A Pilgrim Thanksgiving

Who Were the Pilgrims?

In English history, the Protestant Reformation – if it can be called that in England – began with King Henry VIII’s creation of a state church in which Catholic and Puritan influences remained in conflict for quite some time. The group we call Pilgrims wanted nothing to do with the Church of England regardless of which theology predominated. The Pilgrims were more radical in their vision of reform than the Puritan wing of the Anglican Church. During much of their life in England they faced legal obstacles to the practice of their faith. We call them “Pilgrims” because they made a journey of faith – multiple journeys, in fact. A better word for this group, however, is “Separatists,” “Dissenters” or “Non-Conformists.”

The Pilgrims were strict Calvinists who believed in predestination. They observed only two sacraments (baptism and communion). Their churches were simple, with no crosses, statues, stained glass windows or fancy architecture. There was no particular religious significance to their “meeting house.” The church organization was congregational in polity. They practiced infant baptism. The Lord’s Day (Sunday) was the “Sabbath,” the weekly day of rest and worship. They did not observe (and actively frowned upon) the observance of Christmas and Easter as holidays. Their clergy were permitted to marry. Marriage itself was regarded as a civil institution. They valued both education and labor. They practiced church discipline. Punishment for violating the congregation’s standards could range from admonishment to excommunication. The Pilgrim family was a moderate patriarchy in which all members were valued, but in which there also existed definite gender roles. I’m telling you these details not because I share all these views, but because we need to remember that the Pilgrims were a specific group of people living in one particular time with a unique outlook on life. While their story may form part of the American civil narrative, I’m not sure how they would feel about that.

How Did the Pilgrims Become Pilgrims?

In 1609, John Robinson took a group of these Separatists to Holland where they believed they would be freer to structure their community in accordance with their faith. They had to sneak out of England under threat of arrest. The group landed in Amsterdam and settled in Leiden.

The Pilgrims (as we call them) started over in foreign country with nothing. For the most part, they were farmers in England. In Holland, where they were landless, they had to learn new trades. Their attitude toward hard work and thriftiness enabled them to prosper despite the challenges of living in a foreign country, and they came to be quite capable businessmen living in a land of merchants. They spent 11 years in Holland where they found their religious views tolerated by the government. They also developed considerable experience in governing their little group of expatriates.

The Separatists began to worry, however, that their little group would be absorbed into Dutch culture and society, and they wished for their children to remain English. And even though they had considerable success in Leiden, they could neither buy land nor work in the best jobs. So they decided to leave Holland.

The new lands in America looked promising, and they sought backing to establish an English colony there. They eventually found a group of English merchants willing to finance the venture. In July of 1620, members of the Leiden group sailed on the ship Speedwell for Plymouth, England. There they intended to rendezvous with the ship Mayflower to begin a voyage to America. The Speedwell, however, proved to be unserviceable for the Atlantic voyage and after some false starts had to be left behind. This further compounded space problems on the Mayflower. In September 1620, the Mayflower finally departed Plymouth with 102 passengers bound for the Virginia coast. By this time, the members of the Leiden congregation had already been living aboard ship for a month and a half. Of the 102 passengers on the Mayflower, only a little over one-third actually belonged to the Leiden congregation.

A long two-month journey in a tiny ship followed. Rations consisted of dried bread, meats, cheese and fruits – and beer. Beer, it seems, travels better than untreated water. (And lest you think that a steady diet of beer sounds good, imagine it in the cramped quarters of a rolling ship. Sea-sickness was the most prevalent medical problem.)

I’ve seen the inside of the replica Mayflower II anchored now in Plymouth. The colonists all shared the small, open gun deck of the ship. There were no berths or private accommodations (although some of the passengers erected wooden dividers that offered the illusion of privacy to their family). The gun deck was about 5 1/2 feet in height and ran the length of the ship. Much of the space was occupied with canon and the ship’s equipment. The colonists’ access to the upper deck of the ship was extremely limited; passengers would just get in the way of the crew members who were working with the ship’s rigging. In bad weather, passengers could be swept overboard. Consequently, the colonists spent most of their time cramped together below deck.

On November 9, 1620, the Mayflower arrived at Cape Cod. Bad weather prevented the ship from sailing further south to Virginia. After a month and a half of exploration, the Pilgrims decided to settled on the western shore of Cape Cod Bay. They named their new home Plymouth.

The Mayflower Compact

The Pilgrims first came ashore at Provincetown on the northeastern tip of Cape Cod. There, on November 11, the Pilgrims agreed to form a government – under a constitution of sorts – since their settlement would not fall within the boundaries of the Virginia colony or the charter they had received. The agreement, signed by the 41 adult men among the settlers, is known today as the Mayflower Compact.

We whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God of Great Britain, France and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, etc. Having undertaken, for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith and Honour 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 one of another, Covenant and Combine ourselves together into a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance 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 Lord King James, of England, France and Ireland the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini 1620. In the name of God Amen.

