Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving



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Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving


We celebrate Thanksgiving this Thursday. I want to pause from our study of Haggai to remember why we celebrate Thanksgiving. The best way to do that is to remember the history of the first Thanksgiving and draw some lessons from that story. I want to start with the general setting of the 17th century world.
  1. The early 17th century world


Francis Xavier, the great Roman Catholic missionary, evangelized Japan in 1549 and the years following. By 1606 there were approximately 750,000 Christians in Japan.

In 1614 a brutal persecution began which, within two generations, almost completely wiped out Christianity in that nation. “The Japanese converts,” notes Paul Johnson, “…made Christians of unrivalled determination and courage. Had the [Franciscan] mission been allowed to proceed under the right conditions, the Japanese would have changed the face of world religion. As it was, they became the victims of one of the most ruthless and prolonged persecutions in the long, bloody story of confessional cruelty. From 1614-43 up to 5,000 Japanese Christians were judicially murdered, nearly always in public. The exact total is not known…The most appalling tortures were inflicted on those, usually Japanese, who refused to recant. Some died of starvation [in jail]. Others were tortured to death.”1

Also, at about this same time, in 1607, irr-religious people with no purpose but profit founded Jamestown on the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia. The result was social, moral, and political chaos. By 1610 only 60 of the first 500 colonists were left alive.

At the same time that the Japanese were ruthlessly exterminating Christianity, and Jamestown was floundering, 42 Saints and 60 adventurers set sail from Plymouth England. Unbeknownst to them, they would birth a new nation that would change the course of world history. It would also do more to spread the gospel than any other nation in history.

The Jamestown colony was struggling, the Pilgrims were landing in New England. As God was opening a door for the gospel in North America, He was closing the door in Japan.

  1. The Pilgrim Story

    1. Lost Story


If you had lived in 1840 you would have never heard of the Mayflower or the Pilgrims. Until William Bradford’s Journals were recovered in 1856 the story had been completely lost to history. Bradford (1590-1657) was the first governor of Plymouth, MA. and one of those who sailed on the Mayflower. His journals, bound in leather, and written in longhand, were the only record of the Mayflower’s voyage, its survivors, and the history of the early decades after their landing at Plymouth, MA. Passed down to his descendants for 100 years, Bradford’s journals ended up in a church in Boston. After the American Revolution, the British took Bradford’s Journal back to England where it languished in the archives of a musty library until 1856. At that time they were discovered returned to the governor of Massachusetts. Shortly thereafter, they were published, and the story of the Mayflower and her Pilgrim passengers were restored to American history. It had been lost for 200 years.

Nine years later, Oct. 1864, Abraham Lincoln made the fourth Thursday in November “a day of Thanksgiving and praise to almighty God, the beneficient Creator and Ruler of the Universe.” Lincoln asked Americans to “humble themselves in the dust…and offer up penitent and fervent prayers…” to God for the healing of the nation.


    1. Pilgrims and Puritans


So what was the history of the Mayflower and the early Pilgrims contained in Bradford’s journal?

First, it is important to understand the distinction between Puritans and Pilgrims. They were different.

The Pilgrims were a small group of “separatists” that, because of persecution, fled from England to Holland in about 1602. After 18 impoverished years in Holland a small group of the Pilgrims left for the New World on the Mayflower in September 1620. They were called “Separatists” because they had separated from the church of England. Under Queen Elizabeth and King James, the sovereigns at that time, separation from the State Church was punishable by death. That is why the Pilgrims fled to the New World. They would rather live in what they called, “the howling wilderness” of the New World than compromise the truth as they understood it.

By contrast, the Puritans were a large renewal movement in the church of England. They did not separate from the State Church. Rather, they attempted to reform the Anglican church from within. Puritanism began about 1570 and ended about 1690.


    1. Departure


Only a small number of Pilgrims (42) actually sailed on the Mayflower. The balance, several hundred, stayed behind. Those who left were to be advance Scouts. However, the remaining Pilgrims never followed. Ten years after the Mayflower sailed, the Puritans came to New England in vast numbers. Although t he Pilgrims were a small group, the Puritans were the main body. Like the Pilgrims, the Puritans came because of increasing persecution.

The journey from England on the Mayflower was brutal. They intended to leave England in early Spring, plant crops, and harvest the first year. However, due to administrative obstructions, the did not sail until early August, 1620. The timing was bad. It was late in the year. They would now arrive just as winter was setting in. They departed in two vessels, the Speedwell and the Mayflower. Twice they returned to England for repairs to the Speedwell. To their dismay, the final departure occurred even a month later than they had planned, on Sept 6, 1620.

