of the Faith. Henry liked the title so much that even when he gave up Catholicism, he kept his title though his faith had changed to Anglican or the Church of England.

In the early 1500s William Tyndale began to translate the Bible into English with much opposition from the church. One clergyman told Tyndale that it was better to have the Pope than the Bible. Tyndale replied, "If God grant me life, 'ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth a plow to know more of the Scriptures than the Pope." The Church opposed his translation, and he had to flee to northern Europe. He translated much of the Bible into English but was martyred in Belgium in 1536. Before he died, he said, "LORD, ope' the King of England's eyes." When Henry VIII split from Rome, he ordered an English translation of the Bible. Tyndale had already translated most of it, and this was used as the basis for the English translation. It was then inscribed with a nice dedication to Henry VIII. I wonder if Henry knew he was putting into each English church a copy of the Bible whose author he had persecuted unto death.

Subsequently, the Geneva Bible was published in English circa 1560. This was the Bible of the Pilgrims. However, it had notes in the margin that said it was better to obey God rather than the king. Incensed by such notations, James I commissioned the King James Bible, first published in 1611, with its 400th anniversary in 2011. There were no notes about obeying God before the king, however, in King James’ Bible.

When the English people began to read the Bible in their own language, some believed that the Episcopalian Church was hopelessly flawed. Less than a thousand believed that the church was utterly corrupt, and they decided to form their own church. The Episcopalian Church was the state church, and it would bear no rival. Later King James said that he would make them conform or harry (drive) them from the land. The dissenters, known as Separatists then and Pilgrims now, would not yield and fled to Holland so they could worship in their own manner. Holland was noted for toleration of different religions, and also for a very worldly lifestyle (Think Californication). In 1619, after a dozen years in Holland, they decided they had to "remove."

Their reasons included: 1. No one was coming from England to join them even after James' decree of 1618 that all Puritans not willing to conform to ecclesiastical authority had to leave the country. 2. Their life was so hard that they were growing older prematurely because everyone who could hold a job worked 12 to 15 hours a day at hard, physical labor. If they had to leave later, they might be physically unable to do so. 3. Their children were also being worn down, and many were drawn away by the lures of the world around them. 4. Finally, they had cherished a great hope and inward zeal that they would be used as a stepping stone in carrying the Light of Christ to distant places.

They combined with a company of London Adventurers to create profit in the wilderness of northern Virginia. under a socialist contract of 7 years. They outfitted 2 ships- the Mayflower and the smaller Speedwell to carry them into the wilderness. They left on Aug 5, 1620, but the Speedwell began to take on water, so they turned back to the nearby port of Dartmouth to recaulk her. One week later they again set forth, but the Speedwell's problems recurred. so they retired to Plymouth, England, for a re-evaluation of the problem. Finally, they decided to leave the Speedwell behind and go on. This meant they had to leave some of their number behind, and it has been suggested God was sifting them, much as He sifted Gideon's army down to its final 300 from 32,000. In any event, the final 102 set forth of which 41 were Pilgrims. No “gentlemen” who did not work with their hands were among them. The sailors began to harass them with one sailor gloating over their seasickness. He also told them how much he looked forward to sewing them in shrouds and feeding them to the fish as they were the puniest assortment of "psalm-singing pukestockings" that he had ever seen. But at the peak of his tormenting, he suddenly fell ill and died. This upset the crew greatly as usually on a ship, when one died, others followed. However, only the obnoxious sailor died, and the crew, somewhat chastened, quieted down.

The North Atlantic was especially stormy, nothing like the idyllic passage of the Mayflower portrayed by Hollywood in the 1952 Spencer Tracy movie- Plymouth Adventure. The 102 passengers spent their time in the hold in an area the size of a volleyball court eating dried peas, fish, and weevily biscuits with all the smells of the bilge for the 7 week trip as it was so stormy, the hatches had to remain battened down, but only one passenger died, a servant who refused to swallow sour lemon juice and developed scurvy.

One of the Pilgrims, John Howland, could no longer take the foul stench below decks. He had to have a breath of fresh air. He was astonished by the mountainous waves. One moment, he was on deck, and the next, in the sea. When he found himself in the sea, a line (by God’s mercy) from the ship snaked across Howland’s wrist, and he hung on for dear life. It is unknown how long he was in the cold sea before he was discovered and brought back on board. The US Navy relates a person in the North Atlantic in November has at most thirty minutes to live. He was blue when he returned to the ship, and he stayed below deck until he was told he could come up for the remainder of the voyage.

