The Thanksgiving story, as we know it, began on July 22, 1620, when a group of English colonists known as Pilgrims gathered in the Dutch port city of Delfshaven to board the pinnace ship Speedwell. Sailing from there to the British city of Southampton, these colonists met up with others who had already boarded the Mayflower, the Speedwell's sister ship if you will. Departing Southampton on August 6th, the passengers and crew were hoping for a swift and uneventful ocean crossing to Virginia.
Sadly, that didn't happen as the Speedwell leaked not once but twice, forcing both ships to turn back. And the Pilgrims who didn't call it quits while docked in the port city of Plymouth waited anxiously while the Speedwell's remaining passengers and cargo were transferred to the Mayflower, an already seriously overcrowded ship...a ship which then became their home for almost a month.
Christopher Jones were packed tight in the small ship...a ship that measured about 100 feet long from stem to stern and just 24 feet wide. And while the crew was housed in small cabins above the main deck, the Pilgrims and the others onboard...those the Pilgrims called “strangers”... were forced to live in suffocating, windowless spaces no more than five feet in height... spaces that existed between the main deck and the cargo hold. And while the first month of sailing saw mostly calm seas, by early October an “unrelenting series of North Atlantic storms” tossed and battered the Mayflower for weeks on end forcing the crew to lower the sails and let the Mayflower “bob helplessly in the towering waves.”
And how do we know this? In the only surviving journal, a journal titled “Of Plimoth Plantation,” authored by Mayflower passenger and Mayflower Compact signer William Bradford (who years later became the 30-year governor of the Massachusetts Plymouth Colony) was also this vivid description of the actual 66-day crossing. Writing that, “They were encountered many times with cross winds and met with many fierce storms with which the ship was shroudly shaken, and her upper works made very leaky, and one of the beams in the midships was bowed and cracked, which put them in some fear that the ship could not be able to perform the voyage,” allowed us to visualize just how perilous the Pilgrims journey was.
And if this wasn't bad enough seasickness and other assorted ills permeated the entire voyage, yet surprisingly only one of the Pilgrims aboard died during the actual crossing itself. However, 52 of the 102 passengers aboard (consisting almost equally of both Pilgrims and “strangers”) died during their first winter in Plymouth.
But now it's time we separate fact from fiction, first in regards to exactly why the Pilgrims came to the New World and second, to understand that Thanksgiving as we celebrate it today is really a blend of the Pilgrims New England custom of “rejoicing after a successful harvest”...something actually based upon ancient English harvest festivals...and the Puritans tenets of Thanksgiving being but a solemn religious observance combining prayer and to a much lesser degree feasting.
And here it must now be known that for those we call Pilgrims, contrary to popular belief, religious freedom was not...I repeat not...the deciding factor as to why they came to the New World for religious freedom was something the Pilgrims enjoyed for more than a decade before ever setting sail on the Mayflower. How so? While we known that in the 1500s England broke away from the Roman Catholic Church and created a new church called the “Church of England,” what many don't know is that those we refer to as Pilgrims actually were “separatists” (as in those who rejecting the new church). And it was a small group of “separatists” who left England in 1608 and found both sanctuary and religious freedom in the Dutch city of Leiden, a city that was far more religiously diverse and tolerant than were those in England...a city where according to “separatist” member Edward Winslow, they enjoyed “much peace and liberty.” So logic alone should then dictate that religious tolerance and freedom was not the driving force that drove the Pilgrims to risk their lives first in a dangerous ocean crossing and then in the wilds of an untamed land.
So what did drive the Pilgrims to America? Simply, poverty did, for the reality is that the Pilgrims were actually what we now call “economic migrants.”
Possessing religious freedom in Leiden was surely a good thing but living in overt poverty was quite another. For the Pilgrims, who were farmers in Northern England, now being but low paid laborers who worked long hours weaving, spinning, and making cloth, was what their fellow “separatists” still home in England were not willing to do. In fact, in his “Of Plimoth Plantation” journal, William Bradford also wrote that instead of joining their fellow “separatists” in Leiden, “Some preferred and chose the prisons in England rather than this liberty in Holland with these afflictions,” meaning living both in poverty and what some Pilgrim elders considered to be moral debauchery.
And as time went on poverty became more widespread for not only did the all-important wool market collapse, but the Thirty Years War was looming large. Couple that with Pilgrim elders fearing that Dutch society was “corrupting their children,” which again can be witnessed in the words of William Bradford who wrote in his journal that their children were “drawn away by evil examples into extravagant and dangerous courses,” as well as losing their English identity.
Now being unable to return to their beloved England for fear of arrest, the Pilgrims instead looked to the economic opportunities the New World offered them. And with English merchants already having financed numerous colonial settlements, the Pilgrims embraced not only the economic opportunities afforded them but the ability to continue to freely worship and to preserve their and their children's English identity.
And after receiving a patent from the Virginia Company to establish a settlement within its jurisdiction, the Merchant Adventurers...a group of 70 London businessmen...supplied the capital needed to finance the Pilgrims quest and did so by purchasing shares in a joint-stock company. The backers paid for the Mayflower, its crew, and a year’s worth of supplies, and in return the Pilgrims were required to work for the company during their first seven years in America. But even here the Pilgrims saw economic pluses because every colonist over the age of 16 would be receiving one stock share for their having emigrating to America and working the land...land which would then be theirs along with any future profits garnered after their seven-year contract was up.
