On the first Thanksgiving – Part II

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In Part I we talked about “the feelings of any pilgrim setting out for any ‘new world,'” often a time of high hopes and nothing by smooth sailing, before reality sets in and the real work begins.

A part of that reality setting in involves one of the Mayflower passengers – John Howland – falling overboard during the voyage, at a time of particular weather distress; “winds so fierce and the seas so high,” as discussed further in the notes below.

But even before leaving for the New World on the Mayflower in 1620, the Pilgrim leaders had to consider what they might find when they got there (here), things like the “savage and brutish men” said to live in America, and their possible tortures.

Thus on the one hand the Pilgrims faced the prospect of going to America only to be flayed alive “with the shells of fishes,” after capture and torture by the natives.  On the other hand, they could stay in Holland, which at the time was threatened with invasion by Spain, then the most powerful empire in the world.  Thus to the Pilgrims, the “cruel Spaniards” were arguably as bad as the New World’s “savage and brutish men.”

A side note:  Before going to America, the Pilgrims spent some years in Holland, trying to escape persecution from “the Established Church” in England.  Yet even though the Netherlands offered tolerance and security, there were some troubling issues aside from the threat of invasion by Spain, which then owned Holland as a colony:

The Netherlands was … a land whose culture and language were strange and difficult for the English congregation to understand or learn.  They found the Dutch morals much too libertine.  Their children were becoming more and more Dutch as the years passed by.  The congregation came to believe that they faced eventual extinction if they remained there. (E.A.)

See Pilgrim Fathers – Wikipedia.  So one of the Pilgrim Fathers – William Bradford, who ultimately served 30 years as Governor of the Plymouth Colony – thought long and hard about the dilemma they faced.  He came up with the following advice, which could stand us in good stead “even to this day:”

All great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and must be both enterprised and overcome with answerable courages.   The dangers were great, but not desperate; the difficulties were many, but not invincible.   For though there were many of them likely, yet they were not certain; it might be sundry of the things feared might never befall; others with provident care and the use of good means might in a great measure be prevented; and all of them, through the help of God, by fortitude and patience, might either be borne or overcome.   Such attempts were not to be made or undertaken without good ground and reason; not rashly or lightly as many have done for curiosity or hope of gain.    But their condition was not ordinary; their ends were good and honorable, their calling lawful, and urgent; and therefore they might expect the blessing of God in their proceeding.

Thus Bradford’s answer: Do the best you can, and – after taking all due and sensible precautions – trust God to help you with the rest.  Some of those bad things might not happen, and some bad things might be prevented with foresight and preparation.  Then too, if you’re “on a mission from God,” you might reasonably expect His help.

Or it could be summed up this way, “If it was easy, anybody could do it!”  And here’s another BTW:   History.com had this to say: “Lacking the dogmatic temper and religious enthusiasm of the Puritans of the Great Migration, Bradford steered a middle course for Plymouth Colony…”

Which is another way of saying the Pilgrims who founded Plymouth Colony were way different from the Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  For more on the differences see Plymouth Colony and Massachusetts Bay Colony.

But again we digress…  The point is that after a treacherous ocean crossing – with incidents like the one shown above involving John Howland – the Pilgrims finally arrived at the New-World Promised Land, as memorialized by soon-to-be Governor Bradford, who wrote this account of their landing a year before that first Thanksgiving,  in his classic Of Plymouth Plantation:

“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 the perils and miseries thereof, again to set their feet on the firm and stable earth.” (E.A.)

Wikipedia added that the “passengers who had endured miserable conditions for about sixty-five days were led by William Brewster in Psalm 100 as a prayer of thanksgiving.”

But even then their ordeal was far from over. 102 people landed in November 1620 on the Mayflower, but in the year between that 1620 landing and the first Thanksgiving in November 1621, 49 of the original 102 died.  That is, only 53 of the original Mayflower passengers survived that first year, and of the 18 adult women who came over on the Mayflower, only four survived that first year in much-vaunted, much-anticipated “New World.”

As Wikipedia noted, “During the worst of the sickness, only six or seven of the group were able and willing to feed and care for the rest.”  Then too the colonists had to let the graves in the new cemetary “overgrow with grass for fear the Indians would discover how weakened the settlement had actually become.”