Their original destination was the mouth of the Hudson River, what is now New York. However, an Atlantic storm blew them off course. They arrived 200 miles North at Massachusetts Bay.

The Passengers on the Mayflower were a diverse group. The Christians were outnumbered. There were 102 total passengers. 42 were Saints (the Pilgrims), and 60 were what the saints called “Strangers” (Baptized Anglicans, soldiers of fortune, mercenaries, or adventurers). In addition, there were 25-30 Crew Members who bitterly persecuted the Saints.


    1. Eight Weeks at Sea


The crossing from Plymouth England to Massachusetts took eight weeks. As we have mentioned, there were 102 passengers crammed into the hold. The Mayflower was only 90ft by 26 ft. There was barely room to stand up in the hold. As we have seen 60 of the 102 were formal Christians at best. Imagine the suffering and stress.

Everyone was sea-sick. There was no ventilation, no toilets, no privacy, no lighting, no showers, inadequate clothing, and the boat leaked continually. There was no bathing for 8 weeks. Cloths could not be washed. The stench in the hold was incredible. The babies cried continually. There was nothing to do. The monotony was grinding. Three of the women were pregnant. One gave birth at sea. The other two gave birth shortly after arrival.

Their food consisted of dried vegetables, dried biscuits, a small amount of beef jerky, beer, rum and some very bad water. A few weeks into the voyage worms began to appear in the dried biscuits.

Add to this the terror of winter gales on the North Atlantic. Very few of the passengers had ever been to sea.

The crew compounded their troubles. They were unbelievers. They mocked and persecuted the 42 Pilgrims mercilessly Here is how George Willison sums up Bradford’s diary. “’Cursing them dayly with grievous execrations.’ One of their worst tormentors, a huge brawny seaman, used to taunt the weak and sick by saying that he expected to bury half of them at sea and ‘make merry with what they had.’ When they reproached him, no matter how gently, ‘he would curse and swear most bitterly.’ But retribution was swift in coming. Stricken himself one morning, this ‘proud & very profane younge man’ was dead by afternoon and his body was the first to go over the side, to the great astonishment of the wicked cronies, said Bradford,…for they saw that it was ‘ye just hand of God upon him.’” 2

    1. Arrival


Blown off course by a gale, they missed their Chesapeake Bay target and found themselves at the edge of Cape Cod on Massachusetts Bay. It was mid November. Bradford records that the sleet was blowing horizontally.

A few of the men spent the next weeks exploring Massachusetts Bay in nasty weather. They were looking for a place to settle and build a village. They were looking for a place that had fresh running water and a secure harbor.

During this time most of the 102 remained on the Mayflower. While they waited there was dissension and infighting between the Saints and Strangers. To procure order, one of the Pilgrims, William Brewster, prepared a Civil Covenant. Today we call it “the Mayflower compact.” It was the first attempt at self-government in North America. All of the signers assumed the importance of the Bible and the validity of the law contained in its pages. The “Mayflower Compact” expressed their desire to be ruled by law. It assumed the unity of church and state. It was not a declaration of separation of church and State.

Finally, they decided to settle at a small bay with a fresh water spring. They named it Plymouth after their English departure point. While exploring the area they found the remains of an native American village. Later they learned that the Patuxet Tribe had been wiped out by Smallpox the year before their landing.

The situation was bleak. At this time William Bradford, who eventually became governor of Plymouth Plantation, lost his wife, Dorothy. Apparently, she committed suicide. Historians are not be surprised. Ten years later, “at her first sight of New England,” records George Willison, “Anne Hutchinson, that stout hearted rebel, declared that her heart and spirit all but failed her, and that she would have fled in panic back to England had she not believed that God was about to destroy [England] for its sins and iniquities…” Willison continues, “To picture the forlorn lot or share the soul-searing experience of the pioneer women who first came to our shores is impossible for even the liveliest imagination.” 3

On Christmas day, Dec 25, 1620, the 42 Pilgrims and the 60 adventurers debarked from the Mayflower and began to construct a village of small huts in which to ride out the winter.

The huts were crude. They had dirt floors, hanging cloth for doors, no windows, and no chimneys to remove the fireplace smoke. Soon the settlers, weakened by the voyage, by serious malnutrition, almost no sanitation, and exposure to the cold, began to get sick and die. Scurvy, tuberculosis, and pulmonary disease caused most of the deaths. The entries in Bradford’s journal tell the story.

