The Thanksgiving Story, Part 1
As we approach Thanksgiving, it is good to remember the history of this special holiday. Hear part one of a dramatic presentation of the first Thanksgiving.
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- "Thanksgiving: A Time to Remember" by Barbara Rainey. (4 min. read) https://www.familylife.com/articles/topics/holidays/featured-holidays/thanksgiving/thanksgiving-a-time-to-remember/
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As we approach Thanksgiving, it is good to remember the history of this special holiday. Hear part one of a dramatic presentation of the first Thanksgiving.
The Thanksgiving Story, Part 1
Michelle: Welcome to FamilyLife This Week. I’m Michelle Hill. You know, it was in the late sixteenth century when a new hymn hit the European churches. It became a very popular hymn quite fast. You probably remember this, or you may have sung it in your church: We Gather Together to Ask the Lord’s Blessing. That hymn has been sung for years at Thanksgiving. Although most American’s lives don’t center on a literal harvest anymore, many of us do gather together every year on the fourth Thursday of November.
It’s my friend, Barbara Rainey’s, favorite holiday. As Barbara says, it’s the holiday of rest. It’s in stark contrast to the frenzy of obligation and spending that threatens to destroy the essence of Christmas. You know, it’s the holiday where you can crash on your grandma’s couch, or you can eat the leftovers out of mom’s refrigerator; it’s a holiday of rest.
The national observance of Thanksgiving is unique. It’s both distinctly Christian, but exclusively American. It’s a holiday for celebrating faith, family, and freedom. Barbara majored in history in college. She’s been concerned for many years that we, the people, don’t really know or understand what Abraham Lincoln referred to when he began his famous Gettysburg Address with the statement: “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation conceived in Liberty.”
Barbara was determined that her children would hear the stories of the courageous men, women, and children who lived honorably and, through faith in God, made enormous sacrifices to secure freedom for all of us. This was a burden that God laid on her heart many years ago. It’s also a burden that she continued to work with her family to show them the sacrifices and to really form in them a thankful heart.
It’s through that motivation that Barbara wrote a book entitled Thanksgiving: A Time to Remember. It’s become a favorite for many people. In fact, FamilyLife®, just a few years ago, dramatized this book. Today, I want us to listen together to the story of the Pilgrims—and all the sacrifice and all that they went through to come here to America—and why they did! Then, next week, we’re going to continue the story. It’s a two-part series, but I want you to hear the first part today. Here’s Barbara Rainey’s Thanksgiving: A Time to Remember.
Narrator: The roots of our Thanksgiving heritage are entwined with the history of England, growing deep into the rolling green 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 20, left their English homeland for exile in Leiden, 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 12-14-hour days, 6 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 Leiden 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 1200 settlers who had arrived in Jamestown in 1619, only 200 were still alive in 1620. The congregation in Leiden 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 costs of the 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 Leiden church chose to believe that God would grant them success if they sent a settling party to America. William Bradford later wrote:
William: “They had a great hope and inward zeal of laying a good foundation for the propagating 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.”
Narrator: 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. [Woman crying]
William: Dorothy May! We must trust in the Sovereign to give us hope and rest. Tis best for he and thee.
Dorothy May: But the boy is precious to my soul, William! Can the beckoning of the new land cause us to forego our steadfast duty to our own son?
William: God’s will be done. God’s will be done. [Crying]
Narrator: 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 our God, to seek from Him 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:
Edward: “We refreshed ourselves after our tears with the singing of psalms; and indeed, it was the sweetest melody that ever mine ears have heard.” [Singing the 23rd Psalm]
Michelle: We’re listening to Thanksgiving: A Time to Remember, written by Barbara Rainey and dramatized by our friend, Rob Jorgensen. We need to take a break, but we’ll be back in just two minutes. Stay tuned.
[Radio Station Spot Break]
Michelle: Welcome back to FamilyLife This Week. I’m Michelle Hill. Today, we are listening to a dramatization of Barbara Rainey’s book, Thanksgiving: A Time to Remember. We’re celebrating Thanksgiving this week. It’s a time when we gather and remember our blessings, and give thanks to God for what He has given us. I just want you to keep that in mind as you continue listening to the Pilgrims’ journey and sacrifice. We pick up the story as they leave Holland.
Narrator: The Pilgrim band of approximately 46 people first had to sail from Holland to England on a ship named the Speedwell. After sad farewells on July 22, 1620, the small ship headed across the English Channel to the seaport of Southampton. The Speedwell docked at a slip next to a ship painted brown and gold—it was the Mayflower.
