Four hundred years ago, just across the sea, something was stirring in the hearts of a handful of men and women which would permanently mark history. Though they were not the noble or noteworthy of English society, this small band found the courage to stand for what they felt was right in the face of great odds.
History tells the rest of the story. Names such as Bradford, Winslow, and Carver have become famous in America. But few realize what these men actually stood for, and even died for. However, it is these very values which they held so dear that makes the celebration of thanksgiving more than just a day of sports and eating lots of food. For that first harvest celebration filled with thanksgiving was more of a victory celebration than just an acknowledgment of the blessing of abundant food they had received from the Creator. It was a victory celebration, not because everything had gone so well for them that year, but on the contrary, they had endured hardship after hardship. They could have rather "cursed God and died," accusing Him of being unjust to them.
The Pilgrim men and women who sat at the table on that cool autumn day had lost their wives, their children, and friends (fourteen of the nineteen wives that had come on the Mayflower had died that first winter). Only half of those who boarded the Mayflower in their homeland were alive to sit around the table one year later. They had faced and endured dangers and tragedies that most humans don't even imagine, yet they sat at the thanksgiving table at a victory celebration.
Truly it was a victory, for their personal lives were not the most important thing that they had come to establish in this new land. No, it was for the sake of values that they endured. They cherished something beyond their own lives. Most people today are only faintly aware of such a noble concept. The tendency is to look for personal advantage. So, what was it that motivated these men and women that we have been taught to admire all our lives? We must first understand from whence they came.
It was in the countryside of England that they began to band together. There, as well as all of Europe had just come through a time of great change. The ruling force in all men's lives had been the Catholic religion for centuries and just recently the Protestant Reformation had turned things around. This new movement was supposed to correct the abuses of Catholicism which ruled society. Many still thought that the Protestants, though they protested loudly, had only re-formed the system, altering it slightly, without thoroughly changing it. Those who wanted such radical change called for a complete reform in what their religion had become. It grew to quite a large movement of unsatisfied people who were called Puritans.
But the tiny band in this story are not those Puritans, for the simple country people of the thanksgiving story were not interested in purifying anything old. They wanted something altogether new. That is where their trouble started. For that old system, reformed as it was supposed to have been by the Protestants, had no room for their zeal. Soon they were called Non-conformists or Separatists, but they referred to themselves as Pilgrims. The hostility to this small band, that never rose to more than three hundred people, became a thorn in the side of the Protestant religion that ruled the politics of England. Jailed, and even killed by those who believed that religious persecution would cause the Pilgrims to conform, the small committed group finally fled from their homeland in search of something better. The most hardy were picked to go first, to prepare a place where a man could stand for what is right, free from the bonds of religious conformity.
If they would have been satisfied to just go to church in England and not make waves, life would have been much easier and more comfortable for them. They chose, rather, to "take the waves"" Their attitude and action have been thus described by one of their number:
"They entered into covenant to walk with God and one with another, in the enjoyment of the Ordinances of God, according to the Primitive Pattern in the Word of God. But finding by experience they could not peaceably enjoy their own liberty in their Native Country without offence to others that were differently minded, they took up thoughts of removing."1
Arriving on land in America much later in the season than they had planned spelled almost certain disaster for this party of Pilgrim farmers of faith. One hundred and two arrived to start the work after choosing their spot in late December. In Plymouth, late December is likely to be very harsh weather. These men and women, raised in the damp, but civilized countryside of England, were not prepared for the frigid and uncivilized trials of the wilderness. They faced barely enough food to survive the winter, no homes for shelter, no protection from the rain or wind or snow. Coupled with the uncertainty of being able to have a friendly relationship with the native inhabitants who lived nearby, they met the reality of hardship head-on and without any way to escape. January, February, and March they worked together outside cutting trees and straw and building their houses. They were wet and freezing cold. At one point only seven of them were well enough to care for the rest who were deathly ill. By the spring, half of them had died.
Many do not realize that the Mayflower did not belong to the Pilgrims but was only hired to bring them across the sea from England. It was forced to stay in the harbor for the first winter, anchored quite a ways from shore because of the shallow water. Winter storms had prevented it from leaving. It served as a little protection for them, but the unsanitary crowding of the boat with its crew added to the problem of sickness. The bay was so shallow near shore that even the small boat that they used to go back and forth from the Mayflower could not come all the way in. To get to the land those who came in had to wade knee deep for a good distance. With their clothes soaked, there was no way for them to stay dry.
In April when the storms had died down, the Mayflower returned to England, leaving those weak ones that had remained through that first winter with no way of escape, nowhere to run.
Yet none of them pleaded to return to England with the ship. They would plant their seeds.
