The First Thanksgiving

By Debbie Wuthnow

The First Thanksgiving

As we commemorate the 400th anniversary of what has come to be known as the first Thanksgiving, do you find yourself struggling to be hopeful about the future of our country?

Hardship and loss have affected so many. Conflict and strife abound as well. Look no further than the great division that often occurs over political differences at Thanksgiving and other family gatherings.

However, when we consider the example of the Pilgrims, I believe we can draw inspiration for giving thanks to God and being a blessing to our country, even in the midst of trying circumstances.

The first Thanksgiving was born out of great difficulty and loss. In total, 102 Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth in November of 1620. By the time of the autumn harvest in 1621, only 53 were living. Disease had taken its toll. All but four married women had passed away during the winter or spring.

In addition, they faced potential for conflict at every turn. The band that traveled on the Mayflower consisted of both Pilgrim Separatists (whose beliefs and practices differed from the Anglican Church) and Strangers (who were Anglicans themselves). Also, numerous differences existed between the colonists and the native Wampanoag people. These differences in religious beliefs, culture, language, and ethnicity could have resulted in division and hostility, and the fledgling colony’s failure.

Despite these odds, Pilgrims, Strangers, and Wampanoags united for a time of shared celebration of the bounty resulting from God’s blessing. What was a key factor in enabling this joyous event, which we are still commemorating 400 years later?

The answer lies in the Pilgrims’ blueprint for survival—their biblical principles.

The motivating factor behind the Pilgrims’ journey to New England and their endurance of hardship was faith in God. This is well documented by their second governor, William Bradford:

“[T]heir desires were set on the ways of God and to enjoy His ordinances . . . they rested on His providence, and knew Whom they had believed.”

That foundation of faith gave rise to morality—faith lived out according to the Bible, which promoted societal flourishing. We see this morality evidenced in the Pilgrims’ treatment of the Native Americans. The Pilgrims paid the Wampanoags for the land they settled on . . . even though that land was vacant, belonging to a tribe that had perished due to a plague years before.

This morality was also reflected in their government. The Pilgrims established the rule of law through the Mayflower Compact—the first written constitution in the future United States. It was also the first governmental contract between fellow individuals, rather than between a king and his subjects. Notably, their first governor was elected rather than appointed. They also established the longest-lasting treaty between Native Americans and Europeans in our history. Everyone is equal under God’s law, and the treaty reflected this equal status. It was honored for 55 years.

Built on a foundation of faith, these principles of morality and just law combined to produce liberty. True liberty rejects anarchy and defeats tyranny, ultimately giving rise to peace. These biblical principles enabled the entire community to live at peace with each other and with their Wampanoag neighbors.

These same principles are key to restoring our nation today.

Not everyone at the Thanksgiving dinner table—or in our country—shares our values. However, we still have a duty to uphold them out of obedience to God and love for our neighbors. The example of the Pilgrims inspires us to hold on to true faith in God, who, through the Holy Spirit, produces godly actions in us that bless our community.

Four centuries later, may the Pilgrims’ faith in the midst of incredible trials drive us to our knees in thankfulness, and spur us on to live out that same faith, to the glory of God and the blessing of our nation.

“Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever. Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, whom He has redeemed from the hand of the enemy.” - Psalm 107:1-2

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