So freedom isn’t free, and it isn’t cheap either.  Sometimes the price is paid in human lives,  military and civilian.  See also Thanksgiving (United States) – Wikipedia, which detailed reality setting in and the real work beginning.   For one thing, “Squanto, a Patuxet Native American … taught the Pilgrims how to catch eel and grow corn.”  (Mmmmm.  Squanto also served as an interpreter, having learned English during his travels in England.)  “Additionally the Wampanoag leader Massasoit had donated food stores to the fledgling colony during the first winter when supplies brought from England were insufficient.”

So somehow the fledgling band of colonists survived, and celebrated their first Thanks-giving:

The first Thanksgiving feast lasted three days, providing enough food for 53 Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans.  The feast consisted of fish (cod, eels, and bass) and shellfish (clams, lobster, and mussels), wild fowl (ducks, geese, swans, and turkey), venison, berries and fruit, vegetables (peas, pumpkin, beetroot and possibly, wild or cultivated onion), harvest grains (barley and wheat), and the Three Sisters: beans, dried Indian maize or corn, and squash.

Which brings us back to pilgrimages in general, and to “St. James the Greater”, the patron saint of pilgrims and pilgrimages.  The post on St. James included this:  “In the spiritual literature of Christianity, the concept of pilgrim and pilgrimage may refer to the experience of life in the world (considered as a period of exile) or to the inner path of the spiritual aspirant from a state of wretchedness to a state of beatitude.”

So you could say that – in a sensewe’re all Pilgrims

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For more on John Howland see the web article, Biographies – Society of Mayflower Descendants. It noted that Howland arrived as a servant to John Carver, the first Governor of Plymouth Colony, yet went on to sign the Mayflower Compact (see below).  He went on to serve the colony as selectman, assistant and deputy governor, and surveyor of highways, and died “over 80” in 1672 (no one was quite sure when he was born).  But that long and productive life was almost cut short on the voyage over, in 1620, as described by Governor Bradford:

“In sundry of these storms the winds were so fierce and the seas so high, as they could not bear a knot of sail…   And in one of them … a lusty young man called John Howland, coming upon some occasion above the gratings was … thrown into the sea; but it pleased God that he caught hold of the topsail halyards which hung overboard…   Yet he held his hold [and] got into the ship again[,] his life saved.   And though he was something ill with it, yet he lived many years after and became a profitable member both in church and commonwealth.”

The lower image is courtesy of Thanksgiving – Wikipedia, with the caption, “Jennie Augusta BrownscombeThe First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, 1914, Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Massachusetts.”

Note that Psalm 100 is a short (five verse) psalm of ardent thanksgiving: “Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all ye lands.  Serve the LORD with gladness: come before his presence with singing…    For the LORD is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endureth to all generations.”  (That was from the King James Version, the one God uses, as did the original Pilgrims.) 

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Here’s how Governor Bradford described the first Thanksgiving, in Of Plymouth Plantation::

They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty.  For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion.  All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees).  And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc.  Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to the proportion.  Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.

Note also that shortly after they made landfall in the New World, the colonists wrote the Mayflower Compact, “the first written framework of government established in what is now the United States.”  The compact (or agreement), “signed by 41 English colonists on the ship Mayflower on November 11, 1620 … was drafted to prevent dissent amongst Puritans and non-separatist Pilgrims who had landed at Plymouth a few days earlier.”  (The passengers on the ship included a number of adventurers who were not “Pilgrims.”)  See Mayflower Compact – Facts & Summary – HISTORY.com, and also Mayflower Compact – Wikipedia.

The notes in the post on St. James included a reference to the book Passages of the Soul[:] Ritual Today, by James Roose-Evans (Element Books Ltd. 1994), which noted that a pilgrimage “may be described as a ritual on the move,”  and that in doing so – that is through “the raw experience of hunger, cold, lack of sleep” – we can quite often find a sense of our fragility as mere human beings, especially when compared with the majesty and permanence of God and His creation.   The book said such a pilgrimage can be  “one of the most chastening, but also one of the most liberating” of personal experiences,” and closed with a picture of Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, asking:

“So, punk, do you feel like getting chastened and liberated?”

 (Image courtesy of Dirty Harry – Wikipedia.)

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