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The story of a thankful people
An essay by Bryan J. Black

“They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God… I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States… 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.” - ABRAHAM LINCOLN

I felt it necessary to compose this essay in the hope to lay aside some of the ignorance or at least some of the unawareness that surrounds our beloved holiday, Thanksgiving. However, I wish not to bore you with a chain of nutritional-anthropological factoids; as if it were relevant to know whether or not the pilgrims eat pumpkin pie and turkey at this famed first feast. Nor do I wish to lie upon you excessive background coverage of the various cultures involved; regardless of it’s importance that information tends to be – well, tiresome and difficult to follow. I simply wish to point out God’s unfailing provision throughout the Pilgrims’ adventures, as well as the their thankfulness, faith and trust in God.

Ye Olde Tradition

As with many traditions, there beginnings are very much different than there modern-day counterparts. This truly American holiday is just that, truly American. Our current day celebration was compiled from pieces of our culture from virtually every era of our history: something of which we can truly be proud and call our own.

Our modern day observance couldn’t be more different than what the pilgrims unwittingly began almost four hundred years ago.  However, a vain of true thankfulness has survived to this day. While some see it as a day off to bring upon them-selves a deluge of food and football, others hold true to the meaning of the day and are thankful. In order to continue in the tradition of the pilgrims we need to understand the pilgrims and who they were. Please understand the thankfulness of the pilgrims did not begin in the fall of 1621, nor is that where it ended. Their story began fifteen years earlier and is filled with tragedy, faith, undying devotion and the unfailing providence of God. All this will testify to the fact that the pilgrims were truly and always a thankful people.

In the Beginning

I find this story especially curious for me to write. It might be fun for you to learn that I am a direct descendant, a grandson of two of the men who voyaged on the Mayflower, John Alden and Miles Standish. Though they joined the pilgrim congregation late in their travels, they became greatly beloved of them. I am honored to be of their blood.

To speak of such events one must start where all stories start – the beginning, and this we find in England, circa 1606. Scrooby was a place where three counties met; Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire. The humble Idle stream fed into the Trent River with Sherwood forest to the south. It was simple farm country and often muddy. Theses English midlands, which has hardly changed since the middle ages, was home to the core group who would lead the pilgrims to the new world.

Some seventy years earlier the reformation began its mark on the English countryside. With it, brought much change, much division and much violence. The decision was laid before all people: stay loyal to the Church of England or become a “Separatist” and risk becoming ostracized by your fellow countryman. The haunting similarities would be felt by mid eighteenth century patriots who began the American Revolution. But for now no such notion of a free nation existed in the minds of seventeenth century Englishmen, only the choice to follow God or follow the king.

In the modest Surroundings of Scrooby was found one William Brewster, a courageous Cambridge trained theologian. Brewster, along with Richard Clyfton, John Robinson and William Bradford (The great historian) were to later become known as the Pilgrim Fathers. “In about 1606, on William Brewster’s invitation the church at Scrooby was formally organized as a separatist congregation” (Hodgson 23).

Upon learning of the separation from the “Official Church” by the congregation at Scrooby, the archbishop of York set his hand against them. He demanded religious obedience and when compliance was rejected he fined Brewster and some others twenty pounds, which was about a year’s pay. The harassment escalated and became unbearable so that “They could not long continue in any peaceable condition, but were hunted and persecuted on every side… some were taken and clapped up in prison, others had their houses beset and watched day and night…and most were fain to flee” (Bradford 10).

Less than a year after the Scrooby congregation was organized it became clear to Brewster that they had no alternative but to leave.

“They did not go because of persecutions, or even fear of persecutions, but because it was plain that Tobias Mathew, the new archbishop of York, was determined to destroy their church. For them the supreme purpose, which they believed to have been ordained by God, was to keep their congregation together as a church to worship God in their own way” (Hodgson 33).

We are taught in our schools that the Pilgrims left England because they sought religious freedom. That, of course, in a sense is true, but the truth is that they left in order to stay obedient to God.

Now that the decision had been made to leave the easy part was over. One didn’t simply leave England, a license was required and this was not easily obtained, especially for a separatist.

