There are many myths and misconceptions surrounding the people responsible for the American Thanksgiving tradition. Contrary to popular opinion, the Pilgrims didn’t wear buckles on their shoes or hats. They weren’t teetotalers, either. They smoked tobacco and drank beer. And, most importantly, their first harvest festival and subsequent “thanksgivings” weren’t held to thank the local natives for saving their lives.
Do you know there are public schools in America today actually teaching that? Some textbooks, in their discomfort with open discussions of Christianity, say as much. I dare suggest most parents today know little more about this history than their children.
Yet, there is no way to divorce the spiritual from the celebration of Thanksgiving – at least not the way the Pilgrims envisioned it, a tradition dating back to the ancient Hebrews and their feasts of Succoth and Passover.
The Pilgrims came to America for one reason – to form a separate community in which they could worship God as they saw fit. They had fled England because King James I was persecuting those who did not recognize the Church of England’s absolute civil and spiritual authority.
On the two-month journey of 1620, William Bradford and the other elders wrote an extraordinary charter – the Mayflower Compact. Why was it extraordinary? Because it established just and equal laws for all members of their new community – believers and non-believers alike. Where did they get such revolutionary ideas? From the Bible, of course.
When the Pilgrims landed in the New World, they found a cold, rocky, barren, desolate wilderness. There were no friends to greet them, Bradford wrote. No houses to shelter them. No inns where they could refresh themselves. During the first winter, half the Pilgrims died of sickness or exposure – including Bradford’s wife. Though life improved for the Pilgrims when spring came, they did not really prosper. Why? Once again, the textbooks don’t tell the story, but Bradford’s own journal does. The reason they didn’t succeed initially is because they were practicing an early form of socialism.
The original contract the Pilgrims had with their merchant-sponsors in London called for everything they produced to go into a common store. Each member of the community was entitled to one common share. All of the land they cleared and the houses they built belonged to the community. Bradford, as governor, recognized the inherent problem with this collectivist system.
“The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years … that by taking away property, and bringing community into common wealth, would make them happy and flourishing – as if they were wiser than God,” Bradford wrote. “For this community [so far as it was] was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For young men that were most able and fit for labor and service did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense … that was thought injustice.”
What a surprise! Even back then people did not want to work without incentive. Bradford decided to assign a plot of land to each family to work and manage, thus turning loose the power of free enterprise. What was the result?
“This had very good success,” wrote Bradford, “for it made all hands industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been.”
As a result, the Pilgrims soon found they had more food than they could eat themselves. They set up trading posts and exchanged goods with the Indians. The profits allowed them to pay off their debts to the merchants in London much faster than expected. The success of the Plymouth colony thus attracted more Europeans and set off what we call the “Great Puritan Migration.”
But it wasn’t just an economic system that allowed the Pilgrims to prosper. It was their devotion to God and His laws. And that’s what Thanksgiving is really all about. The Pilgrims recognized that everything we have is a gift from God – even our sorrows. Their Thanksgiving tradition was established to honor God and thank Him for His blessings and His grace.
Today we continue that tradition in my home – and I hope in yours. God bless you, God bless America, and Happy Thanksgiving.