Already onboard the [Mayflower] ship were Captain Jones, his crew, and 60-70 volunteers, who’d been recruited in England to give the new colony a larger population. Some of these volunteers desired religious freedom, but most were more interested in finding success and fortune in the new land. Also onboard were some servants hired to help the Pilgrims from Leiden. One of the hired helpers was Captain Miles Standish, an ex-soldier who would play an important role in the months ahead.
Both the smaller Speedwell and the Mayflower sailed from Southampton on August 5, 1620. This was late in the summer to launch such a voyage. Even with a normal ocean, crossing in no bad weather, the ships would not arrive until October, quite late to start building a settlement from the ground up.
The first days of the journey hinted at difficulties to come. The winds were unfavorable, and the ships could not make it out of the English Channel. The passengers, bounced to and fro by the rough waters, became seasick. Then the Speedwell began to leak. Seawater seeped through the hull and filled the belly of the ship. Both ships were forced to return to land, this time to the port of Dartmouth. After a week, repairs were completed on the Speedwell, and both ships sailed west.
After traveling about 300 miles into the Atlantic, the Speedwell again developed leaks. With great disappointment to everyone, the ships returned a second time to yet another port—Plymouth. More days of work and testing by shipbuilders passed before the Speedwell was labeled unseaworthy. The smaller Speedwell had been purchased by the colony to remain in America and be a means of transporting supplies, goods for sale, and passengers back and forth to Europe.
But because the ship couldn’t be repaired, the Pilgrim leaders were forced to sell it. This necessitated another decision. Since there wasn’t enough room on the Mayflower for the combined passengers of both ships, 20 volunteers would have to stay behind. Apparently, the choice was not too difficult, since by now, they had spent much of the last month on board ship and had experienced considerable seasickness. The volunteers came forward. William Bradford commented:
William: “And thus, like Gideon’s army, this small number was divided, as if the Lord by this work of His providence thought these few too many for the great work He had to do.”
Narrator: When the Mayflower finally left England, on the 6th of September, crowded on board were 102 passengers, including 33 children. Most of the Pilgrims on the ship were in their 20s and 30s. Surprisingly, at least 15 passengers were over 40, including William and Mary Brewster, who were both in their 50s.
Because of the delays, the passengers and crew had already used much of the food and drink set aside for the voyage. This meant supplies intended for use after landing in America would be needed for the sea journey. The food was terrible—brine-soaked beef, pork, and fish, and stale hard biscuits, which often were full of insects. The rats living on board helped themselves to the same food supplies.
The rooms for passengers were crowded and mainly below deck. Conditions were miserable: cramped quarters, seasick people vomiting into pails—if they were able to find one in time—no sanitary toilets. The hatches were sealed off because of constant storms, and so the passengers were unable to get fresh air. A foul mixture of odors grew in such an environment.
Another problem was the attitude of the seamen sailing the Mayflower. These men did not like “landlubbers,” particularly religious ones, calling the Pilgrims “psalm-singing puke-stockings” and worse. The sailors ridiculed their passengers for taking time each morning to recite or sing psalms and pray. One young sailor was especially nasty, cursing the ones who were sick and telling them he looked forward to throwing them overboard if they died on the voyage.
About two weeks out to sea, this same sailor unexpectedly developed a raging fever. Within just one day, he died of an unknown sickness, raving and cursing as he breathed his last. His shrouded body was buried at sea. This sobered the other seamen, a superstitious group, even in normal circumstances. They wondered if their fellow crewman had died because of his treatment of the humble and God-fearing Pilgrims. Not wanting to risk a similar fate, the more superstitious sailors no longer ridiculed their passengers.
The Mayflower was nearly halfway across the Atlantic when it met a ferocious storm. The wind wailed at 50 miles per hour, and waves towered 50 feet or higher. The waves’ vicious pounding opened cracks in the ship’s wooden hull. Icy cold seawater soaked the sailors and leaked into the passenger quarters below deck. The ship rolled and tossed from side to side, with the terrified Pilgrims hanging on to anything solid, crying out to God to deliver them. The storm raged for days and became so intense that even the blasphemous sailors were praying. The Pilgrims continued to pray and sing psalms—their voices barely heard above the thundering waves and howling wind.
Without warning, one of the huge crossbeams supporting the main deck suddenly cracked due to the constant stress of the high winds. Now, the sailors were as worried as the passengers. But, as always, the Pilgrims took their concerns and fears to God, asking Him to deliver them and provide a way of escape.