Holland was known as a place that was friendly to English separatists. There were some puritan congregations already settled there. Yet, Scrooby puritans knew this by hearsay only.  All that was familiar to them would need to be left behind. They chose to leave family, friends, lands and possessions, they new not how to earn a living in that foreign place.

They were not acquainted with trades nor traffic (by which that country doth subsist), but had only been used to a plain country life and the innocent trade of husbandry… But these things did not dismay them, though did sometimes trouble them; for their desires were set on the ways of God and to enjoy His ordinances; but they rested on His providences and knew whom they had believed (Bradford 11).

The decision was made to leave for Amsterdam. Those who owned homes secretly sold them, though most were tenants. They sold all their possessions and pooled their money in order to pay for the expensive trip across the North Sea.

The Flight From England

Bradford recorded only two instances of their flight from England. He said, “And yet were they often times betrayed, many of them; and both they and their goods intercepted and surprised. And thereby put to great trouble and charge, of which I will give an instance or two and omit the rest.” There’s no telling how many attempts were made, but it is important to know that God not only sustained them but re-supplied them as well.

Brewster made arrangements with a captain of a ship who could make their voyage. They secretly left their homes and took inconspicuous paths to the harbor of Boston at Lincolnshire. “After great expense and long waiting by night they and their goods boarded the ship.” But all was for not, you see the captain, a fellow countryman, clandestinely conspired to betray them and that he did. They were arrested and dragged into open boats. And the officers “rifled and ransacked them, searching to their shirts for money, yea even the women further than became modesty; and then carried them back into the town and made them a spectacle and wonder to the multitude which came flocking on all sides to behold them” (Bradford 12).

The magistrates showed them what courtesies they could but the orders came from the counsel table in London. After a month in prison they were dismissed and delivered to their hometown. All were freed but seven, including William Brewster who was bound over to the assizes (criminal court) and kept in prison. They were eventually set free on bail, which seems to me to be an exceedingly difficult thing to do for a group of people who had just recently been stripped of all they had.

Now the pilgrims found them selves back in Scrooby, penniless and without goods. Yet, God had found in them the faith to keep His will. For it was the next spring when Brewster – for whom God had recently provided bail money, had found a Dutchman, a captain of a ship who promised to be more faithful than the former.  He agreed to meet them between Grimsby and Hull far from any town. But this time the party (about 50 – 60 in all) split and the women and children with the goods hired a small bark to float them down the Trent, then eventually to the Humber River to where they would meet the men who traveled the forty miles overland.

The women arrived a day early and were very sick due to the roughness of the bay. They pleaded with the seamen to put into a creek. Thus they found themselves stranded in the mud due to the rapidly declining tide. Upon arriving the men could do nothing but walk about the shore.

The Dutch captain persuaded the men to come aboard for he “espied a great multitude both horse and foot with bills and guns and other weapons, for the country was raised to take them” (Bradford 13). This mob was most likely bounty hunters of sort and more after money or favor with the bishops than grievances over religious observances. Yet nonetheless, it was an armed mob coming for them. The Dutchman, after seeing that and because of a favorable wind, weighed anchor and hoisted his sails.

But the poor men which were got aboard were in great distress for their wives and children which they saw thus to be taken, and were left destitute of their helps; and themselves also, not having a cloth to shift them with, more than they had on their backs, [a change of cloths] and some scarce a penny about them, all they had being aboard the bark. It drew tears from their eyes, and anything they had they would have given to have them ashore again; but all in vain, there was no remedy, they must thus sadly part.  (Bradford 13)

Now the men torn of heart for their wives and children soon to be beset by the mob had now found themselves in the midst of the most violent of storms. For fourteen days they were thrown about the great North Sea. The mariners of the ship began to throw overboard all they could, for they were sinking. “The water ran into their mouths and ears and the mariners cried out ‘We sink, We sink…’ But when man’s hope and help whole failed, the Lord’s power and mercy appeared in their recovery; for the ship rose again” (Bradford 13). And in no small part was due to the faith of the men aboard; the very men who grieve the unknown circumstances of their loved ones are now proclaiming their faith to the mariners “Yet the Lord can save!”

