The True Story of that First Thanksgiving
In our vast and diverse country of America there are a lot of differing thoughts and opinions and ideals. But aside from our diversities, there are some stories that bridge all the gaps. One such story is the story of the people we have come to call “Pilgrims”. I bring to you now that amazing Thanksgiving story of courage and hope and faith.
In the early 1600’s a small group of people, Christian people, lived in England. At that time, the Church of England was the nationally recognized church, and all the citizens were expected to recognize it as such. But this small group of Christians did not agree with the activities of this Church of England – especially the fact that the Queen of England was the head of that Church. They spoke out and said that “No one can be the head of a body of believers except Jesus Christ”. They were sarcastically labeled “Puritans” because they sought to purify the church, and they were driven out of England.
So, they fled to Holland, but there was no peace for them in Holland. They were seen as foreigners, unskilled laborers, and the pilgrims became very poor. They had to find somewhere in the world to live without being persecuted for their beliefs. They had heard about this new land, America, but America was far away, and so many who dared to make that voyage, so very many, had died. Some died at sea, and of those who successfully made the long trip across the Atlantic, many were killed by hostile Indians or disease or starvation. According to some accounts, of those who came to America, only 10% ever made it back.
But these pilgrims did not place their hope and safety in themselves; they believed that God was their only true help. So, they set themselves out as a group to pray and fast, asking God to reveal His Will for their lives. And after much seeking, it was clear that He wanted them to go to America. So, they went to America and lived happily ever after, right? Wrong. On August 5, 1620, they set off on their long journey, but almost immediately their ship began taking on water, so they were forced to turn their ship, the Speedwell, around back home. Finally, once again they set sail on a different ship, this time in September, the Mayflower.
Now think about this – these 102 pilgrims, men, women, and children, they were not in charge of the ship – they were forced to live below the deck in the hold of the ship, for nine weeks. And the trip took so long, they not only ate the food meant to feed them as they crossed, but they also had to begin eating the rations they had set aside for when they arrived in America. But finally, On November 9, 1620, the new land, America, was sighted, and not one pilgrim had died – those on the ship were amazed.
But there was a problem. They had planned to land and settle in an area which was reported to give them their best chance for survival, but fierce storms drove the Mayflower north, way north, until they came to an area we know today as Cape Cod. They were glad to be safely landed, but they were confused and concerned to be so far from their intended destination. Why had God brought them here? They could have worried and doubted, but instead they chose to trust and believe. And when they finally made it to shore what did they do? One personal account tells us:
“Being thus arrived in a good harbor and brought safe to land, we all fell upon our knees and blessed the God of Heaven Who has brought us over the vast and furious sea”.
Not only had God saved them, but he had also brought them into a land that had rich and fertile soil, and four spring-fed creeks close at hand. And there was another thing – they found an abandoned 20-acre piece of land, rich with soil, which had already been prepared for planting – just who had prepared the field? It was a great mystery, but one thing was clear, God could not have picked a better place for them to live.
But by now with all their delays, winter was upon them. They had limited food, no shelters, and the harshness of the bitter winter came so quickly that as the pilgrims worked to build the shelters, their hands were so cold they can hardly hold their axes; the ground had frozen, the chances for finding fresh meat had passed, and they were running out of food – the pilgrims began to get sick – consumption, pneumonia, and the pilgrims began to die. There were six in December, eight in January; by February they were dying at a rate of two a day. What would happen? Would they all die? Could things get any worse?
Perhaps they could, because one day, unexpectedly, uninvited, an Indian came into their camp. Was he a scout for a war party? Were they about to die? But, once again, God performed a tremendous miracle. The Indian’s name was Squanto and his coming to their camp was no accident. To their amazement, Squanto spoke good English, and he told them an amazing story. This area where they had landed had long been the territory of a tribe of Indians that so hated the white man, they had murdered every settler landing on those shores – and Squanto was part of this tribe. But years ago, he had been captured by slave traders and, through a series of miraculous events, he found himself living in a monastery in England. There he learned to speak English and about God and the Bible.
