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America’s First Thanksgiving Part 2 - Pilgrims Give Thanks and Lessons for Us Today

In the fall of 2011, I taught a series of classes on the history and religious worldview surrounding the Reformation, origination of the protestant denominations, the founding of America, and a few other related topics.  This article is primarily derived from research notes and transcripts of that series.  Due to the length, we have split it into two parts.  Part 1 covered the historical background in Europe that led to the formation and the departure of the Pilgrims, and their journey across the ocean to the new land.  Part 2 (this page) covers the Pilgrim's first few years in America, and lessons that we can draw from their lives today.

Written: Nov 2016.  For ease of navigation, we've duplicated the table of contents onto both pages.

Table of Contents

The First Thanksgiving in America

The Pilgrims landed in December of 1620 and instituted their first Thanksgiving in the fall of 1621.  To the casual observer, it appeared that there was nothing to celebrate.  Almost half of them were dead.  There was scarcely a person that had not buried at least one close family member (there were only four adult Pilgrim women still alive, cooking for 140 people).  They had little food (corn, cod, sea bass, and fowl) and many were sick.  Being men and women of the Book however, they believed the Word of God so they gave thanks both in the good and the bad times, understanding the meaning of, “In everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you (1Th 5:18).”

The fall and winter of 1622 wasn’t much better, but in 1623, there was an abundance of crops and food.  What happened?  We mentioned earlier that the London company that financed their voyage (at 45 percent interest, and they paid off every penny) had certain stipulations.  One condition of the contract required that the Pilgrims institute a socialistic, communal government for the duration of the seven year charter.  No one was allowed owned any property and all crops had to be brought into a central barn.  Liberals sometimes grudgingly admit that socialism has failed everywhere it has existed, but that’s only because “we haven’t tried it here” (in America).  Oh, but we have.  The Pilgrims first had a communist economy.  The inevitable result: the utter failure of communal farming that resulted in the death of fifty percent of the inhabitants in the first year alone.

The Pilgrims gathered what Governor Bradford described as a "small harvest" and celebrated their first Thanksgiving with the Indians in the autumn of 1621, followed by another small harvest in 1622.  Although this was partially due to the sandy New England soil and the inexperience of the Pilgrims at farming; the major factor was the inevitable lack of return on their labors that kept them from fully working the land.  Regarding the communal system, Gov Bradford wrote that it “was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much employment which would have been to the general benefit and comfort”.  He also wrote that the men were very reluctant to work on behalf of other families without any extra return, particularly those who were not pulling their own weight.  They also objected to their wives serving other men (preparing meals, washing clothes etc), deeming it “a kind of slavery”.  Keep in mind also, that these were the same people that had been praised for their outstanding work ethic back in Holland under a non-socialist system.

[Before we continue, I should note that I’m typically using the terms communism (or communal) and socialism interchangeably since they are very similar, but there’s also some differences.  This is an oversimplification but basically, they are both systems in which the economy is controlled by a central agency (usually the government) as opposed to being determined by a free market.  The goal of each is to produce a classless society (except for the few privileged controllers, of course).  In a Communistic society, everything (or more accurately, the small portion not claimed by the controlling agency) is shared equally among all. Socialism allows for some ownership of private properties, but the government limits and controls all income, goods and services.]

Returning to the narrative in the spring of 1623, the Pilgrims were forced to choose to either abandon their corporate charter or to face the very likelihood of becoming extinct.  After much debate, Gov Bradford allowed “each man to plant corn for his own [family]…  so every family was assigned a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number… I t made all hands very industrious, so that much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the governor or any other could devise”.

So, what was the result of switching to a free enterprise system of private property?  In Gov Bradford’s words, “instead of famine, now God gave them plenty, and the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many, for which they blessed God” .  Furthermore, “any general want or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day”.

Many Christian historians and economists today point to this fundamental economic change (from Socialism to Free Market) as one of the key reasons for the success of the Pilgrims at Plymouth.  A piece of ground was given to every family, and the resulting increase in production was astounding.  In 1623, more than six times the acreage was planted and harvested than in 1621 (and triple the amount of 1622).  Therefore, the third thanksgiving was filled with abundance.  In addition, their new prosperity soon allowed them to purchase clear titles to their land from their investors.

Of the experience, Bradford (who had just replaced Deacon Carver as governor) wrote that those who arrogantly supposed that the “taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing” considered themselves “as if they were wiser than God”.