Upon the recovery of the ship those aboard described a comforting beyond understanding. Then also the storm began to lessen. The ship arrived safely some days later in Amsterdam.

The women and children who were left in England with some of the men including William Brewster, their elder, and John Robinson, their pastor, were once again ransacked and imprisoned. But this time they were passed from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and thus becoming an embarrassment to the magistrates were eventually let free. The miraculous providence of God once again proved true for they found themselves penniless and without provision yet they made it across the North Sea to be reunited with the rest of their party.

A Thankful Reunion

The joy of the reunion was immeasurable. Bradford recorded the event with these simple words, “there was no small rejoicing.” The last these lost women saw of their men was from a stranded bark under siege with no notion of a reunion; yet now how great the gratitude, how infections the relief upon the sight of each other. What can a man do but weep with joy upon his child’s embrace after so long a separation. The thanks and praise that went before God that day should evoke us to envy that Gods will should come to pass in our lives as in theirs. For it was God’s will that they stay together, and they sought hard after the ways of God, so regardless of their turmoil God’s will came to pass.

The New Beginning

Now our brave congregation had found themselves once again without money or goods, poised to receive from God. For God had set their foot in the wealthiest city in Europe. Amsterdam had a large labor market ready to employ. Though the Pilgrims lacked the skills that commanded the best pay, they were able to work immediately at very low wages. “They” said William Bradford, “saw the grim and grisly face of poverty coming upon them like an armed man… from whom they could not fly.”

I greatly admire the pilgrims for they saw great joy followed by such great distress, and yet never blamed God nor questioned their faith but only pushed harder for the ways of God, for they knew in whom they have believed.

Amsterdam was a place of great worldly temptations. They referred to it as “modern Babylon”. There were three other separatist congregations in Amsterdam and not all of them held to the standard of Christian ethics. There were quarrels over what some called “immodest dress” by some women. It was clear the Dutch culture was invading the church. There was sin in the church including frank charges of “sexual misconduct” (Sprunger).

Twelve Years  

After less then a year they left Amsterdam and went to Leiden, a place that Bradford called a “fair and beautiful city.” It is interesting to note that the twelve years the pilgrims spent in Holland was the same time as the war between Spain and England called a “twelve-year truce”. It would seem that God had placed the Pilgrims in a land that was free from war; but with that truce almost at an end they felt the pressure to once again leave.

There also arose great arguments between strict Calvinists, who say salvation is a matter of predestination of the elect and the damnation of the rest, and the Armenians. This term “Armenians” suffers from a multiple meaning disorder; however, in “Leiden, when the Pilgrims were there, it meant the followers of Jacobus Harmenszoon, or Arminius. Who argued the more compassionate case that Christ had died on the cross for all men” (Hodgson 41).  This bitter argument became so tense that following a sham trial Johan Van Oldenbarnefeldt was beheaded for his Armenian belief.

The small Pilgrim congregation tried to keep to themselves and stay out of the controversial affair. Furthermore, William Brewster found himself hunted by the king’s officers after printing some books that spoke unfavorably of King James, which forced him into hiding.

There came to be many reasons that would argue for departure, and none would be taken lightly. One of the most compelling reasons was the Dutch influence on their children. They felt that the “free living” lifestyle of the Dutch would ultimately pollute the church – they feared cultural assimilation. Also, with the threat of war looming, a peaceable lifestyle would be unlikely. Curiously, they also felt they could not affectively win anyone to Christ if war reduced them to living in poverty. Their minds were not so much on their own condition but on the condition of the souls they wished to reach, thus their emigration to the New World was inevitable.

William Bradford recorded in his journal the reasons for the leaving, among them he wrote:

Lastly and which was not least, a great hope and inward zeal they had of laying some good foundations, or at least to make some way thereunto, for the propagating and advancing of the gospel of Christ in those remote parts of the world.

 You see, the pilgrims had heard of the great and terrible stories of the New World, the troubles at Jamestown, the lost colony of Roanoke and several others. In spite of that they decided to make the move to the New World. They felt with the coming war their condition would be the same in Holland as in the Americas. The difference being witnessing Christ to the “Savages” (Native Americans), whom they held in great respect, would be easer than witnessing to the culturally minded Europeans.

