The Feast May Be Gone, But Thanksgiving Still Offers Food For Thought

There is a tendency in our culture that, once the World Series is over, the “holidays” have begun. The “holidays” include the genuine fun of Halloween, the intense partisanship of college football in the middle of the season, and, of course, Thanksgiving.

There are always the tiresome lectures by virtue signalers that the Pilgrims are a type of lore invented by white people to cover up atrocities toward the indigenous four hundred years ago when white people sought to colonize, exploit, and steal what was not theirs and inflict on the primitively wholesome a religious construct that is all voodoo myth. If this indictment does not stir the heart, the signalers throw in the accusation that the Pilgrims brought smallpox-laden blankets with them to annihilate the natives.

What if, however, the Pilgrims of Plymouth Massachusetts had something to offer to us today? Some insight into their experience might help guide our decisions as citizens. What if the virtue signalers got the story wrong? Perhaps we just need to linger over these thoughts before moving on to other holidays.

We might need to set aside what is taught as historic truth today. Cast your mind back to four hundred years ago. Martin Luther and John Calvin are revolutionizing Christianity. The Roman Catholic Church is challenged and its treasures looted. The compatibility of reason and faith, so perfectly enunciated by Thomas Aquinas, is replaced by the Doctrine of Predestination--God’s secret plan for the elected and their salvation. In decoding the plan, signals are looked for, symbols are seen in everyday life, common things become a parable and a revelation. Faith itself is God’s gift to the elected.

King James of England saw the right answer in the Anglican Communion—a Protestant version of Catholicism. A Book of Common Prayer led the faithful; a hierarchy of Bishops and Archbishops provided the leadership. Robert Browne thought otherwise—only the Bible has authority; only a Congregation can lead its people in religious matters. And so, King James threw the Brownists out and they went to the more tolerant Holland to worship as a small community—a type of commune of the “elected.” They stayed about twelve years, huddled in small houses weaving linen and wool, eating rye bread and little else, and dying of lung disease and malnutrition.

What in many eras would just be a group of believers no one paid any attention to became a special story in America. We remember the Pilgrims; we remember the Mayflower; we remember William Bradford; we remember Squanto; we remember and use today the ideas and tenets of the Mayflower Compact—not our first constitution, but our first documented statement of the principles of our democracy.

Image: The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth by Jennie A. Brownscombe. Public domain.

The truth of the first Thanksgiving is that the Pilgrims came to America to live a pure and simple Calvinist life. They did not come to exploit the indigenous. They were attacked, understandably, right away during exploratory missions to find the right settlement location. Other English and French explorers had come before them—some, like Thomas Hunt, had actually sold some Native Americans into slavery and some, like Squanto, had been saved by monks in Spain. Squanto eventually returned to America, and his knowledge of English, learned while in London, proved providential.

The Pilgrims came in the dead of a Massachusetts winter with no food or proper clothes and most died. Only with Squanto’s help were they able to plant the right way and fish with acumen to survive. Plymouth was once a village of the Patuxent who had died in the Indian Fever epidemics of 1616-1619. The Wampanoags, who lived close by at the time, were surrounded by enemy tribes and made a peace with the Pilgrims for protection. Thanksgiving was celebrated together in October 1621 with the first good harvest. Massasoit, the Wampanoags’ great sachem, brought about 90 tribesmen and many venison, and the Pilgrims shot turkeys and other wildfowl for the three-day feast.

What are we to learn from this? For all its good intentions, Plymouth did not survive. Those who lived moved on to other more prosperous colonies or to land too far removed from Plymouth. Free to worship as they pleased still meant they were free, and off the young went to find their own way on their own land. Human nature does not change. No construct can change it; no tyranny can change it; no virtue signaling can change it; no religion can change it. At best, its worst manifestations can be managed. Our American Republic, built on the premises in the Mayflower Compact, and on the hope of a moral citizenry, manages the unmanageable better than any system yet devised.

The reason we remember this particular small group of Pilgrims is the singular virtue of its leadership—John Carver, William Brewster, William Bradford, and Edward Winslow, among others. We remember, as well, the singular virtue of the indigenous leadership—Samoset, Squanto, and Massasoit, among others. The lesson is not the difficulty of the times we are experiencing but the requirement and necessity of virtue in our citizens and in our leaders. If that virtue does not exist or is compromised, no person or persons can claim to be the leader of a great people, and no society can survive.

When the Pilgrims first anchored on Cape Cod and touched American soil, William Bradford would have turned his Geneva Bible to Psalm 107: Oh that men would praise the Lord for his goodness, and for his wonderful works to the children of men! One of those “wonderful works” was the happenstance of a huge screw that the Pilgrims brought with them that held a snapped beam together and allowed them to reach America safely after a rough ocean voyage.

We will be guided rightly, perhaps, if we dare to linger over the true first Thanksgiving, appreciate it, and demand a proper moral core in those we elect to high public trust and in ourselves, as well.

M. E. Boyd’s Apples of Gold – Voices From the Past that Speak to Us Now is available at www.amazon.com using the title and subtitle.

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