10 Nov A Thanksgiving Meditation
It must have been the most horrifying experience of their lives. Though there were slightly more than a hundred people aboard The Mayflower, only 54 were from the band of Separatists who had lived in Holland the previous twelve years to escape persecution in England. They were farmers and sheepherders for the most part, though some might have been craftsmen of one trade or another. Yet never had they been on the high seas. So it must have seemed as though the very demons of hell were loosed upon them during that fall of 1620.
The storms of the north Atlantic were so fierce and the ship so tossed that the main mast often dipped into the waves. It was a disorienting, stomach-churning experience even for the experienced sailors among them. The small band of believers on board — men, women, an expectant mother and small children among them — were kept in the “tween deck” for fear of the buffeting storms. Many were sick. Some wailed their agonies endlessly through the terrifying nights. The icy winds wailed with them. It was a filthy, smelly, terrifying time of testing.
The elements were not the only opposition these Christians, who would soon be called “Pilgrims,” endured. There was one sailor who persisted in calling them “psalm-singing pukestockings,” which were the two things they spent most of their time doing. Though the Pilgrims forgave and prayed for the man’s soul, he was, mysteriously, the only person to die during the voyage.
For 66 days the little ship, no longer than a modern volleyball court, made the treacherous voyage from England to the coast of Massachusetts. When they arrived, what must their thoughts have been as they scanned the howling wilderness that was to be their home? William Bradford, later their Governor, recalled:
What could sustain them but the spirite of God and his grace. May not and ought not the children of these fathers, rightly say: ‘Our fathers were Englishmen which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wilderness.’”
And perish they almost did. More than half of them died during that first winter, often called “the starving time.” At one point, each person’s ration for a day was no more than five kernels of corn and a few ounces of brackish water. Indian friends like Squanto and Samoset taught the white men how to harvest the bay and the land, but the yield would not be sufficient until the next year. So they buried their dead and prayed for the mercy of God.
In the spring they planted and soon after began sensing that God had heard their prayers. The previous winter had been the worst of times, but the harvest looked bountiful now, the settlement was growing and God seemed to be smiling upon them.
When the harvest was gathered that fall, their leaders called for some of the men to go hunting in preparation for a great feast to celebrate the goodness of God. Wild fowl, fish, and venison were gratefully prepared. They invited their Indians friends, too, who brought five freshly killed deer. The white women prepared hoecakes, cornmeal pudding and a variety of vegetables while the Indian women introduced delicacies made with blueberries, apples, and cherries. The most welcome new food which the Indians brought with them, though, was a new way of cooking corn in an earthen pot until it became white and fluffy — popcorn!
It was indeed a thanksgiving, but not just for safety and abundance of food. It was also a time to remember the words they had penned about their purpose for coming when they were still on The Mayflower. They came, they said, “for the Glory of God and the advancement of the Christian faith,” “for propagating and advancing the gospel of the kingdom of Christ in those remote parts of the world; yea, though they should be but even as stepping-stones unto others for the performing of so great a work.”
So they were. And we ought to remember them this Thanksgiving, and take their mission to our hearts.
William Bradford, Of Plimoth Plantation
Have a Happy Thanksgiving – Stephen