To present the Thanksgiving story and disregard the Calvinism that ran through the mindset of Governor Bradford and the early settlers in Massachusetts in 1621 would be a grave error.  Not for nothing were they called Puritans!  Would there have been a Thanksgiving story to tell without the Calvinists?  I don’t think so.  You’ll see why below.

Yet, here’s what most kids in the US have been learning about this public holiday for at least a generation. Excerpts follow from ‘The Real Story of Thanksgiving’,  November 21, 2007:

… the Pilgrims came over, and they were just overwhelmed; they were swamped; they had no clue where they were; they had no clue how to feed themselves; they had to clue how to protect themselves; they had no idea how to stay warm; they had no idea how to do anything.  They were just typical, dumb … people fleeing some other place they couldn’t manage to live in.  And then, out of the woods came the … Indians, who had great compassion … and they befriended us … and Thanksgiving is where we give thanks to the Indians.

Of course the rest of the Thanksgiving story is that after the Indians saved the white people, who, after all, did what?  They brought syphilis, sexually transmitted diseases, gonorrhea — as had one high school health teacher pronounced it — racism, bigotry, homophobia, all these things… 

The truth in that account is the value of the Indians’ friendship and skills; conversely, the STDs didn’t come from the Pilgrim Fathers.  That was further south in non-Puritan or non-English settlements (e.g. Virginia, other parts of the New World) where there was much depravity and sadness because of ungodly actions by certain Europeans.  But, back to Thanksgiving and the Massachusetts Bay Colony. And, let’s not forget that John Calvin — whose theology formed the basis of Puritan belief — said that we must recognise common grace in all people. We are all here to accomplish good.  

So, here’s what happened as I learned it — back in the last century (same source link as above):

On August 1, 1620, the Mayflower set sail. It carried a total of 102 passengers, including forty Pilgrims led by William Bradford. On the journey, Bradford set up an agreement, a contract, that established just and equal laws for all members of the new community, irrespective of their religious beliefs. Where did the revolutionary ideas expressed in the Mayflower Compact come from? From the Bible …

The Pilgrims were a people completely steeped in the lessons of the Old and New Testaments. They looked to the ancient Israelites for their example. And, because of the biblical precedents set forth in Scripture, they never doubted that their experiment would work. But this was no pleasure cruise, friends. The journey to the New World was a long and arduous one. And when the Pilgrims landed in New England in November, they found, according to Bradford’s detailed journal, a cold, barren, desolate wilderness. There were no friends to greet them, he wrote. There were no houses to shelter them. There were no inns where they could refresh themselves. And the sacrifice they had made for freedom was just beginning. During the first winter, half the Pilgrims — including Bradford’s own wife — died of either starvation, sickness, or exposure.

When spring finally came, Indians taught the settlers how to plant corn, fish for cod and skin beavers for coats. Life improved for the Pilgrims, but they did not yet prosper! This is important to understand because this is where modern American history lessons often end. Thanksgiving is actually explained in some textbooks as a holiday for which the Pilgrims gave thanks to the Indians for saving their lives, rather than as a devout expression of gratitude grounded in the tradition of both the Old and New Testaments. 

The original contract the Pilgrims had entered into with their merchant-sponsors in London called for everything they produced to go into a common store, and each member of the community was entitled to one common share. All of the land they cleared and the houses they built belong to the community as well.

Bradford, who had become the new governor of the colony, recognized that this form of collectivism was as costly and destructive to the Pilgrims as that first harsh winter, which had taken so many lives.

He decided to take bold action. Bradford assigned a plot of land to each family to work and manage, thus turning loose the power of the marketplace. … Long before Karl Marx was even born, the Pilgrims had discovered and experimented with what could only be described as socialism. And what happened? It didn’t work! …

What Bradford and his community found was that the most creative and industrious people had no incentive to work any harder than anyone else, unless they could utilize the power of personal motivation!  But while most of the rest of the world has been experimenting with socialism for well over a hundred years — trying to refine it, perfect it, and re-invent it — the Pilgrims decided early on to scrap it permanently. What Bradford wrote about this social experiment should be in every schoolchild’s history lesson.

Here’s what he wrote: ‘The experience that we had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years…that by taking away property, and bringing community into a common wealth, would make them happy and flourishing — as if they were wiser than God.’

‘For this community [so far as it was] was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For young men that were most able and fit for labor and service did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense…that was thought injustice.’

So what did Bradford’s community try next? … Every family was assigned its own plot of land to work and permitted to market its own crops and products… ‘This had very good success,’ wrote Bradford, ‘for it made all hands industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been.’

In no time, the Pilgrims found they had more food than they could eat themselves … So they set up trading posts and exchanged goods with the Indians.

‘The profits allowed them to pay off their debts to the merchants in London. And the success and prosperity of the Plymouth settlement attracted more Europeans and began what came to be known as the “Great Puritan Migration”.’

So the Pilgrims decided to thank God for all of their good fortune.  And that’s Thanksgiving.  And read George Washington’s first Thanksgiving address and count the number of times God is mentioned and how many times he’s thanked.  None of this is taught today.  It should be.

This post is going out the day before Thanksgiving so that you have time to share it with your children or grandchildren.  I hope that your preparations are going well, and I pray that you have a very happy Thanksgiving.

Tomorrow: The first Thanksgiving proclamation — from George Washington

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