Where Did the Pilgrims Get the Idea of Thanksgiving?

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Nov 27, 2013 No Comments ›› John Eidsmoe

Where Did the Pilgrims Get the Idea of Thanksgiving?

Last Monday, as I returned to Alabama from our annual Plymouth Rock Foundation Board meeting in Massachusetts, I read a most interesting book: Making Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World, A New History by Nick Bunker (Vintage Books 2011). Although his thesis is not really new, he articulates and documents it well, and I recommend it highly.

For most of us, our knowledge of the Pilgrims begins with the 1620 voyage of the Mayflower and ends with the Thanksgiving feast around October 1621. Bunker believes that in order to understand the Pilgrims and their significance for America, we need to study their story in England and Holland before they crossed the Atlanta, and their lives afterward as well.

We can trace them to their Puritan origins. After the Elizabethan Settlement which established official status of the Church of England (also called Anglican or Episcopal), some believed the Church was too lenient on matters of doctrine and morality. The Puritans, you will recall, wanted to “purify” the Church, converting or eliminating those who were not sufficiently Protestant or sufficiently Calvinist. With Queen Elizabeth’s reluctant consent, they did succeed in getting the Church to adopt the Thirty-Nine Articles of Calvinism.

But some considered these efforts futile. These Christians shared the Puritans’ Calvinist convictions, and they agreed that the Church of England was too lenient in doctrine and morality. But they believed purifying the Church was a lost cause, and they wanted to separate from the Church of England and establish their own church. For this they were called Dissenters or Separatists, and they suffered much persecution. King James I said of the future Pilgrims, “I will make them conform themselves, or else I will harry them out of the land.” These Separatists determined that they must leave England, so they traveled to the Netherlands, and then returned to England to sail to North America. Hence they became Pilgrims.

But to truly understand these Pilgrims, Bunker says, we need to look beyond Puritanism and Calvinism. We need to look back to the Old Testament as interpreted by Jews of the Middle Ages. The Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, aka Maimonides (1135-1204) was a true renaissance man, a Bible scholar, jurist, scientist, economist, astronomer, and mathematician. Respected by Jews, Christians, and even Muslims, Maimonides taught that the Old Testament narratives, while literally true, had symbolic meanings for other ages. The richness of words of the Hebrew text, he said, is evidenced by the fact that when the Hebrew Old Testament is translated into Greek, several Greek words are needed to bring out the full meaning of one Hebrew word. As Bunker says, “For the rabbis, everything in the Bible had a connection to everything else. They compared the task of looking for the Word of God to the hard labor of dropping a bucket into a very deep well and then lifting it back by arduous effort.”

Christian Bible scholars of the Roman Catholic Church, and especially those of the Reformation, studied and absorbed Maimonides’s writings with enthusiasm. “For a Christian,” Bunker says, “each of [the Old Testament] stories cold be read as a forecast, an anticipation or a prophecy of the ultimate truth of the Gospel. Jonah in the belly of the whale foreshadowed, for example, the descent of Christ into hell between the afternoon of Good Friday and the Sunday morning of resurrection. To this way of thinking, when the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, they enacted in advance the passage of a Christian soul to salvation. In the wilderness, God gave the Israelites manna to eat. It symbolized the bread of life, the body of Christ, or the Eucharist granted to the faithful at the Last Supper.”

The Hebrew word midbar, translated “wilderness,” had special significance for the Pilgrims. When the term is used in the Bible, it commonly denotes a cursed or undesirable condition: Edom shall be a desolate wilderness (Joel 3:19), “I will make the wilderness a pool of water” (Isaiah 41:18), “I will plant in the wilderness a cedar” (Isaiah 41:19), “I will even make a way in the wilderness” (Isaiah 43:19). But wilderness was also a place of refuge and instruction: In Exodus 2-3 Moses fled to the wilderness where he grew and learned, and in Revelation 12:6 the woman and child fled to the wilderness for refuge from the dragon.

In just this way, the Pilgrims and Puritans saw the North American wilderness as a place of danger, teaming with savages, wild beasts, dreadful winters, and demonic powers. But they also saw the wilderness as a place of refuge from the Church of England, a place where they could build and grow, a place where they could spread the Gospel and build a new Jerusalem, a holy commonwealth, the community of the redeemed under the rulership of the elect.