So, the Pilgrims who were determined to live their lives according to the Word of God met with disastrous results by compromising in their agreement with their socialist investors.  Yet, when they returned to a biblical view of work, economics and human nature, they began to prosper.

Now, some people would argue that the Bible teaches socialism, but this view is due either to a lack of Biblical knowledge or to a misinterpretation of the Scriptures.  The commandments against stealing and coveting uphold the principle of private property.  The Scriptures are also clear in regard to work versus idleness.  The Proverbs state “Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth” (Pr 10:4).  Socialistic policies that punish the industrious and reward those who refuse to work are doomed to fail.  Even though this has been proven over and over through the centuries, the liberal socialists still refuse to learn this lesson.

The solution to the failure of socialism is found in 2 Thessalonians 3:10, “if anyone will not work, neither shall he eat”.  Many view this verse as uncaring, claiming that capitalism is an evil system that promotes selfishness while socialism is good; but this stems from a faulty view of humankind in their fallen condition.  We could argue that neither economic system is inherently good or bad, but depends instead on the inherit condition of humans.  Socialism fails because proponents assume that humans are inherently good; that most will be happy to work hard with no additional rewards in order to equally support those who are unwilling to work (ironically, proponents ignore or fail to see the fact that if humans are inherently good, there would be none unwilling to work).  Conversely, capitalism works because it produces a common good from the flawed character of humans.  Our selfishness and desire for more income produces competition, which in turn, encourages individuals and businesses to continually invent new products and methods to better serve others and increase their quality of life.  This enhances customer loyalty, which leads to more profits, which leads to more jobs for workers, which leads to a better economy with more money for charities etc.  In short, Capitalism succeeds because it is compatible with our fallen condition.

So, we see the Biblical model as expressed in the above verse (2Th 3:10) is not cruel at all, but actually is very compassionate, both for the individual and for the community as a whole.  Notice also it addresses those that “will not” work, not those that “can’t” work.  The Scriptures consistently commands us to make “voluntary” provisions for the less fortunate among us.

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Lessons for Today

So, now we’ve seen that the Pilgrims were not adventurers in search of a fortune (as the revisionist history books often portray them), but came to the new world to be able to freely worship God without persecution by the State or the corruption of an ungodly society. In light of this information, what can we learn from them today?

Note: For this portion of the article, I draw heavily from a sermon preached in 1989 by the late D James Kennedy, one of my personal heroes of the faith.

Their Commitment to the Word of God

The Pilgrims were men and women of conviction that was derived from a firm reliance on the Word of God.  They were men and women of the Book who, because they had hidden God’s Word in their hearts, were willing to face any hardship or danger such as prison, loss of their homes, journey to an unknown land, or even death rather than compromise their convictions.  Yet today, how many Bibles lay around gathering dust in our homes.  If we are to be the people that God created us to be, we must get back to the Book, both individually and corporately.

Their lifestyle and witness

The Pilgrims were a very close group men and women who loved one another and lived as examples to the entire world. Dr Kennedy stated:

They determined to establish a city, a shining city on a hill, a light for all the world to see the Gospel.  Their great desire was to have that kind of a life.  They were, indeed, an exemplary people, even recognized as such by the Dutch government, because their word was true; it was their bond.  They worked assiduously and faithfully in their jobs; they could be counted on and trusted in all things.  The Dutch delighted to lend them money; they knew they would always he repaid.  There was never a lawsuit or an argument or disputation among them.

They were truly a people of God who lived, it is said by Bradford, as perhaps no other congregation lived since the time of the apostles, in such peace and unity and love.  They were men and women of peace.  They loved each other, they cared for each other, and they lived quietly and righteously in the midst of a corrupt world.

Their great desire was to live for God, to follow His commandments and to apply them to every aspect of their lives—not only to their worship, but to their personal conduct, their church amid civil governments, even their economy. One of the reasons they left Holland was because of the corrupted morals of the people…  I wonder what the Pilgrims would think of us now…  keep in mind that they were willing to travel thousands of miles to get away from people who had no concern for God and His laws.

The Pilgrim’s also had a great heart for witnessing to others.  One of the religious restrictions added during their stay in Holland was that they were not allowed to share the Gospel to the Dutch people.  Bradford wrote that it was their strong desire to reach out to the world with the Gospel, including any natives in the Americas.  When they signed the Mayflower Compact during one of the weather delays in landing, they stated that their journey was embarked “for the glory of God and advancement of the Christian faith”.