“December 24th dies Solomon Martin, the sixth and last who dies this month. Jan 29th, dies Rose, the wife of Captaine Standish. This month eight of our number die. Feb 21. Die Mr. William White, Mr. William Mullins, with two more; and the 25th dies Mary, the wife of Mr. Isaac Allerton. This month seventeen or our number die. March 24. Dies Elizabeth, the wife of Mr. Edward Winslow. This month thirteen of our number die. And in three months past dies halfe our company…of a hundred persons, scarce fifty remain [alive], the living [so weak that they are] scarce able to bury the dead.”4

“When the worst was over,” notes Willison, “only three married couples remained unbroken [by death]. Mortality ran highest among the wives, only five of eighteen surviving. More than half the heads of households perished…Parents in general and mothers in particular sacrificed themselves for their children. Only one family escaped without a loss.”5

As Spring arrived their circumstances began to improve. One day a Native American, named Squanto, surprised them by walking into their village speaking excellent English. The Pilgrims offered rum and beer. Squanto’s story is remarkable. Ten years earlier Squanto had been kidnapped by the British. His British captors sold him as a slave to a monastery where he was taught English.

The monks sold Squanto to a wealthy English merchant, who returned him to North America exactly 6 months before the arrival of the Mayflower. Squanto was indispensable the Pilgrims. The Pilgrims were merchants by trade. They did not know how to farm. He served as a translator to the Native American tribes in the area. Squanto also showed them how to hunt, fish, and grow corn.

Slowly health and strength returned to the fifty survivors. By that fall they had established a small village, sturdied their houses for the coming winter, made friends with the Native Americans, and collected a harvest for the coming winter. The Indian corn had grown well, but the English wheat, barley and peas that they brought with them had failed miserably. Nevertheless, they had adequate food for the coming winter. Their common dangers and troubles had forged the Pilgrims and Adventurers into a unified band. Many of the “strangers” had become stout Christians. Many of the widows and widowers had found comfort in new marriages.

In October 1621 the Pilgrims called for a three day feast. Contrary to tradition, Bradford’s journal does not mention Turkey or pumpkin pie. The Native Americans came with 90 hungry braves. The fifty Pilgrims panicked. Where will we get food for this large group. The Native Americans helped out by bringing five deer that they had recently caught.

    1. The Puritan Exodus.


Ten years passed. The little village of Plymouth slowly grew. They weren’t out of the woods until the fourth year. In the meantime, they suffered the constant fear of starvation. By 1630, ten years later, the Puritans in England were experiencing intense persecution. Word was out that some hearty souls had actually established a viable settlement on the edge of the “howling wilderness” in Massachusetts.

Although their population was still under 300, the Pilgrims had succeeded were everyone else had failed. They succeeded because their motive was freedom to worship. They were God-fearing, and God blessed their efforts.

In 1630 a great migration began. The first convoy brought 1,000 Puritans. They settled 20 miles North of Plymouth, in Boston Harbor. Over the next ten years 20,000 migrated to New England. At the time of the American Revolution, 140 years later, 75% of the Colonists could trace their heritage to these early Puritan immigrants.

  1. Four Lessons from the Pilgrim Story

    1. The Providence of God:


Providence is the doctrine “that the world and our lives are not ruled by chance or by fate but by God.” 6 God is sovereign over history. He opens doors and He closes them. This means that, ultimately, he is also sovereign over the success of the gospel.

For reasons known only to God he allowed the Door of opportunity for the Japanese church to be closed.

He opened a door for the Pilgrims, and because of their success, the vast Puritan migration followed ten years later.

Here are some examples of God’s providence at work in this story: 1) The sudden death of the tormenting sailor 2) God’s preparation of Squanto to aid the Pilgrims. 3) The death of the Patuxet tribe in the very bay in which the Pilgrims eventually landed.

Faith in God’s providence is important to us. It produces contentment: Romans 8:28 "And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose."

    1. Rejoice in Suffering


God often lets his favorites suffer. It can be a sign of his blessing. Christianity is not a free pass to a life devoid of suffering. Rather, it is about becoming more than conquerors in the midst of suffering. Here are some of the benefits that we, and the Pilgrims fathers, can gain through suffering.