Just past the halfway point of their voyage, there was a tremendous boom because a beam under the main mast had broken. They tried to wedge it back in place to no avail to the growing concern of the sailors. Then one of the Pilgrims remembered they had a printing press on board which was a giant screw, in essence. Imagine 102 commoners taking a printing press into the wilderness. The press was found. The beam was screwed back into place, and they continued on.

They arrived at Cape Cod on November 9, 1620, but their charter was for Northern Virginia, defined as south of the Hudson River, so they turned south, but fierce shoals, riptides and adverse winds forced them to turn back. The captain told them he would have to turn out to sea to go south, and the Pilgrims began to wonder if God wanted them to stay where they were. After much prayer and long discussions, they asked him to go back to the northern part of Cape Cod, arriving on 11 November. Of course, they would not be under the Virginia Company, but on their own.

Before leaving the ship, they came up with the Mayflower Compact, which embodied the principles of equality and consent of the governed. It was the first time in recorded history that free and equal men had voluntarily covenanted together to create their own new civil government.

In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are under-written, the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James by the Grace of God of Great Britain, France, Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, etc Having undertaken for the glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith and honor of our King and country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and of one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation and futherance of the ends aforesaid, and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony. Unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape Cod, the 11th of November, in the year of the reign of our Sovereign King James of England... Anno Domini 1620.

When they came ashore, they thanked God for bringing them safely across the furious ocean. They came upon an area onshore of 20 acres cleared for planting, but it appeared that it had not been planted for years though there was an abundance of human bones nearby. Nevertheless, there was excellent drainage and four sweet springs. The common beverage in England was beer to avoid water contamination. They renamed the site Plymouth after the last town they left in England.

They began to build dwellings in the cold and damp. Once their building caught fire but not the timbers in the roof so they saved the building. And then sickness began to level them. At one point there were only 5 able-bodied men to tend the sick. 48 of 101 died that winter, but in Virginia the yearly death toll was 80 to 90%. Through it all their hearts remained soft towards God.

In the middle of March, 1621, the weather began to warm, and the call arose that an Indian was coming. The Indian arrived at the door of their meeting house just as they did. They opened the door and eyed the Indian, who silent for a moment, suddenly boomed "Welcome." At length, they answered back as seriously as possible, "Welcome." He then asked, "Have you got any beer?" They replied that they were out, but perhaps brandy would do. It did. He ate their English food- a biscuit with butter and cheese, pudding, and roast duck with relish.

After eating, he answered their questions. His name was Samoset, a sagamore, or chief, from the Algonquins of Maine. He loved to travel and had gotten rides on English ships where he learned the language. They asked about the land they were on. It had been owned by a large, fierce tribe, the Patuxets, that hated the English because some of the English sea captains had enslaved members of their tribe and sold them in Spain. However, a few years earlier, an illness swept the Patuxets, and the tribe died out. Now local tribes viewed the land as accursed and avoided it. The Pilgrims thanked God for His making a place for them in the wilderness.

Samoset returned a week later with the last of the Patuxets, Tisquantum, whom the Pilgrims called Squanto. Squanto was captured by an English captain in 1605 and taken to England where he was taught English so he could be interrogated about his land. He was taken back to New England by John Smith in 1614, but Smith left him with another English sea captain who invited him back on board, and promptly put him in irons along with 26 other Indians. They were taken to Spain and sold for 20 pounds each. Most were shipped to North Africa but a few to include Squanto were bought by some local friars who introduced him to the Christian faith. Subsequently, he attached himself to an Englishman, who took him back to England, and from there back home to New England, six months before the Pilgrims arrived. He found his entire tribe dead. He lost his reason to live though he attached himself to Massasoit's Wampanoag tribe.

Squanto came with Massasoit, the Wampanoag chief, who made a treaty of peace and mutual assistance with the Pilgrims that lasted 40 years. Massasoit left, but Squanto stayed. He went out and came back with two handfuls of sweet eels for eating, and he showed the Pilgrims, whose pantries were severely depleted, how to find them. He showed them how to plant corn the Indian way. He taught them to build weirs to catch fish. The Pilgrims rejoined they had caught only one cod since arrival. Squanto told them not to worry as the streams would soon be filled with fish. Four days later, the streams were full of alewives. The Pilgrims harvested them. He taught them to plant the fish in the ground as fertilizer for the corn. Then he told them they must guard the cornfields for two weeks to keep the wolves from digging up the fish before they decomposed. He taught them how to stalk deer. how to harvest maple sugar, to plant pumpkins in the cornfields, about herbs and berries. Finally, he taught them how to catch beaver, which was their economic salvation, as their skins brought an exceptionally good price. In essence, he taught them how to survive in the wilderness. The Pilgrims viewed him as "a special instrument sent by God for their good beyond their expectation."

