The Legacy of Thanksgiving

What, if anything, does the story of the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving tell us about the emerging America, both of 1621 and of 2018: nearly four hundred years later but confronted with many of the same seemingly intractable issues. Reverend Furrer, descended from four of those who were there, preaching. After 11:00 a.m. worship we will join together for a potluck lunch.

“The Legacy of Thanksgiving”

Thanksgiving is America’s longest celebrated holiday. Christmas and Washington’s Birthday have longer standing as “official” holidays, as Thanksgiving was not declared a holiday until during the Civil War when Lincoln and the Northern Republican-dominated Congress pushed through the required legislation.

Before 1863, however, Thanksgiving had been celebrated throughout the North and intermittently declared nationally, the first time being in 1796 by George Washington. After 1800, however, with Thomas Jefferson in the White House—followed by a succession of Southerners and their allies—the tradition languished. There was no national proclamation until the Civil War. Since then—1863—until today the President has proclaimed it every year: 155 in a row.

It is helpful, I think—indispensable really for a free people—to know the true story of how things came to be the way they are; to know, that is, the tribulations and blessings out of which our traditions have been born.

The story of the original American Thanksgiving begins almost 400 years ago in the winter of 1620-21. The original Pilgrims were a mixed-up lot. About half of them were referred to—by themselves—as Saints. These were the Protestant dissenters: idealists who, having tried and given up on Holland, made their way to the New World in search of religious freedom. The others, whom they (the Saints) called Strangers, had come in search of economic opportunity. There was a great deal of suspicion and distrust among the two groups. They had only two things, really: their faith (in God, on the one hand, or in a better life). And they had each other.

Now, as I said, both the Saints and the Strangers harbored suspicion and genuine distrust of each other…initially. The passage across the Atlantic, however, changed all that. The weather was extremely rough. The Mayflower, mind you, was only 100’ long. In such tight quarters, and upon extremely high seas, the Saints and Strangers started talking to each other. Had they not come together—been reconciled to their separate ways and separate motivations—they never would have prevailed against the ordeal now beginning. By collectively facing up to their common endeavor they eventually—quite quickly really—became close and intermarried. And their descendants, like all of us, I suppose, were a genetic mix of idealists and adventures, wags, and strivers, heroes and horse thieves.

The Mayflower arrived in Plymouth with 101 passengers. Close to half died in the first three months. By spring, the fifty-one who remained alive crawled out of their makeshift shelters badly shaken but still resolved to make a go of it. When you are open to it, help can come from the most unexpected places. The hyper-religious “Saints” found their salvation in the “Strangers,” (comparative secular humanists of their day) just as the Strangers were amazed—but no less grateful—for those among the religious zealots who helped keep things together and worked with them to carry on through the dark and difficult days they all encountered.

Our modern sensibilities about nature are very different than those of the first European settlers. There was a time, centuries earlier, when rural Europe was a pillared and leaf-domed shadowland inhabited by bears, wolves, and tribespeople who held the forest sacred. Those witch- and fairy-infested treescapes evoked so vividly by Shakespeare and the brothers Grimm once actually existed, but by 1620 they hadn’t been seen “in person” by anyone for hundreds of years. Coming to North America brought the first Europeans face to face with their Dark Age past; instead of the contemporary tic-tac-toe board of pasture and orchard, farmland and town, the landscape of North America 400 hundred years ago was a virtually unbroken carpet of forest—one described by Plymouth Governor Bradford [in his memoir Of Plimoth Plantation] as a “hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and men.” The Pilgrims, it’s worth remembering, saint and stranger alike, were educated urbanites, unused to life in anywhere near so untamed a place. And it frightened them.

Here’s my point: initially, the Pilgrims distrust of one another keep them at arm’s length; it wasn’t until faced with a common crisis that they overcame their misgivings and began working together for their mutual benefit—indeed their very survival. Distrust gave way to cooperation which saved their lives. The pattern.

Meanwhile, all this time, unknown to the Pilgrims, they were being closely watched. They had a sense of this and it made them nervous, but in truth they had no idea how closely they were being observed every day. Until the spring of 1621 when something truly amazing happened. An Indian came out of the woods and, speaking perfect English, welcomed them to the New World.