1. Suffering focuses us on eternal things. 2 Corinthians 4:17-18 "For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. "

2. Suffering either makes us thankful and joyful or bitter and pessimistic.7 (1Thes 5:16) “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances. For this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Here is how Peter Marshall describes Bradford’s Prayer at the first Thanksgiving. “They had so much for which to thank God: for providing all their needs, even when their faith had not been up to believing that He would do so; for the lives of the departed and for taking them home to be with him; for their friendship with the Indians—so extraordinary when settlers to the South of them had experienced the opposite; for all His remarkable providences in bringing them to this place and sustaining them.”8

Suffering sensitizes us to God’s voice: C.S. Lewis: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to arouse a deaf world.”9 (Philippians 4:12-13) "I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me."

Suffering produces perseverance and godliness “Count it all joy my brothers when you meet trials of various kinds. For you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness, and let steadfastness have its effect that you may be perfect and complete lacking in nothing” (Jam 1:4ff).

      1. Our suffering often advances others. We enjoy freedom and prosperity today because of the willingness of the first Pilgrims to suffer joyfully. (2 Co 4:11-12) "For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you."

      2. Suffering enhances our future glory when embraced with thanksgiving. (Ro 5:3-5) "More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us."

    1. Appearances Are often deceiving


In 1620 no one noticed the sailing of the Mayflower. No one paid any attention to the little village clinging to the edge of Massachusetts Bay. Seventy five years later this story had been lost to posterity. The Pilgrims and Adventurers had no idea that they were playing a major part in world history. How their lives bent and shaped the flow of world history can only be appreciated with the passing of centuries.

So it is with our lives. What are you and I faithfully giving our lives to that neither you nor anyone else knows will have great long term affect?


    1. Don’t take religious freedom for granted


Our religious freedoms are precious. They are fast eroding. I often fear that we will not appreciate them until we lose them. Be thankful. Look at the price the Pilgrims were willing to pay for privilege of worshipping with a free conscience.

Because of the severe winter weather, the Mayflower wintered with the Pilgrims at Plymouth. When it finally left for England on April 21, the captain begged the survivors to return with him. He was convinced that they would not last another winter. However, to a man the survivors refused. Why? Such was their passion for freedom of conscience that they would rather live on the edge of the “howling wilderness” with slim chances of survival than return to England.10

Do we appreciate our freedoms this way today?

  1. Conclusion: How does God want us to respond this Thanksgiving?


1. As we approach this Thursday’s feast we should not feel guilty about our blessings. Rather, we should be thankful.

2. Looking back on the Pilgrims, we should be optimistic about God’s willingness to fortify each of us for the day of suffering.

3. We should clothe ourselves with realistic assumptions. We live in a fallen world. There will be no utopia this side of eternity. Despite its fallen state, there is much good and happiness in this world, but at its core it is flawed with sin, death, disease, and suffering. Ultimately, in its current condition, it is under God’s judgment. This means that when push comes to shove, we must constantly remind ourselves that we are citizens of the world to come. We should have one eye on the New Heavens and New Earth that God has so graciously promised.

4. Above all, we should be continually thankful. We and our entire culture deserve what the Japanese church received. The only reason we have not received it is mercy and unmerited grace. The Pilgrims teach us to (1 Th 5:16-18) "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you."


  1. Home Fellowship Questions


How do we see the sovereignty of God at work in the different experiences of the Japanese Christians and the Pilgrims?

Imagine yourself a traveler on the Mayflower. What would have been the most difficult trial for you to endure? Why?

Name some of the ways that God providentially cared for the Pilgrims? Where do you see God’s providence at work in your life?

Suffering can be of great benefit to us. What benefits do these scriptures describe? (Hint: Rom 5:2-5, James 1:2-4, Rom 8:18, 2 Cor 4:17-18) How do you think these texts spoke to the Pilgrims?




1 Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity, (New York:Atheneum, 1985) pg 420

2 George F. Willison, Saints and Strangers, (New YorikTime Books, 1945) pg 144

3 Ib id, Willison, pg 167

4 Ibind, Willison, pg 179

5 Ibidd, Willison, pg 179

6 Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Edited by Elwell, pg 891 (Grand Rapids, Baker, 1984)

7 (Also see Hart, Benjamin, Faith and Freedom, (Dallas, TX, Lewis & Stanley, 1988) )

8 Peter Marshall and David Manuel, The Light and the Glory, (Old Tappan: Revell, 1977) pg 135-36

9 The Problem of Pain, pg 93

10 Ibid, Marshall

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