Finally, he was allowed to return to his home in America, but when he returned, just six months before the Pilgrims came, he received a tragic blow. He discovered that all his tribe, all his family, had died from a mysterious illness, and all the surrounding tribes had fled the area. That explain why there had been no Indian attacks; that explained the land, cleared and ready to plant, that explained why God had brought them here. It was clear that God had picked this “Plymouth Rock” to be their new home – and sent Squanto to save them. So, Squanto determined to help these very weak, sick settlers. He helped them gather food; he helped them with their shelters – and they did survive.
The Pilgrim’s first planting season in 1621, with the help from Squanto was amazing; and they were blessed with an abundance of food. The Pilgrims were so full of gratitude that they declared a day of public thanksgiving – It would be three days of fun and feasting. They sent out the word, “All were invited to share in this celebration”. But they had no idea that their offer would be taken by so many – Squanto came and brought with him 120 braves. They came with meat, turkey, and venison. There were games and fellowship. It was a joyous time of fellowship and thanks to Almighty God for His Faithfulness – It seemed that the hardships may now be all behind them – they thought.
Just a short time after their great thanksgiving celebration, the first ship from home dropped anchor and 35 more of their band of pilgrims joined them. It was a great reunion. But, in their excitement, no one noticed that these 35 new colonists brought with them nothing – no clothing, no tools, no bedding, and, most important, no food. After the jubilation, a grim decision was reached. They would all have to go on half rations until summer. But the winter was so harsh that it made conditions even worse until, finally, their supplies were so low that the rations were reduced to just five kernels of corn per day. It seemed so strange that only a few months before they had been celebrating their bounty, and now this. It’s almost inconceivable just how anyone could live on five kernels of corn. But God had another miracle planned. Unexpectedly, a ship, on its way back to England landed. It had no food, but it had something just as good – beads, knives, and trinkets which the pilgrims could trade the Indians for corn. Once again, they were saved; they survived the winter, and, miraculously, not one pilgrim died of starvation.
Once the hard season had passed, once again the Pilgrims received a great bounty from God. As they brought in all of their great harvest, they determined to have another great feast of celebration, and to honor God for His Steadfastness.
And the meal? It was truly a feast with many courses. But the first course was the most important – just five kernels of corn – to remind them of where they had been and how truly blessed they were.
Some would wonder how these Pilgrims could be so thankful with all the hardship. I believe it’s because they never stopped being thankful. Through it all, they refused to be beaten down by their unbelievable circumstances. Most of all, they kept their eyes on God.
For us today, these small band of Pilgrims have not only given us a Thanksgiving tradition, but they have also given us a legacy. Their own account said it this way,
“As one small candle may light a thousand, so the light kindled here in Plymouth will show unto many; we note these events so that you might see their worth and not lose what we have obtained with so much hardship”.
What we desperately need in American today is to turn back to God, and, like the Pilgrims, to seek His joy for our lives, to rest assured in His loving Hand, to know that He cares about us – and to be thankful.
Take a moment today and pray for our country, pray for all mankind, and take a moment and thank God.
“5 Kernels of Corn”
I suggest that you do the following:
- Sometime prior to your big Thanksgiving meal, round up the family, turn off the TV, and sit down to have the story read by one of you.
- During the reading, there is nothing wrong with pauses to have a little dialogue to make sure that the kids understand what is happening in the story.
- Make sure to be very clear when you get to the part where the pilgrims were out of food and reduced to rations of just 5 kernels of corn per day. Also make sure to note that the pilgrims continued, even without enough food, to have thankful spirits.
- Then, when time comes for your big meal, give yourself about 15-20 minutes prior to the meal. Announce that the meal is ready and hand to each attending a small plate or napkin with just 5 kernels of corn and say, “Here you go”! It is a powerful moment, especially for the children.
- Then finish with a little dialogue and a prayer of Thanksgiving to Almighty God for your bounty.
- Then dig in!
God bless you. Please let me know how it goes.