Most of us learned about Thanksgiving in school. You know the drill. In 1620, the Pilgrims crossed the ocean blue and experienced a devastatingly harsh winter along the Massachusetts coast. About half of them perished. Spring finally arrived and a friendly Indian named Squanto helped the Pilgrims learn how to obtain food by stomping eels out of the mud and fertilizing corn with dead fish. The following fall, they celebrated an abundant harvest with a feast that became known as the first Thanksgiving. But there is more, much more. The string of miracles is nearly endless:
- Many years before, the Separatists, later known as the Pilgrims, reached the breaking point of frustration and disappointment after enduring severe persecution by the Church of England. They “removed” to Leyden, Holland. After nearly a dozen years of severe adversity and personal toughening, it was time to leave. They came to believe the America was their “promised land.” They found their way back to England on the ship, Speedwell, prepared to join the Mayflower for the long difficult voyage to America. At Southhampton, their sponsors forcibly required them to accommodate 80 “strangers” who would later strain the best of interpersonal relationships. The Pilgrims numbers were reduced due to limited capacity on the ships. In July, 1620, they sailed west. In barely three days they had to return to England, because of structural problems with the masts on the Speedwell. Again, their numbers were reduced to stay within the carrying capacity of the Mayflower. God had sifted their numbers repeatedly. Only the hardiest of the hardy remained on the Mayflower for the epic journey.
- Crossing the Atlantic Ocean, the Pilgrims endured “seven weeks of the hell of an ill-lighted, rolling, pitching, stinking inferno” as well as tormenting by the crew. All manner of sins were brought to the surface, confessed, and forgiven. By the time they reached land, they were a spiritually cleansed and extremely close-knit group. Adversity does that.
- Mid-way across the Atlantic, they experienced a life-threatening emergency. The immense cross-beam supporting the main mast was failing. They would likely be lost at sea. After intense prayer, William Brewster had a eureka moment. He recommended using the giant iron printing press screw to support the breaking beam. It worked! Even the skeptical sailors praised God along with the Pilgrims.
- Just before landing at Plymouth in Massachusetts, they realized they were under no legal jurisdiction. To maintain order, they wrote and everyone signed the Mayflower Compact. The miracle and genius of the document is that it included many of the same principles later embodied in our founding documents.
- Their landing site was protected by Cape Cod. The site was flat, cleared, and had four freshwater streams and even a cache of corn. How could that happen? The area was previously cleared and inhabited by the Patuxet Indians, one of the few tribes known to be extremely hostile. Years before the Pilgrims’ arrival, the tribe was wiped out by a plague. Other tribes avoided the area, fearing presence of evil spirits. It was a miracle site for the Pilgrims.
- They finally set foot on land in mid-November, 1620.The first winter was extremely harsh and food was scarce. In January, the thatched roof of the Common House caught fire, a life-threatening emergency, due to their utter dependence on that building. Adversity inspired even more prayer and bound them together even tighter. By Spring, they had lost about half their number. Still the mortality rate was not nearly as high as in Jamestown, Virginia. The miracle was that half did survive.
- In their most desperate hour into their camp walked a Christian, English-speaking Indian, a Patuxet no less. Yes, you read it right. He was the Squanto of our school days lessons. He was the only survivor of the plague that killed the rest of his tribe, because he was not there. In 1605, Squanto was one of four Indians taken captive and shipped to England, where they were taught English so they could be questioned. Squanto spent nine years in England. In 1614, he was returned to America by Captain John Smith (Yes, it is the same one you remember from the Pocohontas story hundreds of miles to the South.). But Squanto was quickly captured again, taken to Spain and sold as a slave. He was bought and feed by local friars who taught him the Christian faith. Upon his second return to America, Squanto was devastated to find that his entire tribe had succumbed to a plague. Alone and wandering through the woods, Squanto was discovered by Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoags. The wise chief recognized that the Pilgrims had a desperate need and the Squanto desperately needed to be needed. Massasoit sent Squanto, the Christian, English-speaking Indian to the Pilgrims. William Brewster would later call Squanto, “a special instrument sent of God for their good, beyond their expectation.” Squanto effectively became an earthly savior. He taught the Pilgrims how to survive in a harsh, rugged, untamed wilderness.
- Following a bountiful harvest, they and about ninety Indians celebrated the feast that became known as the First Thanksgiving. The three-day celebration and the new arrivals from England consumed much of the provisions for the second winter.
- By Spring, the food ration for each individual was down to an unimaginable five kernels of corn per day. Nevertheless, they survived again and enjoyed a bountiful harvest after the second summer.
- When everyone approached the table for the Second Thanksgiving feast, they found a plate with just five kernels of corn as a reminder of God’s limitless grace even under the harshest of conditions.
Here is a challenge for you. Set this year’s Thanksgiving table with just five kernels of corn on each plate. Before enjoying the rest of the feast, share this story with your family and guests. God’s grace is truly wonderful! Tell everyone, about it, beginning with your family.
Much of this story was abstracted from The Light and the Glory, by Peter Marshall and David Manuel (1977), Fleming H. Revell Company; Old Tappan, New Jersey.