They were the seeds of something entirely new. Alone on the shores of this new land, the Pilgrims worked together with a faith that was real. Such faith had proven itself in hardship. Through summer they made gardens and built homes. With much labor they made friends with the Native neighbors and were able to live in harmony with them. By autumn they were able to harvest a small crop, enough to take them through the coming winter. They had finished seven small houses.
They lived a common life of love, maintaining the integrity of their faith. Their goal was to live according to the pattern of sharing that they saw in the Bible. Though some say they were striving to build a communistic society, this was far from their goal. The primitive pattern of the Word of God taught them to love and to share, not to force a legal system of mandatory equality. Their motive was a matter of the heart, not to be legislated. They attempted to fulfill what was in their hearts, but the implications of the innate selfishness in man raised its ugly head. In times of intense suffering, personal weaknesses interfered with, and often overshadowed, the goal at hand.
The joy of Thanksgiving is felt most deeply in those who have known hardship and endured. It seems contradictory to our thinking today. We are thankful only if everything goes our way. We have become a tepid generation, spoiled by too much prosperity. Most cannot even relate to the well-spring of thanksgiving that came forth from those who planted our land. Yet these are the forefathers to whom many Americans owe their lifeblood. While many proudly claim these righteous folk as their ancestors, (even using DNA testing to prove one's lineage) very few remain true to the essence of what moved the hearts of these people to stay the hard course. Sadly, few of us know the determination to do good that motivated these men and women.
As the beautiful autumn leaves announced the coming of another dreaded winter, the Pilgrims found hope to increase.
A month after this joyous thanksgiving celebration the sails of another ship came into the harbor. Great joy followed when the Pilgrims realized this boat carried thirty five more of their brothers from England. Just the help they would need! How much they loved these newcomers who shared their same heart to establish a new land built upon the "primitive pattern of the Word of God."
With these new arrivals, the population of the colony nearly doubled. Unfortunately, the ship brought no food or other supplies. These new settlers did not have the foresight to bring supplies for the winter. Great mixed emotions understandably arose in the first Pilgrims. Our fifty-one seasoned Pilgrim forefathers, after a full year in this land, must now open their arms to receive others. They had to share the stock of food they had grown through exceeding difficulty - a storehouse that was only enough to meet their own need. Being well acquainted with hunger and great hardship, the charity of the Pilgrims was sorely tested.
Furthermore, the Pilgrim fathers also recognized less zeal for hard labor in these newcomers than had motivated the first settlers to press through seemingly insurmountable odds they had faced entering the same bay the previous winter. This tendency toward laziness in their brothers caused a very predictable response. The first recorded "sermon" given in the colony was a speech given as a reminder of what it meant to truly live by what the primitive pattern of the Word of God demands. The speech was recorded and titled, ""The Sin and Dangers of Self-Love", warning the Pilgrims, "to love selflessly, to give to your needy brothers, and to discipline those who are idle".
Our Pilgrim forefathers could certainly not be considered guilty of self-love after all the rigors they had just experienced, could they? The demands of this "primitive pattern" really go far beyond the natural human power to obey. The demands of Love from the Son of God are tough. Going the extra mile, turning the other cheek, returning a blessing for a curse, etc. sound commendable on paper, but our Pilgrim fathers put themselves into the place of actually trying to live this out. Many could not pass the test.
It was an exceedingly difficult road our Pilgrim fathers chose to trod. Yet our hearts ought never cease to swell with admiration for their sacrificial lives. In the midst of a society born out of those early days of the first colony we see little resemblance today of the values they struggled so hard to plant.
Seeing the decline in these high ideals, a huge monument was erected on the hill just above Main Street in Plymouth near the graveyard that holds many of those first Pilgrims. It is an impressive statue of a woman...built so large as to be hard to miss. We so easily set our minds on lower, more earthly cares, and neglect the heroic ideals for which the Pilgrims stood. So, this grand Lady stands with her hand raised toward the sea from which the Pilgrim fathers sailed. She beckons us to remember...
So, has this "life in the soul" spoken of in the Chronicle of the Pilgrim Fathers been preserved?
Do we even realize that the Grand Lady of Virtue still stands on the hillside in Plymouth? She has now become hidden among the twenty-first century trappings of a civilization that seems embarrassed that she is even there - a symbol of the virtues long ago cast aside. Today these values, instead of being cherished as anything real and worthy of emulation, are called with disdain old-fashioned and even puritanical.
Or perhaps it is she who is embarrassed?" embarrassed of a nation that admires their Pilgrim fathers about as much as they appreciate the unreal elves in Santa's workshop - but has forgotten the "life in the soul" for which the Pilgrims' sacrifice was made" a sacrifice that birthed the freedoms that we all enjoy today" one that is truly worth giving thanks for.