The story of that Indian, Squanto, is right out of Daniel Defoe. Old World fishermen had been plying the waters off the North America’s Atlantic Coast for decades before the first European colonies were established. Squanto had been born and raised in the Plymouth area—known as Patuxet by the natives—until 1615 when he had been kidnapped and sold into slavery in Malaga, Spain. He was purchased by a Roman Catholic monk, but escaped and made his way to England, where he lived for three years with John Slanie, a wealthy merchant. He plotted his return by telling all who would listen stories of hidden gold, which led to securing passage on a vessel back across the sea. He then jumped ship in Nova Scotia and by a variety of methods made it home by 1619. What he found there, however, was devastation—all his tribe was dead from an epidemic two years earlier.

He spent the first winter in mourning and the second winter watching the settlers from off in the woods. Then he threw his lot in with them. The pattern replicates: a small band of devastated, mistrustful Pilgrims vs. a surviving devastated, uncertain Native American. Having, Squanto decided, more to gain than anything close to what he’d already lost, he walked out of the forest—“Welcome Englishmen!”—and broke through.

Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn, how to fertilize it, harvest it, and grind it into meal. The English didn’t know how to hunt because in their native land hunting had been a legal monopoly of the gentry. So Squanto taught them how to hunt. He taught them how to fish and capture game and turn the hides into warm clothing and otherwise useful articles. He served as their intermediary with local Indians and helped secure a lasting peace between the settlers and his tribe, the Wampanoags. All this proved indispensable to the Pilgrims’ survival.

By autumn their meager stores were building up, rations were doubled, and a day of general thanksgiving was called, to which Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoags was invited. He came, with about thirty others, bearing armfuls of game, fish, meal, fruits, and vegetables. The group feasted and celebrated for three days and toasted their friendship together.

1621…       2018:          397 years.

A long time.

Much has happened to our country and to our people since that first year when, hungry and without adequate shelter or provisions, and among strangers, compassionate natives—comparatively better off than the newcomers—walked up to them calling “Welcome Englishmen” and offered support and kindness. Thousands, millions of other immigrants have followed, including virtually all of our ancestors, almost all of them in a similar manner: with little in their pockets save faith and a common will to beat the odds and make it here on these new shores. It is our common legacy.

Mistrust in such circumstances is, perhaps, a natural enough tendency. But the story of America’s First Thanksgiving suggests that distrust in the face of crisis only leads to isolation and collapse; reaching out across barriers—breaking through—is the far more productive, far healthier, more creative strategy. And this is America’s common legacy, too: the pattern of breaking through projected stereotypes, working across differences of religion and ideology, across racial and cultural divisions, across the aisle for goodness sake, and going on from there to great achievement. The pattern of mistrust, breakthrough, reconciliation, and gratitude is also our common legacy.

Let us pray:

O Spirit of Liberation,

Spirit of Creativity and Adventure that inspired the Pilgrims,

Spirit of Hope and Reconciliation that led them to join forces

across barriers of mistrust and fear–

We gather on the cusp of our country’s longest celebrated nation holiday.

We come to pay homage to one of our national traditions, and to offer thanks for our blessings; among them

  • Our democratic institutions, threatened though they often be;
  • Our relative affluence, precarious as for many it remains;
  • Our health and the health of this community
  • The support of our families and others we hold near and dear.

Help us to truly honor the traditions of this oldest of American holidays:

  • To remember the truth about our humble origins here;
  • To risk exposure to new ideas and diverse ways of doing things by reaching out to those who are different;
  • To recognize our common connection to those who are hungry, who are strangers, who are non-natives near at hand; and
  • To share with them our skills and from our bounty,
  • as others reached out to us when we were hungry and desperate ourselves.

The pattern behind Thanksgiving:

breaking through mistrust…

only to discover new friends…

leading to deep, redemptive gratitude.

Let us be thankful. And let us resolve to keep this Thanksgiving pattern alive in our families and in each of our individual lives: getting past mistrust, reaching out to others, and collectively, finding deep thankfulness.

So may it be. Shalom. Amen. Namaste.