At daybreak on the morning of November 9, 1620, the sea-weary and anxious souls aboard the Dutch vessel Mayflower beheld the pristine coast of Cape Cod off New England. As their leader William Bradford recounted, the passengers were “not a little joyful” and were “much comforted…[by] seeing so goodly a land, and wooded to the brink of the sea.” The motley company of one hundred and two persons had set out from Plymouth, England sixty-six days earlier in search of a new land and a new life. Remarkably, despite a severe storm that cracked part of the ship’s frame and constant sea-sickness, only one person had died on the journey—and one baby had been born.
These Pilgrims—as they came to be known—were outcasts of the Church of England. Believing that the Church had become corrupt, they desired to establish their own believing communities. However, the Crown of England at that time—led by the despotic and heavy-handed James I—outlawed independent churches, and so the English Separatists fled religious persecution to the Netherlands, where they settled in Leiden around 1607. Despite the religious liberty offered by the Dutch, the Separatists never quite felt at home. So, when the opportunity came in 1620 to sail to the New World and establish their own independent, religious community, they jumped at the chance and set out on a journey of a lifetime.
Two days after spotting land, the Pilgrims joined together and signed what came to be known as the “Mayflower Compact”—the first written constitution in the world. Pledging their lives and honor to God and to one another, it reads as follows:
In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God of Great Britain, France, and Ireland King, Defender of the Faith, etc. 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 in the Northern Parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, Covenant and Combine ourselves together in a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape Cod, the 11th of November, in the year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France and Ireland the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini 1620.
This document, signed by all the adult males present—41 in total—leaves little doubt as to the purpose and nature of the new Pilgrim colony. The explicit goal was to covenant together to create a “civil body politic” governed by just and equal laws, and for the purposes of the advancing the Christian religion and honoring their king and country. The Mayflower Compact was a watershed moment in American colonial history as it subsequently influenced both the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution.
Soon after binding themselves together in this manner, the Pilgrims skirted Cape Cod Bay and settled their colony at Plymouth where the famous “Plymouth Rock” now stands. Over the next four months they lived on the ship while they constructed houses on land, until in March 1621 they were able to move permanently into their tiny settlement. The first winter was exceptionally hard for the Pilgrims: the weather was ice cold and damp, the territory was foreign, relations with the Native peoples were tentative, and sickness soon set in. Unfortunately, over forty died that first winter from consumption (pulmonary tuberculosis), including many wives and children.
It is no surprise, then, that in November 1621, a full year after their arrival in the New World, the Pilgrims held a three-day thanksgiving celebration. Along with the Wampanoag Indians who had since allied with them, they praised God for a bountiful harvest and for carrying them through the brutal winter. They even had wild turkeys that they captured and ate for the festival.
This celebration soon became a tradition in the American colonies, which regularly held thanksgiving days well into the Revolutionary Era. First the Continental Congress, and then American presidents—starting with George Washington—declared days off as times of thanksgiving, prayer, and fasting. In 1789, President Washington instituted Thursday, November 26 to be “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God.” In 1863, during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving into an annual holiday in order to promote unity and healing between the North and South, calling on all Americans to celebrate “with one heart and one voice.” Finally, in December 1941, Congress declared that the fourth Thursday in November would be the official, national holiday of Thanksgiving.
We have much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving 2017. We can be thankful that our forbearers sought religious liberty and political freedom and braved impossible circumstances to make that a reality. We can be thankful that they placed their faith in God and bound themselves to one another in a tight-knit community that saw them through the roughest times. We can be thankful that our lives are not in danger from the weather, war, or consumption (although possibly from over-consumption!). And we can be thankful that America has seen fit to honor the legacy of the Pilgrims with an annual holiday of thanksgiving to God for his goodness and love toward us.
Later in life, reflecting back upon the first year the Pilgrims endured, William Bradford remarked that “Our fathers were Englishmen which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wilderness; but they cried unto the Lord, and He heard their voice and looked on their adversity.” For this, we should be thankful.
This brief reflection relied upon the work of Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War (New York: Penguin Books, 2007); Melanie Kirkpatrick, “Thanksgiving and America,” Imprimis 45, no. 11 (Nov. 2016); and Thomas Kidd, “Not All Turkey and Touchdowns,” The Gospel Coalition, November 21, 2017.
Ben is a graduate of Denver Seminary, having completed a double MA in New Testament Biblical Studies and Christian Apologetics and Ethics. He will be pursuing a PhD in politics starting in fall 2019. He loves reading, drinking coffee, and hiking in the Colorado Rockies. His academic interests include biblical languages and exegesis, theology, philosophy, politics, and economics.