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Thanksgiving: Small Beginnings

  • Barbara Rainey
  • Published Nov 19, 2003
Thanksgiving: Small Beginnings

The Mayflower, a small wooden ship with billowing sails, was the vessel God used to bring a group of Christian believers to an unseen land far over the Atlantic. These Christian men and women, called Pilgrims (people who journey to a destination usually because of their religious beliefs), believed that God was leading them to establish a new community where they could worship freely.


As Americans, we celebrate Thanksgiving every year because of the profound faith and uncommon courage of these English men and women. They had no idea how God was going to use them to begin a new nation. They only knew God wanted them to go.


So in September of 1620, after enduring many delays and difficulties, these Pilgrims finally said their last good-byes, boarded the Mayflower, and set sail for the New World.


The roots of our Thanksgiving heritage are entwined with the history of England, growing deep into the rolling hills of the English countryside. Nestled in those hills was a little village named Austerfield. And in that village in 1590, a child named William Bradford was born.


William’s childhood was unhappy. While still a boy, he was orphaned, his father dying when he was a baby, his mother when he was seven. He was placed in the home of two uncles in Austerfield. Not long after his mother died, William suffered a prolonged illness that left him unable to work in the fields. As a result, he was allowed to be educated, and he learned to read the Bible on his own.


As a teenager, he walked every week to a nearby village called Scrooby to learn more of the Christian faith and to worship God secretly in a personal and pure way with a small group of like-minded believers. Increasingly, William grew dissatisfied with the state-sponsored religion of the Church of England. Its worship seemed stale and cold compared to what he experienced with the believers in Scrooby.


Like many people of his time, William concluded that there wasn’t much hope for spiritual life to return to the state church. Those who felt this way were called “Separatists,” individuals willing to risk the consequences of “separating” from the official church. There was another group of people in the English church who became known as “Puritans.” The Puritans also disagreed with the state church, but they wanted to stay in the church and try to purify or change it from within.


The authorities in the Church of England felt threatened by both of these growing movements toward religious freedom. They especially feared the Separatists who were forming their own churches. So the governing House of Bishops sent spies and informers to many of these secret congregations, including the one at Scrooby. Many Separatist church leaders and some Puritans were fined, pressured, persecuted, arrested or thrown in prison. Some were even executed with the approval of Queen Elizabeth I and later King James I in hopes of squelching these rebellious believers. After years of mounting stress caused by this harassment and persecution, many families in the Separatist church – including William who was not yet twenty – left their English homeland for exile in Leyden, Holland.


The Separatists enjoyed their new religious freedom in Holland, but life again became increasingly difficult for them. In England many of them had been landowners. In Holland, because they were foreigners, the men had to take whatever work was available.


William Bradford became a weaver, usually working twelve- to fourteen-hour  days, six days a week. The Separatists did not complain, however, because the ability to worship God as they saw fit was supremely important. They lived out the message of Hebrews 12:28: “Since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe.”


After nearly a decade on Dutch soil, a number of members of the church of Leyden began to explore the possibility of moving across the sea to the “new world” of America. Many of them once again wanted to own their own land , and because England was such a powerful country in Europe and in the world, they feared that the English might pressure the Dutch government to clamp down on the “rebel church.” The Separatists also worried about the effect of a rather morally “loose” Dutch society on their own young people.


But the challenges of life in the wild territory across the Atlantic were sobering. Other groups had settled in America with disastrous results. The Jamestown colony in Virginia was a recent example: Of 1,200 settlers who had arrived in Jamestown in 1619, only 200 were still alive in 1620.


The congregation in Leyden debated the decision. Staying in Holland meant greater safety in a civilized land. Settling in America probably guaranteed religious liberty, but the physical risks were enormous, and the financial cost of a voyage would be high. America was an uncivilized frontier with a vicious climate in some regions. Would the farming techniques they knew work in this new land? What strange diseases might await them there? Perhaps worst of all, the land was filled with “savages” about whom frightening stories were told by those who had sailed back from the New World.


In spite of this sobering outlook, the Leyden church chose to believe that God would grant them success if they sent a settling party to America. William Bradford later wrote, “They had a great hope and inward zeal of laying a good foundation, for the propagation and advancing of the kingdom of Christ in those remote parts of the world; yea though they should be but even as stepping stones unto others.” If God blessed their efforts, then many others – including their pastor, John Robinson – probably would join them on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.


William Bradford was one of those who decided to embark on the adventure. During the exile in Holland, he had met and married a young woman named Dorothy May. The couple later had a son named John, who was particularly precious to his mother. Because of the anticipated hardships awaiting the Separatists in America, as well as the rigors of the ocean voyage, some decided to leave family members behind in Holland. They hoped that in the near future all could be reunited in the new land. This was true of the Bradfords who sadly chose to leave five-year-old John in the care of others.


After all the discussion and agonizing decision-making – and before departing from Holland – the church spent a day in fasting and prayer for the journey ahead. Then they gathered for a special service and to hear a sermon from their pastor. He chose as his Scripture text Ezra 8:21: “Then I proclaimed a fast … that we might humble ourselves before God to seek from a safe journey for us, our little ones, and all our possessions.”


After Pastor Robinson had encouraged and prayed for the group of Pilgrims, the entire Separatist congregation had a feast and sang psalms. Edward Winslow, one of the church leaders who would be making the voyage, wrote of the evening: “We refreshed ourselves, after our tears, with the singing of Psalms … and indeed it was the sweetest melody that ever mine ears have heard.”


From “Thanksgiving: A Time to Remember” by Barbara Rainey, copyright 2002, pps. 17-19. Used by permission of Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL   60187. www.crosswaybooks.org. You can purchase this book here.