Three times they had set sail. First from Southampton, England on August 5, 1620, two ships set sail towards an uncertain destination in a far off place called America. One of the ships named Speedwell was leaking water and was forced to put into Dartmouth harbor. About August 23, the two ships set sail again but the Speedwell proved quite unseaworthy. The ships made port at Plymouth, England, and the Speedwell was abandoned. Here some passengers grew disheartened and gave up the venture.
On a third attempt, the Mayflower alone sailed from Plymouth on September 6, 1620, with 102 passengers and crew. During the voyage, one passenger died and two were born; 103 persons finally landed in the New World.
Upon sighting Cape Cod on November 9, the Mayflower dropped anchor in what is now Provincetown harbor. Realizing they had missed their original destination, Virginia, and would have to govern themselves as best they could, a compact was signed on November 11, 1620, providing for a “civil body politic” to make all their laws.
The day the Pilgrims signed the Mayflower Compact, according to their own historian, William Bradford, “they came to an anchor in the Bay, which is a good harbor…compassed about to the very sea with pines, juniper, sassafras, and other sweet wood…”
And there, said Bradford, recounting the even several years later, they, “blessed the God of heaven, who had brought them over the fast and furious ocean…and a sea of troubles before.”
One trouble had occurred halfway across the Atlantic. The Mayflower and her crew faced near disaster in a terrific storm that caused one of the main beams to bow and crack. Many on board wanted to turn back but the Ship’s Master, Christopher Jones, assured all that the vessel was still “strong and firm underwater.” He ordered the beam to be secured. It was hoisted into place by a great iron screw the Pilgrims had brought out of Holland. Having raised the beam the Pilgrims “committed themselves to the will of God and resolved to proceed.”
When the passengers on board the Mayflower finally disembarked, little did they realize the terrible physical, mental, and emotional ordeal that would greet them. A bitter winter awaited the people. Troubles multiplied as sickness and disease broke out, hostile Indians were nearby, and there was need for food and supplies.
Somehow, the Pilgrims survived and even managed to gather in a harvest in the spring. Governor William Bradford of Plymouth Colony issued a thanksgiving proclamation in the autumn of 1621. The first thanksgiving lasted three days, during which the Pilgrims feasted on wild turkey and venison with their Indian guests.
The idea of a day of Thanksgiving remained. On November 26, 1789, President George Washington issued a proclamation of a nationwide day of Thanksgiving. President Washington made it clear that the day should be one of prayer and of giving thanks to God. Later on, President Lincoln in 1863 designated the last Thursday in November as the day to be observed and in 1941, Congress adopted a joint resolution to make it official and final.
For nearly four centuries now, people in America have been giving thanks to God in the wonderful tradition inspired by the Pilgrims. The praise that the Pilgrims gave was that of the saints of the Bible.
First, there was thanksgiving for spiritual enlightenment. God does not speak to all people. There is a vast group of mankind which has never heard the gospel of redeeming grace and never shall. To have been touched by the Spirit of God, to have a hunger and thirst after righteousness is a great act of Divine mercy. Such understanding should drive a soul to his knees to thank God for spiritual enlightenment.
In the book of Romans we read how God gives some people over to a vile and reprobate mind. In the days of Noah we are told that the thoughts of men were only evil continually.
Matthew Henry, the famous Puritan author, was once robbed. He wrote in his diary these words, “Let me be thankful first, because I was never robbed before; second, because although they took my purse, they did not take my life; third, because although they took my all, it was not much; and fourth, because it was I who was robbed, not I who robbed.”
Like Abel and Enoch, Noah and Abraham, Sarah and Matthew Henry, the Pilgrims were grateful that they were recipients of spiritual enlightenment. They had heard the voice of God.
Second, the Pilgrims were thankful for divine mercies in the midst of hardship when one passenger died, two babies were born and the people were grateful. When the small ship was about to break in two, the people found a great screw to secure the beam and were grateful. When the Pilgrims realized they were blown off course and were cut off from the Virginian Colony, they realized they had each other and were grateful.
In the old Anglo-Saxon language, thankfulness meant “think-fulness”. Thinking of all God’s goodness draws forth from the heart a measure of gratitude. The Pilgrims thought much about God’s mercies and not their own miseries. They counted their blessings.
Third, the Pilgrims were thankful for the temporary condition they were in. They confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. Anyone who has ever traveled knows that there is a certain amount of discomfort and inconvenience in getting from one place to another. The Pilgrims had both eyes fixed on heaven. They did not plan to stay on earth. They did not want to stay on earth. They too had received some Divine promises and were persuaded of them and embraced them. There was the promise: of life after death; of eternal rest; of no more sin; of seeing Jesus.
Let the winter storms come? Spring and summer will follow. God had established the seasons. Let the food run low? God can open the windows of heaven to feed His own. Let the hand of death strike? The departed saints will simply await to show others the celestial city when they arrive.
If all of this sounds a little too much, just remember that great faith transforms all thoughts. The praise of the Pilgrims reflects a firm faith. They knew they were people of God; they understood that in spite of hardship there was great mercy shown them; and they also knew that no matter what happened in time, heaven awaited when their pilgrimage on earth ended.
If there is a sad note to Thanksgiving Day celebration, it is that so many people do not understand the tremendous faith of the Pilgrims, which led them to praise God. Those of us who do understand, we join in the praise of the Pilgrims, knowing that we too are but strangers and pilgrims in this world.