But in order to reach the wilderness of the West, the Pilgrims must first cross the ocean. And as Bunker says, “The sea was a fertile symbol. On the face of the waters, men found redemption and terror alike. Encircling the earth, without end or beginning, unknowably deep, a source of life and wealth, but also an instrument of punishment, the ocean evoked the majesty of God, the unfathomable power of Calvin’s divinity. For his own just purposes, God made the sea the home of monsters and devils, still believed by many to be the cause of hurricanes and storms. Inconstant, uncertain, ebbing and flowing, sometimes placed but often deadly, the ocean signified the sinful world of men, filled with unseen hazards. In the voyage of life, the soul must steer between the ands of self-love, the gulf of intemperance, and the rock of blasphemy. Sitting on the rock were mermaids, symbols of lust and earthly pleasure.”

The voyage to America thus took on eternal significance. “A ship was more than a wooden hull, topped by masts and rigging, propelled by canvas filled with moving air. She was an image of the true Church, the Church Militant, carrying as ballast the fear of God. Her sails represented faith, her masts were the cross of Christ, and the wind that blew her forward was the Holy Spirit. Her cannons were the Ten Commandments, her helm was conscience, and her compass was the Bible. A tempest symbolized the persecution of the godly, and the leaks in her planks were the wounds in the flanks of the Church caused by heresy and schism.”

No one appreciated the dangers of the voyage more than John Howland. A youth of about 18, he was washed overboard by a tempest and faced the prospect of drowning alone in the vast uncharted waters. But by Divine Providence he managed to grab a rope that trailed the ship, and the crew was able to haul him back on board. He survived, and he became a respected member of the Plymouth community, working as Assistant to the Governor, managing the Colony’s trading post at Kennebec, Maine, and serving as a leader in the Pilgrim church. Marrying Elizabeth Tilley and fathering ten children and probably having more descendents than any other Pilgrim, he lived to about age 80 and was the next to last man of the original Pilgrims to die. In his library was a copy of Henry Ainsworth’s Annotations upon the Five Books of Moses, a scholarly work describing many of the metaphors and allegories I have described above. When John Howland thought about his salvation through the saving grace of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit bringing saving faith to him, he must have thought often of those moments in the frigid Atlantic, being dragged to safety by a power not his own.

The Pilgrims saw their journey to America not just as an economic venture, but as part of the journey of life. Half of them died that first winter, but during that dark winter their Christian character shown brightly. Out of 102 colonists, only six or seven were strong enough to move about, but those hardy souls “spared no pains night nor day, but with abundance of toil and hazard of their health, fetched them wood, made them fires, dressed them meat, made their beds, washed their loathsome clothes clothed and unclothed them; in a word, did all the homely and necessary offices for them which dainty and queasy stomachs cannot endure to hear named; and all this willingly and cheerfully, without any grudging in the least, showing herein their true love unto their friends and brethren. A rare example and worthy to be remembered.”

The next year was better, but still they faced drought and shortages. But Bradford was very well-versed in the Old Testament, and he know of the Hebrew celebrations of thanksgiving. And around October 1621 “they set a part a solemn day of humiliation to seek the Lord by humble & fervent prayer, in this great distress. And he was pleased to give them a gracious & speedy answer, both to their own & the Indians admiration, that lived amongst them. For all the morning, and greatest part of the day, it was dear weather & very hot, and not a cloud or any sign of rain to be seen, yet toward evening it began to overcast, and shortly after to rain, with such sweet and gentle showers, as gave them cause of rejoicing, & blessing God. It came, without either wind, or thunder, or any violence, and by degrees in that abundance, as that the earth was thoroughly wet and soaked therewith. Which did so apparently revive & quicken the decayed corn & other fruits, as was wonderful to see, and made the Indians astonished to behold.”

But only after they abandoned the communal living which the Virginia Company had forced upon them and assigned individual plots of land so that each person could profit from his or her own labor did the colony finally become prosperous.

As we look to the Pilgrims this Thanksgiving, may we not only be thankful for all God has given us; may we also see our journey through life, and that of our nation through history, as a journey of eternal spiritual significance. And as we feast to celebrate God’s bounty, as those Pilgrims did of old with far less abundance than we have today, may we truly be thankful to the great Jehovah, the Source of all spiritual, civil, and material blessings.

Nick Bunker, Making Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World, A New History (Vintage Books 2011) p. 61.
Bunker pp. 61-62.
Bunker p. 64.
Bunker pp. 64-65.
William Bradford, Of Plimoth Plantation (1600s; Boston: Wright & Porter Printing, 1901) p. 111.
Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims of Plymouth (Plymouth, MA: Plymouth Rock Foundation, 1985) pp. 170-71.

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