The fall harvest was good, and they had enough corn to last them through the winter. They decided to have a thanksgiving feast, based on the Hebrew harvest Feast of Tabernacles to thank Almighty God for His great blessings, and to invite Massasoit, who showed up with 90 Indians and stayed 3 days. How to feed such a crowd and make it through the winter? But the Wampanoags brought 5 dressed deer and more than a dozen turkeys. The Indian women taught the Pilgrim gals how to make hoecake from corn and maple sugar, and how to make popcorn in earthen vessels. So everything worked out well.

And then in November, 1621, an English ship stopped with 35 more Pilgrims, but the newcomers had brought no food, no clothing, no tools, no bedding. The Pilgrims went on half rations till the next spring. At one point they were reduced to 5 kernels of corn a day for each Pilgrim. They prayed and went deeper into Christ and not one died that winter. A ship came by but only had trade goods for the Indians- trinkets, knives, beads, and so on. The captain offered to buy their beaver pelts for 3 shillings per pound though they knew they would fetch 6 times that much in England, but they had no choice. They bought the trinkets and were able to obtain more food from the Indians. No one died that second winter.

The Adventurers who had helped to finance their voyage took great advantage of them. To retire a debt of 1800 pounds required 20,000 pounds. One of the Adventurer's ships returning from Massachusetts laden with beaver pelts was captured by the Moslem Barbary pirates in the English Channel. The debt was finally paid off in 1645 without the Pilgrims going to court.

In April of 1623, it was time to plant corn again, but the previous year's corn planting had been rather listless. Everyone worked for the company. The Adventurers had forced the Pilgrims into basically a socialist enterprise to get their funding. The Pilgrims had attended their own gardens and built their houses or improved them that year and the common cornfields did not receive the attention they needed in this communal society. Hence, they had problems growing enough food for the colony. Hence, it was decided that the Pilgrims would work not only in the common cornfields, but individuals were also given a cornfield for themselves. “... it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble and gave far better content. The women now went willingly into the field and took their little ones with them to set corn, which before would allege weakness and inability, whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.”

Sometime after the second planting, the drought began. It lasted 12 weeks. The older Indians could remember nothing like it. Their medicine men tried dances and incantations to no effect. Finally, the Pilgrims concluded that God was mad at them for thinking of gold, though kernels instead of coins, and declared a day of fasting and prayer. On that morning, the sky was clear and the drought unabated. The meeting lasting 8 or 9 hours and when the doors opened afterwards, the clouds were gathering on every side. The next morning began 14 days of soft sweet moderate showers that revived the crops so much that a second Thanksgiving with the Wampanoags was declared. This time Massasoit brought his principal wife, 3 sachems and 120 braves but also turkey and venison.

The Puritans were a larger number of English people who had problems with the Episcopalian Church, but they thought they could purify it from within. Charles I became King of England in 1625. He reigned till the Puritan Oliver Cromwell removed his head in 1649. Cromwell served as Lord Protector for about the next decade. He allowed the Jews to return to England. Edward I, the English king who opposed William Wallace in the BraveHeart movie, had expelled them from England in 1290. For the British Empire to get the blessings of God, the Jews must return. God's edict to Abraham of "I will bless them who bless you, and curse those who curse you" (Genesis 12:3) has never been repealed. The British lost their empire when they chose Arab oil over allowing the Jews to return to what is now Israel in the 1930s.

Charles I appointed William Laud, Bishop of London in 1628, and Laud began to suppress the Puritans, some of whom decided to depart to Massachusetts. The Pilgrims had shown the way. The Puritans had more to lose- more money, more servants, more education, more land. They organized the Massachusetts Bay Company and Charles I promptly signed the charter, not noting it neglected to say where they would meet. The king always wanted the charter leaders nearby under his thumb. The Puritans subsequently changed the meeting place to Massachusetts. Less than a week after signing the charter, Charles I dissolved Parliament and jealously went over every legal paper that came his way to make sure he did not lose any power.

Beginning in 1628, the great migration of Puritans lasted 16 years. More than 20,000 Puritans sailed for New England with 45,000 more heading for Virginia, the West Indies and elsewhere. Robert Winthrop, a leader of the Puritans, who arrived in 1630, envisioned a city on a hill from the gospels (Matthew 5:14). It is interesting to note that of the 198 vessels to set sail for New England in the first half of the 17th century, only one was lost. But the Pilgrims had led the way.

Taken from The Light and the Glory by Peter Marshall and David Manuel 1977

bottom of page