A Missions Trip

We tend to think of the Pilgrims as escaping the soon-to-be war torn countryside of Europe. The great scholar of New England culture, Perry Miller, saw it differently. Referring to a sermon delivered in 1670 by Rev. Samuel Danforth he writes:

The bay Colony was not a battered remnant of suffering Separatists thrown up on the rocky shore; it was an organized task force of Christians, executing a flank attack on the corruptions of Christendom. These Puritans did not flee to America; they went to work out that complete reformation which was not yet accomplished in England and in Europe.

I believe the Pilgrims’ missionary work was the most profound God has ever anointed, for see, what great a nation has sprung from such a humble and obedient people.

Preparing to Leave

It was not an easy task to settle the New World. A lot of money provisions and permission was needed. The story of how they obtained all these things is long and tedious to tell. To sum it up, it took over two years of strenuous faith and amazing patience with many obstacles to overcome but God provided all that was needed.

A “favorable wind” sailed them from Amsterdam to Southampton England where they met up with another Puritan congregation who were to go with them. There were also some people who joined them whom Bradford called, “the strangers”. These were people who did not necessarily share the Pilgrims beliefs. They were folks looking for adventure and to turn a profit from the New World, a very risky proposition. Others were indentured servants and still others were simply looking for a new life.

This was the time when my grandfathers came aboard. Myles Standish was hired as the military leader of the expedition. Bradford described him as a short red headed man with a temper to match who wouldn’t think twice about removing your head if the situation called for it. Bradford cited John Alden, a coppersmith who was hired as the ship’s carpenter, as having such skill as to repair a main deck beam during a fierce storm. What’s curious about this mid-Atlantic repair was a passenger happened to have a six-inch screw, which made the repair possible. No one knows for sure who brought the screw but what we do know is one was need thus one was provided, thanks be to God.

To finance the exposition the Pilgrims sought the help of Thomas Weston, a wealthy London ironmonger and adventurer (investor), who proved to be an ally as well as a nuisance. With the help of Mr. Weston the Pilgrims were able to obtain a patent from the Virginia Company to settle north of the Jamestown settlement near Hudson Bay. Weston continually tried to change the terms of the contract and take advantage of the Pilgrims. After many bitter arguments Mr. Weston left them stranded at Southampton with no money to pay the port fee. They had to sell off sixty pounds worth of their cargo to clear the port. This left them very little butter and oil, and not a sole to repair a single shoe.

Fair Thee Well

The day came to set sail. Two ships were to make the trans Atlantic voyage, the Mayflower, a 180-ton cargo ship used to transport wine from France, and the Speedwell, which was the ship that sailed them from Holland to England.

Upon setting off from Southampton they almost immediately need to port at Dartmouth for the Speedwell began to leak. After repairs they set sail again. By the time they were 100 leagues (300 miles) past Lands End and well into the Atlantic, the Speedwell once again began to leak. She turned back and the Mayflower stayed course to the New World. Many believe, including Bradford, that the leaks were deliberate because the voyage was under supplied and began to late in the year. It was the beginning of September, when most mariners are looking for a safe harbor to winter, that the Pilgrims set sail to face the fierce North Atlantic waters.

At Sea

With all aboard and the remaining provisions from the Speedwell in the hold, they put to sea with a “prosperous wind”. With 102 passengers crammed in the “tween deck” along with some livestock and a shallop (a small boat) many soon fell to the usual manner and were afflicted with seasickness. William Bradford records this:

And I may not omit here a special work of God’s providence. There was a proud and very profane young man, one of the seamen, of a lusty, able body, which made him more haughty; he would always be contemning [treat with contempt] the poor people in their sickness and cursing them daily with grievous execrations; and did not let to tell them that he hoped to help cast half of them overboard before they came to their journey’s end, and make merry with what they had; most bitterly. But it pleased God before they came half seas over, to smite this young man with a grievous disease, of which he died in a desperate manner, and so was himself the first thrown overboard.

