The first official Thanksgiving Proclamation by Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford 398 years ago provides a key insight into the true meaning of the holiday.
"Inasmuch as the great Father has given us this year an abundant harvest of Indian corn, wheat, peas, beans, squashes, and garden vegetables, and has made the forests to abound with game and the sea with fish and clams, and inasmuch as He has protected us from the ravages of the savages, has spared us from pestilence and disease, has granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience.
“Now I, your magistrate, do proclaim that all ye Pilgrims, with your wives and ye little ones, do gather at ye meeting house, on ye hill, between the hours of 9 and 12 in the daytime, on Thursday, November 29th, of the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred and twenty three and the third year since ye Pilgrims landed on ye Pilgrim Rock, there to listen to ye pastor and render thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all His blessings."
And while some of the language is rough on the modern ear, the “protection from the ravages of the savages” is a direct praise to God by the Pilgrims for the help they received from the local Wampanoag tribe.
The Pilgrims were graced by meeting a native known as Samoset early in their settlement. It was Samoset who introduced the Pilgrims to the English speaking Squanto, and the both of them provided communications between the local Wampanoag tribe and the settlers. This led to a mutual defense peace treaty between the Pilgrim Colony and the Wampanoag that lasted more than fifty years until King Phillip’s War drew the small Pilgrim Colony into it in alliance with the much larger Massachusetts Bay Colony to its north.
Most people don’t realize that in the first year the Pilgrims suffered greatly and by the first harvest only 53 out of the original 102 survived, only four of those being adult women. One-hundred and twenty-seven more Pilgrims arrived from England that year stabilizing the population, but to show the difficulty of life at Plymouth, the Colony only grew to 200 total people by 1630.
With the scene set, the first unofficial Thanksgiving in November of 2021 was a pretty dismal affair as the Pilgrim’s suffered from a bad harvest with most of their seeds they brought from England failing. What’s more, William Bradford wrote in his first person description of Pilgrim life that they had instituted an economic system which guaranteed shared common benefits of, “all profits and benefits that are got by trade, traffic, trucking, working, fishing, or any other means of any person or persons…”
And socialism failed. After two years of privation due to the disincentive to work built into a common sharing arrangement that punished effort, hard labor or ingenuity of individuals, the Pilgrims opted for a private property model where hard work was rewarded.
With the help of natives, who showed how to plant and grow vegetables in the New England climate and a peace treaty with the Wampanoag, the Pilgrims turned to capitalism and created an abundance of food. An abundance that is described by Bradford in his first Thanksgiving proclamation, which provides the traditional picture that we have carried forward to today.
But today’s Thanksgiving celebration has another tragedy that the Pilgrims could not have foreseen. While it is a major problem, it isn’t the misrepresentation of the Pilgrims impact by those who hate western civilization. The tragedy is that many Americans have forgotten who we give thanks to… “ye Almighty God” … as William Bradford writes.
We aren’t giving thanks to our friends, neighbors, husbands, wives, or even our benevolent bosses, we are giving thanks to God for all that He has provided. In sickness or in health, in wealth or deprivation, it doesn’t matter for every life is blessed in some way. The Pilgrims were virtually wiped out by disease, freezing cold and starvation. They lived very hard lives in the New World in order to practice Christianity unfettered by the King of England. And into that hardship, they gave thanks to the God who delivered them and delivers all of us if we accept His Son, Jesus Christ into our hearts.
It was the God of mercy and love who the Pilgrim’s thanked and celebrated that day and indeed every day. It is my sincere hope and prayer that this Thanksgiving, while we are preparing for a feast, we will remember who the true founder of that feast is, the Almighty God. The same God who the Pilgrim’s praised is the God we praise and thank today.