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The Real Story Behind Thanksgiving

Give thanks unto the LORD, call upon his name, make known his deeds among the people.”  I Chronicles 16: 8

As our government often seems to be turning against America’s founding religious beliefs and principles, it is always good at Thanksgiving to remind ourselves of those basic foundations on which our great nation sits.  We here at the National Center for Life and Liberty fight for these founding principles and values every day in courtrooms and legislatures, but parents and churches need to take every opportunity available to instill these values into the next generation.

Most children today are being taught that Thanksgiving originated when the Pilgrims invited their Indian friends to dinner to thank them for their help in troubled times after the Mayflower landed—often with no mention at all of thanking God for His blessings. As with much of modern American revisionist history, there really is much more to this story.

A Tough Journey

The Atlantic crossing in the fall of 1620 had been an extremely difficult journey for the Pilgrims.  For two months, 102 people were wedged into what was called the “’tween decks”—the cargo space of the boat, which only had about five-and-a-half feet of headroom.  No one was allowed above deck because of the terrible storms.  This was no pleasure trip, but God sustained every one of the Pilgrims through the voyage.

God providentially protected His people.  A little-known fact about the Mayflower is that this ship normally carried a cargo of wine; and the wine spillage from previous voyages had soaked the beams, acting as a disinfectant to prevent the spread of disease. 

During one terrible storm, the main beam of the mast cracked.  Death was certain if this beam could not be repaired.  At that moment, the whole Pilgrim adventure could very easily have ended on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.  But, providentially, one of the Pilgrims had brought along a large iron screw, likely for a printing press.  That screw was used to repair the beam, saving the ship and all on board.

Being in God’s Will

After sixty-six days at sea, land was sighted off what is now Cape Cod, Massachusetts.  But that was not where the Pilgrims wanted to be.  They had intended to establish their new colony in the northern parts of Virginia (which then extended north to the Hudson River in modern-day New York), but two factors interrupted their plans.  The winds had blown them off course, but they also later learned that some Englishmen traveling with them (often referred to as the “strangers”) wanted to settle in a different location and had bribed the crew to take them off course.

Once again God was in charge and the Pilgrims landed exactly where God wanted them to be.  Had they actually landed in northern Virginia, near the Hudson River, hostile Indians most certainly would have attacked them.  Instead, there were no Indians on Cape Cod when the Pilgrims made landfall there.  The land had already been cleared and the fields had already been cultivated, but those Indians who had prepared the land had all later died of the Plague.

God Provides

Despite this provision of safety from hostile Indians, the Pilgrims barely survived their first winter.  Only four families escaped without burying at least one family member.  But God was still faithful.  In the spring of 1621, He sent Squanto to the Pilgrims.  Squanto was an Indian who spoke their own language and who offered to teach them how to survive in this strange new land. He had been captured as a young man and taken to England as a slave, where he mastered the English language. He was later freed and returned to his native territory shortly before the Pilgrims arrived.  Probably the most important thing Squanto taught the Pilgrims was how to plant the Indians’ winter staple crop—corn.  He also helped to arrange a 50-year peace treaty between the Wampanoag Indians and the Pilgrims.

The Pilgrims thanked God for this wonderful helper.   They also shared with Squanto the most valuable treasure they had brought with them from England—the Gospel.  Squanto died within a year or two after coming to the aid of the Pilgrims, but before his death, Squanto asked the Pilgrims to pray for him that he might go to be with their God in Heaven.

The First Thanksgiving

That first summer of 1621, the Pilgrims, persevered in work and prayer.  Assisted by their new Indian friends, the fall corn harvest was successful.  Pilgrim leader Edward Winslow expressed the colony’s thanks to God in his journal. “God be praised, we had a good increase of corn,” he said, and “by the goodness of God, we are far from want.”

The grateful Pilgrims declared a three-day feast in either November or December of 1621 (historians differ on the exact time) to thank God and celebrate with their Indian friends. Ninety Wampanoag Indians, along with their chief, Massosoit, joined the fifty remaining Pilgrims for three days of feasting on shellfish, lobsters, turkey, cornbread, berries, deer, and other native foods. The Pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow wrote in his journal that Governor Bradford sent four men on a “fowling” mission in preparation for the feast, and that the Wampanoag guests arrived bearing five deer. The young Pilgrims and their Wampanoag friends also engaged in races, wrestling matches, other athletic events, and, of course, prayer.

God’s Continuing Provision

While the Pilgrims continued to enjoy times of prosperity and friendly relationships with their Indian neighbors—for which they continually thanked God—they also suffered extreme hardships. For example, in 1623 they experienced an extended, prolonged drought. They knew that without a change in the weather, there would be no fall harvest. They anticipated a winter filled with death and starvation.

Governor Bradford’s response was to call the Pilgrims to a time of prayer and fasting to seek God’s direct intervention. Shortly after that time of prayer, to the great amazement of the Indians who were watching, clouds suddenly appeared in the sky and a gentle, steady rain began to fall.

Governor Bradford explained in his History of Plymouth Plantation:

[The rain] came without either wind or thunder or any violence, and by degrees in abundance, as that ye earth was thoroughly wet and soaked therewith, which did so apparently revive and quicken ye decayed corn and other fruits as was wonderful to see, and made ye Indians astonished to behold; and afterwards the Lord sent them such seasonable showers, with interchange of fair warm weather as, through His blessing, caused a fruitful and liberal harvest, to their no small comfort and rejoicing.

The rain saved the corn.  One of the Indians who observed this miracle remarked:

Now I see that the Englishman’s God is a good God; for he hath heard you, and sent you rain, and that without such tempest and thunder as we used to have with our rain; which after our Powawing for it, breaks down the corn; whereas your corn stands whole and good still; surely, your God is a good God.

The drought had been broken; there was an abundant harvest—cause for yet another Thanksgiving celebration. The Pilgrim practice of designating an official time of Thanksgiving quickly spread throughout the other New England colonies as annual traditions were established of prayer and fasting in the spring, followed by prayer and thanksgiving in the fall.

Teach Your Children

Now that you know the true story of Thanksgiving, this year make sure your children and grandchildren learn it too.  The evidence of history clearly shows that on that first Thanksgiving Day, both the Pilgrims and the Indians were thanking God for His great goodness in providing for them all. 

As America is currently facing serious challenges both at home and abroad, let’s join together with countless generations before us in giving thanks to God for His blessings and for preserving our nation.  Let’s make sure that all our children and grandchildren learn Whose hand of protection has been over America ever since the Pilgrims’ arrival.  And let’s all pray that He will continue to bless and sustain our nation as we continue to acknowledge and honor Him!

The National Center for Life and Liberty prays that you and your loved ones have a wonderful Thanksgiving season!