They traveled more than 3,000 miles aboard the Mayflower in search of a fresh start. Instead, the Pilgrims encountered sickness, starvation, a grueling winter, and death after landing in Cape Cod in November of 1620. By the following spring, half of their community remained, roughly 50 people. But their story didn’t end there.
An alliance with the nearby Wampanoag tribe changed everything. Offering protection and aid, the treaty offered healing and restoration in the colony after a harsh season. With the help of a Native American named Tisquantum, the settlers were taught to work the soil as the tribes had done for generations. The result? A bountiful harvest and praises to God for His provision.
The little we know about what we call the “first Thanksgiving” comes from the accounts of a letter written by Edward Winslow, and Gov. William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation. Winslow wrote, “Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labors.”
Their new friends joined the celebration as well. He continued, “many of the Indians coming amongst us … some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer.”
Sounds like a far cry from the elaborately decorated tables we set today, complete with roasted turkeys (not mentioned specifically as part of the Pilgrims’ feast) and canned cranberry sauce. But the heart of the celebration was thanksgiving—and that’s where all of our hearts should be this time of year. As Winslow said in this letter, “God be praised … ”
What we can learn from the Pilgrims’ story
The Pilgrims’ story of tribulation and renewed hope is one that can resonate with all of us as believers. Sometimes, I, too, feel as if I am a settler on foreign land. And, quite frankly, this life is often not what I expected.
My struggles may not have included the death of half of the ones I hold dear, but I have seen struggle. Struggles that included spending months praying for a sick child who remained without a diagnosis. Or sharing tears with a friend whose husband was leaving her.
We don’t have to travel far to see the pain and suffering all around us. And thankfully, most of us don’t have to look far to see God’s restoration at work either. Like in the long-awaited diagnosis for my daughter. Or in the repentance and forgiveness that can save a dying marriage.
Much like an abundant harvest after a harsh winter, God is always working to restore His people. And the Pilgrims knew that, as they stopped to celebrate and reflect on God’s provision in their lives as they neared their first anniversary at Plymouth.
Here are five reminders—you could call them faith lessons—that we can pull from the Pilgrim’s Thanksgiving.
1. God is always worthy of praise. After losing half of their community—those whom they had loved, toiled in labor beside, even shared a bit of laughter when hope was bleak—the Pilgrims still praised God for His goodness. In Winslow’s letter he writes, “And although it be not always so plentiful … by the goodness of God, we are so far from want.”
No, life doesn’t always feel so “plentiful.” But our faith rests in the promise that God is working in the trials. Romans 8:28 tells us, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” And that is a reason for praise.
2. There is always hope for tomorrow. I can’t help but think about the hope and faith it took to plant those first few kernels of corn. Nothing at that point had gone the way they had hoped. They had no way of knowing whether or not the kernels would produce a crop. They hoped.
But this hope resulted in Winslow writing, “God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn.” Enough to feed more than 50 pilgrims and more than 90 from the neighboring tribes that fall.
Hope is like a match lit in the dark—it gives just enough light to sustain you until the morning breaks. And through faith, you know the morning light is coming. The Bible describes how Job, despite his many trials, spoke of hope like that and where it was rooted. “Though he slay me, I will hope in him; yet I will argue my ways to his face. This will be my salvation that the godless shall not come before him” (Job 13:15-16).
3. We’re better together. A strong alliance between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe was key to the colonists making it through another harsh New England winter. Life can be tough, but having someone to share those ups and downs is invaluable.
The same is true of believers. Fellowship is a gift from a loving Father who knew our need for companionship long before we knew it ourselves. Genesis 2:18 reads, “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.’”
In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes that through Christ we are all members of one body (12:12). And that body was designed with a purpose. “But God has so composed the body … that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:24-26).
Simply put, Christians are better together.
4. Seasons change. The Pilgrims landed in Cape Cod right before the onset of a true New England winter. The crisp fall air quickly gave way to plummeting temperatures, and they hadn’t even built homes yet. Their next autumn in the New World was a season to be celebrated. Not only did they have a healthy harvest and a fruitful alliance with the Wampanoag, but the remaining Pilgrims had lived a full year at Plymouth. They were survivors.
During some seasons of life, you might feel like you are just “surviving.” I know I have. Other seasons have been times of rejoicing. But as sure as we are that spring will give way to summer and summer into fall, we can know that God’s hand is over it all.
In what may be one of the most quoted verses in the Bible, God’s Word reminds us “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-3).
We don’t always know why we are in a particular season of life, or when it might end. But rest assured, God does.
5. Life on earth will be like a rocky shore, but God is firm ground. When I read the first-hand accounts of life at Plymouth, both their hard times and easier moments remind me that life can change in an instant. I read the names of those who survived the first year and wonder if they felt the bittersweetness of that moment. Maybe those mothers held their children a bit closer, spouses were more forgiving of each other, and neighbors were kinder.
I recently spoke with a mother in our community who had just suffered great loss. Her home—the place where she, her husband, and child were building their lives—burned down after an electric pole collapsed on it. It was a total loss. She was putting her 2-year-old daughter to bed in a hotel room that night as she and her husband tried to decide what to do next. But in her grief, she praised God for the safety of her family.
Life is like that. It’s changing and unpredictable. The apostle Peter reminded the early Christians that “the end of all things is at hand” (1 Peter 4:7). With that sense of urgency, he said, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you … but rejoice insofar that you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12-13).
I can’t put my faith in people, circumstances, my home, or my career. What I can do, whether times are good or bad, is put my faith in Christ.
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