The First Thanksgiving We Don’t Remember

Bad fortune, divine chastisement, and mercy after the Pilgrims feasted with the Wampanoag. /

This week families across America are celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday, and some, at least, will link what they are doing to the Pilgrims’ celebration on the coast of Massachusetts in 1621. Although frequently embellished and sometimes caricatured, the story of the Pilgrims’ “First Thanksgiving” is rich with insight and inspiration. The Pilgrims were human, which means that they bore the imprint of the Fall with all its attendant sinful consequences: they were ethnocentric, sometimes judgmental and intolerant, prone to bickering, and tempted by mammon. They were also people of remarkable faith and fortitude—common folk of average abilities and below-average means who risked everything in the interest of their families and their community of faith.

The Pilgrims’ trial began with their voyage on the Mayflower, a 65-day-long ordeal in which 102 men, women, and children crossed the stormy Atlantic in a space the size of a city bus. Following that came a cruel New England winter for which they were ill prepared. (Massachusetts is more than 600 miles south of London—on a line of latitude even with Madrid, Spain—and the Pilgrims were expecting a much more temperate climate.) Due more to exposure than starvation, their number dwindled rapidly, so that by the onset of spring some 51 members of the party had died. A staggering 14 of the 18 wives who had set sail on the Mayflower had perished in their new home. Widowers and orphans abounded.

That the Pilgrims could celebrate at all in this setting was a testimony both to human resilience and to heavenly hope. Yet celebrate they did, most probably sometime in late September or early October after God had granted them a harvest sufficient ...

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Also in this Issue

Issue 36 / November 26, 2015
  1. Editor’s Note

    Issue 36: What smells so good, the other First Thanksgiving, and birds that gather to remember. /

  2. Oh, How He Smells Us

    Sniff and see that the Lord is good. /

  3. Bird Brained

    You know you can’t fly. But they may have you beat on memory, too. /

  4. Living Things

    “Our poems / Are like the wart-hogs” /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Issue 36: Links to amazing stuff.

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