Exactly 400 years ago, English settlers held what is widely known in American history as “The First Thanksgiving.” On the shores of Plymouth Bay, the Pilgrims sat down to an extravagant meal along with the neighboring Wampanoag tribe (who greatly assisted the Pilgrims in establishing their colony) to celebrate and give thanks for the abundant harvest of that year. English settlers and Indians alike feasted on venison, corn, fowl, and countless other dishes for several days in harmony and with gratitude.
While it may seem that everything was right as rain in the young settlement, the beginning of Plymouth Colony was far from picturesque.
In 1620, 102 pilgrims — including my ancestors William Bradford and Miles Standish (through marriage and blood, respectively) — set sail from England to escape government overreach within the Church of England. They arrived on the shores of Plymouth Bay on November 11 and shortly thereafter began to build a makeshift colony. From the onset, the pilgrims never lost sight of the God they believed in and His work in helping them travel safely:
“Being thus arrived in a good harbor, and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof, again to set their feet on the firm and stable earth, their proper element.” –Gov. William Bradford.
Unfortunately, the settlers’ thankfulness and faith would be tested as they had to contend with their first experience with the often unforgiving New England winters. Nearly half of the pilgrims died of sickness in the harsh conditions.
More likely would have died had the Wampanoags not intervened and assisted the Pilgrims in growing crops. According to Susan Fisk, director of communications for the Wisconsin-based Soil Society of America, the soil near the Plymouth colony was very sandy and not conducive to growing the crops the English were accustomed to. With the help of the Indians, the Pilgrims learned how to grow the “The Three Sisters” — pumpkins, corn, and beans — initiating what turned out to be a bountiful harvest after the first summer.
In fact, it was so plentiful that Edward Winslow wrote in a letter to a friend in England:
“And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”
Because of God’s providence, the Pilgrims were able to survive and lay the foundation for the America we know today. But why do we continue to carry on the tradition of the Thanksgiving meal? Is there any particular reason or need to set aside an entire day to give thanks to God?
The answer is a resounding yes, of course, but our thankfulness should not be evident only once a year.
Throughout every day, every year, there is something to be thankful for. But in life, it is so easy to get engulfed in routine, which in turn can get us wrapped in a pattern of ungratefulness that we easily lose sight of everything we’ve been given. Many of us — myself included — start to grow weary and begin to complain about the jobs we have, the houses we live in, not fulfilling our dreams quick enough, etc.
It is not that we have no reasons to be thankful or that we live in want, since even average Americans live like kings compared to most of the world. It is simply our sinful tendency to forget God’s goodness and complain and whine about what we do not have — look no further than the Israelites as the traveled to the Promised Land.
Our lack of thankfulness comes from focusing on temporary things that fail to bring us ultimate happiness, rather than focusing on an eternal God who provides us new mercies every morning.
Even if all physical comforts are stripped from us overnight, we worship a God who is all-powerful, has forgiven us of the eternal punishment our sins deserve, and who loves us everlastingly despite us continuously falling into sin. He values us over all of His creation, reminding us that if He takes care of little sparrows perfectly He will unfailingly do the same for us.
Just like with the Pilgrims, He is faithful to carry us through any storm, and my life is just one example of that. Throughout the past year alone, He has been with me and strengthened me through a broken elbow, moving six times, a major leg surgery, contracting COVID-19, finishing college, relational disappointment, sadness, anger, and a never-ending job search. He is faithful, and even through all of the storms of the past year, He has still given me so many reasons to be thankful.
Not to say that being thankful is easy, since it goes against our tendency to forget God’s goodness, and I by no means have mastered it. But if we try and walk with the Lord, each and every day, our hearts and minds will be renewed to have a heart full of thanksgiving.
John Piper once said, “Genuine thankfulness is an act of the heart’s affections, not an act of the lips’ muscles. It is not willed, but awakened. It is not a decision of the will, but a reflex of the heart.”
Today, and on each day for the rest of our lives, may we dedicate ourselves to being grateful people and honor the example the Pilgrims set for us: to give thanks and glory to the God who has delivered us.