Life in the new Plymouth colony was hard and it took years for the Pilgrim's investors to garner any profits at all, while it took the Pilgrims until 1648 to pay off their debt. And besides, by the early 1630s the Puritans had established the more successful Massachusetts Bay Colony, where by 1691 the two colonies, together with other lesser colonies, merged to form the Province of Massachusetts Bay. So why even mention the Puritans then? Because it was the Puritans not the Pilgrims who came to America solely for religious reasons, and it's the Puritans religious tenets that Thanksgiving really emanates from.
How so? First, it's important to know that while the Puritans believed they could still live the “congregational way” within their local churches as per their own ecclesiastical tenets and do so without having to completely cut ties with the newly established Church of England, the Pilgrims believed that any membership in or dealings with said church violated biblical precepts for true Christians, thus causing a permanent riff between the two groups. And second, while the economics of poverty was the driving force that drove the Pilgrims to America, the Puritans, who were not poverty stricken, saw investment opportunities in owning land in America and believed that by being far away from England they could bring people to what they considered to be the “ideal English church.”
Simply, the Puritans were religious missionaries with conversion on their minds who came to the New World “with money and resources and divinely ordained arrogance,” while the Pilgrims were more accepting of religious tolerance thanks to their time spent in Leiden. To the Puritans their and their church's way alone was the only right way to salvation, and so it remained.
So how do these religious differences between the Pilgrims and the Puritans affect the story of Thanksgiving? First, know that in no way do these differences negate the basic premise of the first Thanksgiving being a “Harvest Feast.” Said feast did indeed take place but not in November as Thanksgiving is celebrated today but in October, with it lasting three days and being attended by 90 Wampanoac Indians and 53 Pilgrims. But still some minor revisions to the story are needed. Yes, the Wampanoac, who for generations already had harvests feasts of their own, “broke bread” with the Pilgrims, but little known is that this particular feast had as much to do with a peace treaty being made between two nations...England and the Wampanoac nation...as it did with the harvest success of the now one-year old Plymouth colony itself.
How so? This can be explained in a letter written and sent to friend in England by aforementioned Mayflower passenger and feast attendee “E.W.” (Edward Winslow) who wrote: “And God be praised, we had a good increase...Our harvest being gotten in, our governor (William Bradford) sent four men on fowling that so we might after a special manner rejoice together...” and that, “These things I thought good to let you understand...that you might on our behalf give God thanks who hath dealt so favourably with us.”
This letter alone explains the reality and truths of the first Thanksgiving as it being but a simple harvest feast and the welcoming of peace between two peoples, which a later day poem and politics helped to morph into what has become a truly American holiday.
And that poem was Longfellow’s “The Courtship of Miles Standish” written in 1848, along with the 1855 recovery of Governor William Bradford’s lost journal “Of Plimoth Plantation,” both of which peeked public interest in the Pilgrims and the Wampanoac Indians...peeked that interest to where Thanksgiving as we know today became nationally important. And while the Continental Congress had proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving in 1777, it was not the joyous food-laden Thanksgiving we know today, but an austere and somewhat somber event where religious leaders recommended that “servile labor and such recreations (although at other times innocent) may be unbecoming the purpose of this appointment [and should] be omitted on so solemn an occasion.”
And those words were way more aligned with Puritan thinking than they were with thoughts of the Pilgrims. Remember, Puritan settlers in New England originally celebrated days of "thanksgiving" in prayer with food and feast playing little part, and yet they did give thanks to the “good Lord” for their successes in the New World.
Remember, it was not until the middle of the Civil War that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a National Thanksgiving Day, to be celebrated on the last Thursday of November 1863...which happened to be November 26th just as it is this year. Urged to do so by a series of editorials written by Sarah Josepha Hale, what Lincoln did with his proclamation was try to bring both families and a divided nation together, and he hoped to do so with something as simple as a meal shared and a joint prayer of thanks. Then in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the date up a week, setting Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November solely to lengthen the Christmas shopping season. But in 1941, Congress made it an official holiday, doing away with the what had been a required annual presidential decree.
And so this year as we celebrate Thanksgiving...albeit a covid-dictated one...we must not lose sight of the true meaning of Thanksgiving where we, as did the Pilgrims and Puritans, gather together with family and friends to share not just in nature's bounty but to thank God the Father for all He has bestowed upon us and upon our great nation.
And to that I say, amen.
Copyright © 2020 Diane Sori / The Patriot Factor / All rights reserved.
For more political commentary please visit my RIGHT SIDE PATRIOTS partner Craig Andresen's blog The National Patriot to read his latest article, Thanksgiving With Covid Stuffing.
Tomorrow, Tuesday, November 24th, from 7 to 9pm EST, RIGHT SIDE PATRIOTS Craig Andresen and Diane Sori discuss 'On Thanksgiving'; 'Thanksgiving With Covid Stuffing'; and important news of the day.
Hope you can tune in to RIGHT SIDE PATRIOTS on rspradio1.com. Click 'LISTEN LIVE' starting at 6:50 pm EST with the show beginning at 7pm EST.
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