Pilgrim: Let us pray! “Oh, Lord, deliver us! Provide a way of escape, and protect our little ones!”
Narrator: And He did. Their spiritual leader, William Brewster, remembered the large iron jack screw the Pilgrims had brought for lifting heavy beams when they would begin their building construction. Similar to the screw in his printing press, the jack screw was located in the cargo hold and carried to the ‘tween deck, where the sailors used it to crank up the beam to its original position. The Pilgrims gave God the praise.
One man, a servant of John Carver named John Howland, became frantic after being cooped up so long during the long storm. Though the worst of the storm was over, the main deck was still no place for passengers, who were not used to rough seas. He disobeyed both the captain’s and his master’s orders, and went up on deck for some fresh air. The waves were still huge and sprayed frigid water over the sides. Suddenly, when the ship heeled over without warning, John fell overboard. As the young man slammed into the surface of the icy water and went under, he instinctively reached up with his arms, grasping for anything to hold on to. A rope was trailing over the side of the ship, and by God’s amazing grace, it was there when John reached out.
A person can live in the North Atlantic in November for only about four minutes. No one knows exactly how long John was in that cold, salty water before the sailors were able to haul him on deck. His skin was blue, and he had nearly drowned; but he did survive. There’s no record that he ever disobeyed an order again.
Another young man, a servant by the name of William Butten, became an example to all the other passengers on the importance of obeying the captain. It appears that William refused to follow the captain’s and the ship’s doctor’s orders to drink a spoonful of lemon juice daily. He became sick and died, the only passenger to die on the voyage. His body was quickly buried at sea. The Pilgrims, especially the children, took notice.
In the midst of tragic events and hardships on the long voyage, the Pilgrims also knew times of rejoicing. A moment of joy came when one of the mothers gave birth, in the smelly, crowded cabin, to a baby boy. His proud father appropriately named the lad Oceanus.
Pilgrim: “His name is Oceanus!” [Affirmation from others given]
Narrator: But after ten weeks at sea, many passengers were falling ill and complaining of fever, chills, and swollen limbs. The situation was grave, and there was still no sign of land.
The weather, however, had finally improved so that passengers could go on deck for exercise and fresh air. Captain Miles Standish, in charge of security and military readiness for the colony, took this opportunity to drill the men on the basics of weaponry and tactics.
On November 9th, several children squealed with delight when they saw a seagull dive above the ship. [Children’s excited voices]
Child: A seagull!
Narrator: Not long afterward, a sailor cried, “Land ho!”
Sailor: “Land ho!”
Narrator: After 65 days at sea from Plymouth, a total of 97 days from the first launch at Southampton, the Pilgrims caught a glimpse of their destination, the new land where God could be worshipped freely and, in time, where freedom would flourish. Shouting for joy and falling to their knees to pray, they celebrated by reading Psalm 100.
Pilgrims: “Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth. Serve the Lord with gladness. Come before Him with joyful singing. Know that the Lord Himself is God. It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves. We are His people and the sheep of His pasture. Enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise. Give thanks to Him; bless His name for the Lord is good; His loving-kindness is everlasting, and His faithfulness to all generations.”
Michelle: We’ve been listening to the dramatization of Barbara Rainey’s book, Thanksgiving: A Time to Remember. The Pilgrims’ journey did not conclude as they reached the shores of America; there were many more trials and hardships that awaited them. As always, their faith sustained them. That’s why Barbara wrote this book, because she wanted us to remember what our forefathers went through. Thanksgiving is not just about eating, or hours of TV, or naps, or leftover turkey sandwiches, followed by that stress-filled day on Black Friday, when all the frantic Christmas shoppers are out. Thanksgiving is a pause—it’s a pause to remember; it’s a pause to be thankful for all that God has blessed us with.
We’re going to continue on with the story of hope and sacrifice, and all that the Pilgrims did, and all that God did in their lives. I hope you’ll join us next week for Part Two of Thanksgiving: A Time to Remember. Thanksgiving: A Time to Remember was produced by our friend, Rob Jorgensen; narrated by Tom Fleming; and the music was produced by John Campbell.
Thanks for listening. I want to thank the president of FamilyLife, David Robbins, along with our station partners around the country. A big “Thank you!” to our engineer today, Keith Lynch. Do you have a famous Thanksgiving meal that you’re waiting for, Keith?
Michelle: [Laughing] Barbecue!
Well, I know that Marques Holt, our producer, is smoking a turkey. I’m not sure what Justin Adams, the mastering engineer, or Megan Martin are having, but I’m going to be enjoying my pumpkin pie.
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