While we often attribute the goal of “religious freedom” to the Pilgrims, it was not “free exercise for all” that they sought. They sought, rather, the freedom to build a community that conformed to their Separatist views. They wanted the freedom to live in stricter accord with their beliefs and their understanding of the Bible. That would not necessarily translate into freedom for others to live as they chose. Nevertheless, by joining in a political compact with those who did not share all of their religious views, the Separatists bound themselves to a government that would provide equal protection for the general good of all. The seeds of free exercise, equality before the law and participatory government are here, if not the full flower.

There are a couple of interesting things to note in the Mayflower Compact. Even the Separatists still saw themselves as subjects of the King, and everyone – not just the Separatists – agreed that the enterprise’s goals included “the glory of God” and the “advancement of the Christian faith.”

Winter in Plymouth

The Mayflower Pilgrims arrived in on the American coast with the clothes they wore and a few others in a trunk. They brought a few tools, a little food and no furniture. There was no welcoming committee and no English settlement to provide to shelter or feed them. Life was extremely hard. The weather was brutal and the work back-breaking.

There was little to eat. It was too late in the year to plant anything, and the Pilgrims were extremely bad at hunting and fishing. In the first month, they caught one fish and no game. At one point, their daily ration consisted of only a few grains of cereal.

Sickness and disease took a horrible toll, once leaving only seven healthy colonists in Plymouth. In the first year, half died. It’s impossible to imagine the physical and psychological cost of living in Plymouth during the first year of its existence.

Salvation from Native Americans

In the spring of 1621, a Native American walked into their settlement and announced, “Welcome, English. I am Samoset. Do you have beer?” Samoset had learned English – and about beer – from English fishermen who had visited the area. Besides beer, the fishermen brought European diseases which decimated the local population.

Samoset introduced the colonists to another Native American whom they called Squanto (an English attempt to say Tisquantum). Squanto spoke even better English, which he learned after being kidnapped by Europeans and taken to England. When he returned from England, he discovered that his tribe, too, had been wiped out by disease. Nevertheless, he offered to help the new settlers.

He and the local Wampanoag tribe helped the colonists learn to fish, hunt and plant in ways that worked on the Massachusetts coast. They planted wheat (which they called corn), corn (which they called Indian corn) and barley (for more beer!). By next autumn, it looked like the colony would survive.

Thanksgiving 1621

In October 1621, the remaining colonists of Plymouth – along with about 90 Native Americans – celebrated a three-day outdoor feast that included venison and water-fowl. It probably also included wild turkey, fish, wheat, corn, barley, and perhaps a few peas. They might have also had shellfish, lobster, eel, nuts, squashes, and beans – which were common local foods. There might also have been dried fruit gathered earlier in the year, and perhaps some English vegetables grown from seeds brought with them.

Why celebrate? For what was there to give thanks? Life was still hard. Hunger, debt, and sickness continued to trouble New England for a decade. They had gone through unimaginable hardships. If they had lived today, we might suggest that they needed counseling for Post Traumatic Stress more than they needed a celebratory meal.

It’s hard for us to imagine people with that level of commitment to an enterprise, and with that level of resiliency. These were men and women who could give thanks because they believed God had indeed blessed them. God had been faithful to his promise. They dreamed of a “city on the hill” in which God’s will was done, and their dream was still alive.

Five Grains of Corn

In Five Grains of Corn [broken link], Bass Mitchell tells the story of his childhood Thanksgiving at the home of his friend Kenny, whose family roots were in Massachusetts .

We all went into the dining room. The table was set – plates and glasses but no food. Not even a piece of bread. We all sat down and then I noticed beside each empty plate a little pile of corn, five kernels to be exact. And my first thought was, “I didn’t know Kenny and his family were so poor!” My second thought was, “I’m gonna starve!”

Then I saw Kenny’s father nod to his youngest daughter and she asked, “Father, why are there five pieces of corn beside our plate?”

I wanted to know that too.

And I don’t remember everything he said, but the gist of it was that the Pilgrim fathers and mothers faced many hardships when they came to America seeking freedom to worship God as they felt they should. One of those was hunger. One of the first winters it was so bad that they had only five pieces of corn per person each day to eat. The next spring, however, because of God’s blessings through help from their Indian friends, they had a bountiful harvest and raised their voices in thanksgiving, inviting their new Indian friends to a great banquet – the first Thanksgiving. So the five pieces of corn are there to remind us of their suffering, of our bounty, and our need to give thanks.

The Pilgrim Fathers (and mothers) could give thanks even for the five grains of corn that kept them alive another day – to serve God another day – to pursue the dream one more day. Only if you can give thanks for five grains of corn, do you know what true thanksgiving is all about. Do you have five grains of corn for which you can give thanks this week? You might, if you see your life as a divine journey of faith – if you, too, are a pilgrim.

* * *


The source for some of this material is Mayflower History. Another source is The Pilgrims’ Real First Thanksgiving. I also visited Plimouth Plantation historical site a few years ago, and have gathered bits of information along the way. And, I once stayed at a Holiday Inn Express. Please don’t consider this a scholarly resource for Pilgrim history!