"I shall make them conform or I shall harry them out of the land, or else do worse."—James I of England

King James had been harassing the Puritans. One group, called Separatists, left the church of England entirely fleeing to Holland in 1607, where they lived in Leyden for 12 years. A leader among them, William Brewster, was to write, "They knew they were pilgrims," and the name stuck.

In time, these supposed deviants would celebrate a kind of harvest home thanksgiving for God's goodness in watching over them as they crossed the Atlantic to Plymouth, and in bringing them through that first harsh winter to the abundance of autumn, 1621.

About 40 of the Leyden congregation had gone to England with Brewster and William Bradford in order to set out for the colonies in 1620. Accompanying the 40 pilgrims were 62 other colonists, whom they called "strangers" an assortment of people aiming to make their fortunes in the new world.

AS they prepared to leave England, they received a pastoral letter from John Robinson, the minister they had left in Leyden to look after the larger group. He was concerned about their relationships as they were jammed aboard ship for a long voyage, and as they faced the stress of life in the "hideous and desolate wilderness" of northeast North America.

The encouragement and warning set forth in Robinson's letter (here paraphrased and condensed) are as relevant and insightful for us today as they were for the Pilgrims in the summer of 1620.

Leyden, Holland

July 27, 1620

Loving Christian friends,

I heartily salute you in the Lord. I am present with you in my heartfelt desire, though I am constrained for a while to be absent in body ... Though I do not doubt your godly wisdom, I have thought it my duty to add some further stimulus, not because you need it, but because I owe it in love and duty.

We know that we are daily to renew our repentance before God, especially for the sins that we know and generally for the trespasses that are unknown to us.

But beyond that, and at this time of such difficulty and danger, the Lord calls you specially to a thorough search and careful reformation of your ways. Otherwise he might call to mind sins we have forgotten or had not repented of. Then in judgment he might leave us to be swallowed up in one danger or another. But consider the case where a person's sin is taken away by his earnest repentance and by the Lord's pardon, and the result is sealed to his conscience by the Spirit. Then great shall be his security and peace in all dangers, pleasant his comfort in all distresses, with happy deliverance from all evil, whether in life or death.

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Giving offense
Next in importance to peace with god and our own consciences, we should carefully provide for peace with all people, so far as we are able. This applies especially in relations with our associates. We must be watchful so that we neither give nor easily take offense.

Considering the malice of Satan, and man's corruption, it is inevitable that offenses come. Yet woe to the man or woman by whom they come. The apostle Paul teaches that, more than death itself, we are to fear giving offense by our inappropriate use of things that in themselves are neutral (1 Cor. 9:15). How much more should we fear those offenses arising from things simply evil, in which we do not attach enough importance either to the honor of God or to the love of man.

Taking offense
Nor is it sufficient that we keep ourselves, by the grace of God, from giving offense. In addition we need to armed against taking offense at others. For, as the Scriptures point out, how imperfect and lame is the work of grace in a person who lacks the love to cover a multitude of offenses.

We can see several reasons for such forbearance. (Let us set aside for the moment arguments based on your own special circumstances.) Any Christian should be able to see that those who are ready to take offense lack either love to cover offenses, or wisdom to understand human frailty. Or else they are hypocrites, as Christ our Lord teaches (Matt. 7:1-3). Indeed, there are perhaps as many who easily take offense as there are those who give it. Those who have nourished this touchy attitude have not proved sound and profitable members of societies.

There is a variety of motives to stimulate you of all people to great care and conscience in this. For many of you are strangers to one another's weaknesses. As a result, you need to be more watchful lest, when such unsuspected thins appear in men and women, you should be inordinately affected by them. Much wisdom and love are demanded, if you are to control and even eliminate these incidental offenses.

Further, your plans to live closely together for mutual protection in the New World mean that the likelihood for offense will be greater, Your circumstances will fuel that fire unless you diligently quench it with brotherly forbearance.

If all this is true, how much more must we be careful not to take offense at God himself—something we do as often as we grumble at his providence or bear impatiently the afflictions he sends us. Therefore, store up patience against the evil day; without this we take offense at the Lord himself and his just works.

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Seeking the general good
You should see to it that you add to your mutual activities a mutual desire for the common good. Avoid, as a deadly plague on both group and private well-being, any secret scheming or self-absorbed way of doing things. How should you deal with self-seeking actions designed only for a person's private benefit? Every man should suppress in himself these acts of rebellion. And the whole body should aid each person in this.

Men are careful not to have a new house shaken with any violence before it is well settled and its parts firmly knit. I beseech you bretheren, be much more careful that the house of God—which you are, and are to be—will not be shaken by unnecessary fads or other threats in its early stages of settling.

Yielding to civil authorities
You are forming a political body, with civil government. But there are among you no people who, because of their special eminence are obvious choices for various offices. Use your wisdom and godliness to select those who entirely love the common good and will promote it. But let wisdom also guide you to yield to them all due honor and obedience as they do their lawful jobs.

Do not see in them the mere ordinariness of their persons, but rather recognize that God institutes government for your good. Do not be like the foolish crowd who honor the brightly colored coat more than either the virtuous mind of the man of the glorious teaching s of the Lord. You know a better way: the image of the Lord's power and authority, which the magistrate bears is honorable, regardless of how common he may be in ability.

I earnestly commend these matters to your conscience. I am praying incessantly for you to the Lord who has made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all the rivers. His providence is over all his works, and especially over all his dear children for good. I pray that he will guide and guard you inwardly by his Spirit and outwardly by his hand of power. Then we will have cause to praise his name all our days. Farewell in the Lord in whom you trust, and in whom I rest.

A well-wisher of your success in this hopeful voyage,

John Robinson

The hopeful voyage was interrupted when the Pilgrim's first ship, the Speedwell, began to leak like a sieve, forcing them to go back to port. Later, in the Mayflower, the Pilgrims made the voyage in 65 fierce days.

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By spring, half had died of scurvy or "general debility." But then a busy period of planting, hunting, fishing, and trading passed, and fall came. Bradford wrote "Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling so we might in a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labours. They four in one day killed as much fowl as ... served the company almost a week."

About 90 Indians came that Thanksgiving, and provided venison. During the days of the celebration they played games and enjoyed such fare as roast turkey, duck, and goose, plus eels and clams, as well as leeks "and other salad herbs," and wild plums and dried berries. Pumpkin? Possibly. Cranberries? No.

Bradford tells us the spiritual basis of the Pilgrim's celebration. Writing of their landing at Plymouth, he saw a parallel to Israel: "But 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 the wilderness, but they cried unto the Lord, and he heard their voice and looked on their adversities."

Related Elsewhere

Don't miss previous CT Classics on Thanksgiving like "Two Kinds of Thanks" and yesterday's "Giving Thanks in Plague Times."

Christianity Today.com's Thanksgiving area includes articles from Christian History magazine about the Puritans, and stories, poems, and articles about giving thanks.

If you're interested in the history of Thanksgiving, be sure to check out www.plimoth.org. It has pages upon pages of fascinating Thanksgiving facts and essays, including why we associate the day with 1621 Pilgrims, historical Thanksgiving proclamations, and notes on preparing the foods from that October day.