Note: The following is an excerpt from The Pilgrim Chronicles: Thanksgiving Stories for the Stage, a collection of plays/programs with complete production notes designed for schools and churches.
Check out this comprehensive American history enrichment tool by Kathryn Ross, culminating 20 years of teaching this important aspect of American Christian history. Visit www.pageantwagonpublishing.com/thanksgiving-plays.
On October 3, 1863, at the height of America’s Civil War, Abraham Lincoln issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation including these words of note:
No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the most high God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy . . .
I do, therefore, invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and those who are sojourning in foreign lands to set apart and observe the last
Thursday of November next as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens . . . it is announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations are blessed whose God is the Lord . . . it has seemed to me fit and proper that God should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people.
Did you know that there are thousands of this type of proclamations with such language on record dating back to the first Jamestown Thanksgiving in 1619 Virginia? In our almost 400-year American history America’s national leaders and presidents have regularly acknowledged our nation’s dependence and gratefulness to God in this way.
But, when the fourth Thursday in November rolls around each year, it is the picture of the Mayflower, pilgrim men and women, and Native American Indians who are embedded in our collective imaginations.
We gather around tables with our families, feasting on traditional turkey and stuffing. But did you know that in the fall of 1621, in an outdoor setting, European Christian pilgrims and Native Americans actually ate more seafood and venison throughout their three-day Thanksgiving feast dedicated to the God of the Bible?
They had much to be thankful for in that day. And much to mourn.
The Plimoth Plantation Thanksgiving Story
The Pilgrims’ story begins in 1607 when Christians in England met secretly to worship God according to the way the Bible taught, rather than the way King James and his state-appointed bishops mandated that they should.
These brave people came to be called “separatists” because they “separated” from the Church of England. They realized that the Bible taught freedom in Jesus Christ to know right from wrong and the principle of self-government with their hearts submitted to God, rather than mere traditions of men.
Religious persecution increased to intolerable levels. The worshipers fled from England to Holland. William Bradford records the details in his famous diary writings:
Thus, being constrained to leave their native soil and country, their lands and livings, and all their friends and familiar acquaintances, it was . . . thought marvelous by many to go into a country they knew not . . . where they must learn a new language and get their livings they knew not how.
It was by many thought an adventure almost desperate, a case intolerable, and a misery worse than death. They were not acquainted with the trades and traffic, but those things did not dismay them for their desires were set on the ways of God to enjoy His Providence and they knew Whom they believed.
Living in Leyden, Holland, the Pilgrims knew relative peace for about ten years. But all was not well. Leyden was a beautiful place of wealth and worldliness. They were free to worship God, but easy-living made it easy to lose the sense of God’s will.
Their children grew up with no memories of England, greatly influenced by the worldliness of the Dutch children. Through a miraculous set of circumstances, King James, who had persecuted them a decade before causing them to flee, granted them a charter to establish a colony in Virginia, in the New World.
The Pilgrims returned to Plimoth, England to set sail for the American shores. During the turbulent ocean voyage, a storm knocked them off course, bringing them to the Massachusetts shoreline near Cape Cod.
It was too late in the year to sail south to Virginia, so they decided to settle where they were. But, before disembarking for settlement, they drafted the first constitutional document of our nation—a declaration of organized agreement amongst themselves.
The Mayflower Compact set forth in writing the Pilgrims’ purposes in coming to the shores of America, and their commitment to each other and God as a governmental body.
They made settlement in a prepared clearing where Indians once lived but had died out four years earlier of disease. Before the cold of winter set in, they had just enough time to build one common shelter. Though a small beginning, they believed God was on their side.
In January and February of 1621, a “General Sickness” fell upon them. With only six people well enough to care for all who had become ill, they bid farewell to many husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, and children who died.
Of eighteen married women, only five survived. Of twenty-nine unmarried men, servants, and hired hands, only ten survived. By March, spring was in the air. Bravely, they pressed on building six new cabin homes.
With the change of season, the “General Sickness” departed, leaving new challenges before them.
Farming the new land required new skills and wisdom in the use of depleted resources. The Pilgrims prayed to God for help to farm in unfamiliar soil. The Lord sent two Indians into their midst who had met Englishmen before and knew the English language.
They also knew God, having converted to Christianity some years earlier. They helped the Pilgrims make friends with the surrounding Indian tribes. Trade was established, providing necessary goods.
The Indians, Samoset, and Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to farm new foods like corn and squash and pumpkin.
In the fall of 1621, one year after the Pilgrims arrived on Plimoth Plantation; God’s blessings were evident in a plentiful harvest, inspiring plans for a Thanksgiving feast. They invited the Indians and the great chief Massasoit, who brought ninety of his braves, plus a good deal of wild game meat to roast.
For three days, the Pilgrims gave thanks in prayer, feasted, and enjoyed contests and games with the Indians. No matter how small their beginning, the greatness of their losses, or the trauma of their trials and sufferings, they rejoiced in their freedom of worship, the greatest blessing of all for which to give thanks.
These details and more, concerning the Pilgrims’ day-to-day life, are recorded in The Ballad of Plimoth Plantation, a poem turned folk song written three years after the Pilgrims landed.
It humorously sketched a picture of life on Plimoth Plantation, meant to be heard back in old England. The Pilgrims honestly recorded the highs and lows of settling in the New World.
They encouraged new settlers to join them, trusting God in all things, as noted in the final verse:
Now you whom the Lord intends hither to bring Forsake not the honey for fear of the sting,
But bring forth a quiet and contented mind
And all needful blessings you surely will find.
And, I’ll still praise Jehovah for my God is good.
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanks-giving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
Philippians 4:6-7 NKJV
Want to learn more? Curious to know what the Ballad of Plimoth Plantation sounded like when sung? And all the verses?
Check out Miss Kathy’s podcast dramatization of the story with links to a five-part blog series on the Plimoth Plantation Thanksgiving—a critical moment in American history, the establishment of America’s purpose, and a powerful demonstration of the American mind.