By today’s standards of prosperity, safety and comfort the Pilgrims would have far more reason to complain than to offer thanks. So why were they thankful?
When I was ten years old, I had occasion to travel to Plymouth, Massachusetts every day for one whole summer with my father. He had a three-hour layover in Plymouth, and it was my chance to roam the beaches and visit Plymouth Rock. It is housed under a monumental canopy and sits deep below the iron gates that protect it from tourists and collectors who would want to relieve it of a historical chip or two. I would spend countless hours that summer viewing the rock and trying to imagine just how the Pilgrims alighted from their boats to the rock and then to the land.
In boyhood I was satisfied to use my imagination to envision just how the Pilgrims set their feet on the Old Plymouth Rock. It began to take on an aura of the mystical and heroic to me, but I was far from the first person to be caught into these feelings.
As far back as 1835, Alexis De Tocqueville spoke of the rock’s ethereal qualities with far more eloquence than I. “This Rock has become an object of veneration in the United States. I have seen bits of it carefully preserved in several towns in the Union. Does this sufficiently show that all human power and greatness is in the soul of man? Here is a stone which the feet of a few outcasts pressed for an instant; and the stone becomes famous; it is treasured by a great nation; its very dust is shared as a relic.”
As an adult I was more inclined to use my curiosity to discover why the pilgrims came to land on this rock in the first place. The answer would lead me to discover a people driven, not just to a new land, but to a land that was free of all the tyranny and oppression they had known in their own European countries. The Rock became less mystical to me as an adult while the purpose of the pilgrims became a more venerable matter in my thinking.
It is impossible to ponder those brave Pilgrims, our forefathers, risking life and limb and enduring the perils of the sea, the unknown, starvation and deprivation of every sort without wondering about the very strong reasons they were so willing to face these perils and hardships.
Discovering their reasons also provided answers to how the first Thanksgiving came about. The Pilgrims gave thanks because they saw the promise of their quest near at hand and in some small way at the harvest time of that first year it looked like their dream had gotten itself underway.
No one knows the exact words that were spoken in that prayer just before the first Thanksgiving meal was eaten. But if the collective thoughts of all who sat for that meal could be known, we can be sure they were about things greater than the personal or family gains and safety that many prayers are reduced to today.
Their thankfulness was for the possibilities of religious freedom, taxation with representation, fair hearings before magistrates when charged with crimes, relief from oppressive monarchs and freedom to speak their minds without fear of reprisal.
Many of the things taken for granted and rarely mentioned in the Thanksgiving prayers of today are what they were thankful for back then.
It is said that about ninety Indians were present at the feast which lasted about three days. The very sight of these natives with completely unknown and diverse dress and culture, eating with our tattered, but dignified forefathers in harmony and full acceptance is a picture of America’s original dream, the dream of a place where everyone is welcome and able to work together in a common society. I am sure that they were thankful for that small microcosmic example of the larger dream they all shared for the country’s future.
The pilgrims were thankful for the beginning of their dream. We should be thankful for the fullness of that dream.
The pilgrims were people who knew all too well that nobility was not inherent to those born in palaces, but it was a state of the soul and a dignity of purpose found in people of higher thought. They were thankful on that first Thanksgiving for the visible result of that higher thought.
“Being enriched in every thing to all bountifulness, which causeth through us thanksgiving to God.” (2 Cor 9: 11)
Happy Thanksgiving America.
Michael Bresciani – First Published November 2005
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