The Pilgrims began witnessing to the American Indians shortly after arrival.  About 10 years later (1631), John Eliot who, like John Robinson, graduated from Cambridge and was ordained to preach, arrived in Massachusetts from England, and began preaching among the Puritans at Roxbury.  Rev Eliot soon developed an interest in the Indians and their culture, including their language.  In 1946, he set out into the wilderness to preach and take the Gospel to the Indians.  He spoke at first in English, but soon learned the Algonquian language (spoken by most of the Indians who resided in New England) from Indians captured during the Pequot War.  Rev Eliot, who became known as the first missionary to the American Indians (and also as the “Apostle to the Indians”), was now able to share the Gospel in their own language.

After John Eliot, many other missionaries would follow, both domestically and internationally, until the country founded by the Pilgrims had sent out more missionaries than from any other nation in history, thus fulfilling the Pilgrim’s evangelistic desire.  Unfortunately in our day, America is drifting into a post-Christian society.  We’re even seeing the evangelism trend starting to reverse, as other nations such as S Korea are beginning to send Christian missionaries to share the Gospel here.  We can only continue to work, witness and make disciples, while praying for their and our success so that America can once again be a shining City on a Hill to the rest of the world.

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Final Thoughts

To close, I’d once again like to quote Dr Kennedy (from a sermon in 1989):

There is nothing Americans today cherish more than their freedom, and the origins of that freedom can he traced directly back to the Pilgrims.  Religious freedom (the right of a people to own and read the Bible, to worship according to conscience, and to form their own church), political freedom (the right of a people to frame their own constitution and form their own government), and even economic freedom (the right to own one’s own property and keep the fruit of one’s labors) all began with the Pilgrims.  And the Mayflower Compact, based on the pattern of a biblical covenant, is recognized by scholars as the founding document that led to a whole series of covenants, compacts, and constitutions culminating in the United States Constitution framed in 1787 and put into practice with the founding of our federal government...  All this we owe to God, the Bible, and our Pilgrim fathers.

When we consider who the Pilgrims were and why they came and what they attempted to do, we should be challenged as one of their Christian descendants.  I wonder if they would be pleased with the way we have held up that torch…  I hope we will consider these dedicated men and women who suffered so much, so that we might have these religious freedoms today.  I hope that we will consider what we have been given and whether we are passing on to our children the magnificent heritage we have received from the Pilgrims.  May God help us to be like them.

MMay the Holy Spirit give us the desire to live bold and godly lives, to walk in the footsteps of those who came to this country so long ago and who left us such a godly example.  May we do the same, for the same God that was with the Pilgrims is with us today.  The same Christ that led them across the land and across the ocean is here to lead us this day.  May we faithfully live for Him, to His glory and to the advancement of His kingdom.

I don’t believe I can add anything to that.  Happy Thanksgiving!

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Thanksgiving Proclamations

First Official Thanksgiving Proclamation - June 20, 1676 in Charlestown, Massachusetts

On June 20, 1676, the governing council of Charlestown, Massachusetts, held a meeting to determine how best to express thanks for the good fortune that had seen their community securely established.  By unanimous vote they instructed Edward Rawson, the clerk, to proclaim June 29 as a day of thanksgiving, our first.

First National Thanksgiving - 1789 (According to the Congressional Record for September 25 of that year, immediately after approving the Bill of Rights)

The first national Thanksgiving occurred in 1789.  On October 3, 1789 George Washington issued the nation’s first presidential proclamation in which he called the nation to set aside a day for giving thanks to that “great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be...”

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The following resources were consulted either for the initial class research or for converting these articles to their final form.  Links were verified November 2016.

William Bradford, History of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647

What If America Were a Christian Nation Again? - D James Kennedy, Thomas Nelson 2003

The Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church: a brief historical overview

Geneva Bible

Scrooby, Nottinghamshire History

Leiden American Pilgrim Museum Foundation - Multiple articles on the Pilgrim Life during their time in Holland

Providence and the Pilgrims - Jerry Newcombe

Pilgrims Speak Today - Sermon delivered by Dr D James Kennedy on April 23, 1989, at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida

Pilgrims Give Thanks - Sermon delivered by Dr D James Kennedy on November 27, 2003, at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida

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