As for the pilgrims that were packed in the hold of a ship for 65 days, no disease fell upon them. Because the Mayflower had been a transporter of wine, the spillage that commonly happened soaked the beams of the lower decks acting as an antiseptic.

The New World at Last

On November 9th, 1620, they arrived at Cape Cod. Now, realizing they had not landed at Hudson they turned south, but upon running into rough waters they turned back and rounded the tip of Cape Cod. But landing here would nullify the patent they obtained from the Virginia Company for the north was owned by the Plymouth Company; thus a governmental document would need to be drawn that all would agree to live by; for not all aboard were of the mind of the Leiden Pilgrims.

“The text Known as the Mayflower Compact has been extravagantly hailed as one of the founding texts of American democracy” (Hodgson 74). John Quincy Adams called it “perhaps the only instance in human history of that positive social compact that speculative philosophers have imagined as the only legitimate source of government.” However all that aside, these people were not founding a nation. They were merely trying to hold this group of people together by use of a covenant.

Regardless of what nation loyalties are pledged, and before a single foot touched this ground, these words were written before God.

“IN THE NAME OF GOD, AMEN… Having undertaken for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith and honour of our king and country a voyage to plant the first colony… ” (The Mayflower Compact)

It went on to say many other things but I simply wanted to point out that the first colony to truly thrive and become those that brought forth this nation was done in the name of God. All the men aboard including my grandfathers, singed this document and after chose John Carver, a godly man, as their governor. Then, with much toil they landed at Plymouth.

The Starving Time

It was about the end of December by the time the Pilgrims and provisions were moved off the Mayflower. They built several small homes, shacks really, and established the colony. Not all could stay in the colony for not enough shelters could be built. Some had to go back aboard the Mayflower which was anchored 1.5 nautical miles from Plymouth due to the shallowness of the bay.

“But that which was most sad and lamentable was, that in two or three months’ time half of their company died” (Bradford 77). A terrible outbreak of scurvy and other diseases had swept through the camp that their “inaccommodate condition brought upon them”. All but seven were afflicted with these diseases. Out of the 102 Pilgrims, only about 50 survived. And of seven men, Bradford said this…

But with abundance of toil and hazard of their own health, fetched them wood made them fires, dressed them meat, made their beds, washed their loathsome cloths, clothed and unclothed them. In a word, did all the homely and necessary offices for them which dainty and queasy stomachs cannot endure to here 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. Two of these seven were Mr. Brewster, their reverend Elder, and Myles Standish, their Captain and military commander, unto whom myself and many others were much beholden in our low and sick condition.

Winter became spring and with it new hope for they met someone whom they had not expected, an Indian named Squanto who spoke perfect English. Bradford called him “a gift from God.” Squanto and his tribe showed the Pilgrims how to plant, fish and trap in this New World, in essence, how to survive. Squanto dedicated the rest of his life to the pilgrims.

A Thankful People

The myth about Thanksgiving is that this was the day they gave thanks to God. They of course did give thanks to God that day but thanking and praising God was their way of life; no special day was required, yet they gave one anyway. They did not of course say among themselves – let us make a day that for generations to come will remember what God did here, they were far to humble a people to think like that. Yet by their life and love for the ways of God they did just that.

My hope for you this Thanksgiving is to remember the year past with the most grateful of heart but give the loudest praise for the year to come for we know not the soul to be saved by our simple obedience.

On this most Christian of Holidays, enjoy your family and friends in the giving of thanks. I wish for you to remember and emulate to what lengths the Pilgrims went in order to keep the ways of God; for they, through their troubles on the land and their perils on the seas and in the deep of winters chill, remained a thankful people.


  1. Bradford, William, Of Plymouth Plantation: 1620-1647, ed. by Samuel E. Morison (1952)
  2. Saga of the Pilgrims by Harris, J. (1990)
  3. A Great and Godly Adventure, by Godfrey Hodgson (2006)
  4. Keith L. Sprunger, Dutch Puritanism: A History of the English and Scottish Churches of the Netherlands in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Leiden: Brill. 1982)
  5. Perry Miller, Errand into the wilderness (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1956), II


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