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Education Reporter

Thanks-living Time
The Extraordinary Example of the Pilgrims
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by Deborah Brezina

It has been well-said that education is what one generation transmits to the next generation in order to make them successful. Results of a recent survey conducted by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni entitled "Losing America's Memory - Historical Illiteracy in the 21st Century" revealed not one course in American History was required for graduation in any of America's top 55 colleges and universities - not one. The survey's dismal findings prompted the council's President, Anne Neal, to state: "We are now defending our civilization and a generation does not know what to defend or why to defend it."1

A few years ago, a school district in Wisconsin published a directive on holidays for teachers: "Thanksgiving is a national custom. Please try to avoid religious connotations."2 This directive falls right in line with an absurd statement published in several textbooks used by first-graders across America regarding the "real meaning" of Thanksgiving: "The Pilgrims gave thanks to the Indians."

As never before, it is vital we know the origins of our unique holiday of Thanksgiving.

Americans have always been taught that the Pilgrims came to the New World exclusively for freedom of religion. This is only partly true. Why? Because they already had it! A decade prior to their voyage on the Mayflower, the little band of Separatists fled Britain under persecution and settled in Holland. There they enjoyed a measure of religious freedom, but had become increasingly concerned about the influences on their children by a more libertine Dutch society. Upon their return to England, the group of pilgrims seeking a new world sought permission from King James to embark for the shores of America. Departing on two ships from Southampton in August 1620, the Pilgrims were turned back eight days later due to the unseaworthy Speedwell. On the third attempt, the Pilgrims and the crew of the Mayflower set sail in September of 1620. For two and a half months, 102 men, women, and children lived most of the journey below the decks in a space about the size of a volleyball court.3 No hatches open due to continuous storms, dimly lit by a few lanterns, no cooking of meals, no sanitation, day after day, night after night they tossed in the belly of a small ship alone in the North Atlantic.

Midway through the voyage, a fierce storm arose. The Mayflower was on her side, her main beam cracked. The little wooden world threatened to break apart. Even the captain and crew feared it was the end. The Pilgrims helped in the only way they could. They prayed. Then, Pastor William Brewster remembered one vital piece of cargo. To shore up the main beam, the Pilgrims ingeniously used the giant screw from their printing press! The ship was saved.

On November 9, 1620, the Pilgrims heard the jubilant cry "land ho!" On November 11 the Mayflower dropped anchor inside a natural harbor. Knowing they had blown off course and were now set to embark onto uncharted land under the jurisdiction of no one, they had to make a crucial decision. Under whose authority would they be governed? Before a single man stepped off the ship, they signed in unison what we now know as The Mayflower Compact. Here in its first lines, the Pilgrims tell us why they came to America:

In the Name of God. Amen...Having undertaken for the glory of God and the advancement of the Christian faith.

The weary band of travelers knew they had mere weeks to clear land and build shelter before the onset of winter. By December, many Pilgrims began dying. Sometimes at the rate of 3 or 4 a day, the "general sickness" would continue through the following March. By Spring, one-half had been buried in their "promised land." This served to bind them together as never before.

Not long after, the "turning point" for Plymouth Colony presented itself in the form and face of an unlikely visitor. On a "fair Friday" in the middle of March, a cry was heard, "Indian coming!"4 Walking up the main path of the village, a tall well-built figure clad only in loin cloth boomed out in flawless English, "Welcome!" The startled Pilgrims replied back, "Welcome!" Here was Samoset, a visitor from a northern tribe of Algonquins and a guest of the local chief, Massasoit. The Pilgrims offered him their very best. He ate and was satisfied. He told them of the Patuxets, a fierce and murderous tribe who had lived in the area. Every member had mysteriously died the year before. The Pilgrims heard nothing else from Samoset until he returned the next week with another Indian.

His name was Squanto. The Pilgrims would come to call him "God's Instrument."

Squanto taught the Pilgrims stalking, hunting, fishing, planting, and trapping. Their wonderful friend showed them how to fish for cod by using traps. Soon they were not just fishing, but harvesting this necessary source of nourishment. Fields of corn and pumpkins, vegetables not known in England, supplemented their staples of carrots, onions, and cabbages. Crops were now flourishing because "God's Instrument" taught them to fertilize each row with small fishes.

He showed them which herbs and berries were good to eat and good for medicines. He taught them how to hunt beaver, deer, and turkeys and even how to glean maple syrup from the generous supply of trees. The land of plenty was providing not only needs, but abundance

In November, a full year after their arrival, Governor Bradford called for a day of prayer and thanksgiving:

To set apart this day of Solemn Thanksgiving.that the Lord may behold us as a people offering praise and thereby glorifying Him.5

The Pilgrims invited their new friends for a feast. Chief Massasoit and Squanto came — along with 90 braves! Bearing gifts of five dressed deer and a dozen fat wild turkeys, the guests helped with preparations, teaching the Pilgrim women how to make hoecakes from the corn and a tasty pudding with sweet maple syrup. The women showed their guests how to make delicious fruit pies with the bountiful berries. The Indians taught the Pilgrims how to roast corn kernels till they popped fluffy and white — popcorn!6

The settlers and their guests participated in games with bow and arrow, musket shooting, foot races, and wrestling matches. With great joy and merriment, the first Thanksgiving lasted three days because Massasoit did not want to go home!

Of Plymouth Plantation is the account of the life of the Pilgrims written by Governor William Bradford. His message is to all generations who would follow the example of those who marked the way:

As one small candle may light a thousand, so the light kindled here has shown unto many, yea in some sort to your whole nation.we have noted these things so that you might see their worth and not negligently lose what your fathers have obtained with so much hardship.

The example of the Pilgrims is ageless and unchanging. Sealed in the collective memory of Americans for four centuries, they are cherished not because of what they preached, but for how they lived. The Pilgrims gave thanks to God not only FOR all things, but IN all things. They achieved something no one or no group of individuals had ever achieved in history. The result would be what Benjamin Franklin would one day call "the Divine Experiment."

The celebration of the holiday of Thanksgiving is basic to who we are as a people. It provides the reasons our nation came to be. Does it have "religious connotations"? The historical record leaves no doubt. This Thanksgiving, as we gather around tables filled to overflowing with the bounty of the most blessed nation in the history of man, let us remember who we were so we may be who we ought.

Deborah Brezina authored a high school curriculum on history, law, and government entitled A Legacy of Liberty. Her book, The Spirit of Churchill, is due out in March.


  1. US News and World Report, December 1999
  2. Breakpoint, Charles Colson, 2001
  3. The Light and the Glory, Peter Marshall and David Manuel, Fleming H. Revell Co., 1977
  4. Ibid.
  5. Thanksgiving Proclamation, 1621, America's Providential History, Providence Press, Charlottesville, VA
  6. The Light and the Glory, Peter Marshall and David Manuel, Fleming H. Revell Co., 1977

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