Lessons from the Thanksgiving Pilgrims

There is no question about it—Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, bar none.

The mere word warms my heart and causes my mind to click through the memories of Novembers long past. It conjures up images of family and dear friends—some now departed— gathered around a bountiful table; of special services at church and shortened weeks of school; of singing grand old hymns which we re-learn usually just once every year; and, most importantly, of giving thanks to God for bringing us safely through another season of life.

Thanksgiving is almost the only holiday which has yet to be hi-jacked by secular or commercial forces. Think of it—the closest that retailers get to this celebration is speaking of the day which follows it, or perhaps dressing in supposed 17th century garb to film silly commercials.

Thanksgiving has also not really been corrupted by worldliness. Few seem to talk about getting drunk for Thanksgiving Day or staying out all night beforehand.

Somehow Thanksgiving—both the day and the action—seems to have a calming effect within our souls. Celebrating it helps us draw a mental line between the cares of the old year and the onset of the new one, while preparing us to remember the birth of Christ in the meantime.

I also enjoy this holiday because I love to study and teach about the Thanksgiving Pilgrims, and in this article I would like to share some lessons that I believe to be evident from their lives. Before we look at those lessons, however, I must make three explanatory statements:

First, I want to make it clear that I am merely a student of the Pilgrims. I do not fancy myself to be an expert on them like those who have devoted a great deal of their lives to researching Pilgrim history and theology. That is not my calling.

Second, my love for the Pilgrims does not mean that I wholly endorse all aspects of their doctrine and practice. While appreciating their importance to the history of theology as well as to the history of America, I nevertheless find myself in disagreement with numerous significant points that the Pilgrim Church held to.

Third, the purpose of this article is not to tell the Pilgrims’ whole story. I refer to some details for the sake of illustration but mostly presume that the reader is already familiar with Pilgrim history. Suffice it to say that the Pilgrims were a group of separatists who—having come out of the Church of England—left England completely (and illegally) in 1608 in search of religious freedom. They traveled first to Holland. Twelve years later, a portion of them boarded the Mayflower, landing at Provincetown Harbor on Nov. 9, 1620.

Lessons from the Pilgrims

Those things being said, let us consider five brief lessons which we may learn from the Pilgrims, and in so doing allow those historic saints to fulfill the role which Gov. William Bradford envisioned when he spoke of the possibility that “they should be but even stepping stones unto others” (Of Plymouth Plantation). Here, then are five essentials which the Pilgrims modeled for us from their “city that is set on an hill” (Matt. 5:14).

1 Pilgrimage: The Pilgrims vividly portray the pilgrim-like nature of the Christian life (Heb. 11:13; 1 Pet. 2:11, 12).

This is, of course, the truth for which the Pilgrims have been named since they lived it out so completely in their spiritual lives. The Pilgrims left all they had in order to seek a place where they might worship God freely and witness for Him fruitfully. Their journeys took them from their homes in Scrooby, England to Amsterdam and Leyden in Holland, then ultimately across the stormy ocean to this New World.

The Bible admonishes all believers to think of this life with the mindset of a pilgrim, a stranger in the world, a foreigner among the nations of people whose conversation is centered on this earth (Phil 3:20).

As Christians, we are the ambassadors of another kingdom; therefore we do not plant our roots too deeply. We must not be like the “earth-dwellers” who are spoken of in Rev. 3:10; 6:10; 8:13; 11:10; 13:8, 14 and 17:8. Instead, we realize that at any instant we might be gloriously transported from earth to Heaven. Until that day, we follow the Lord wherever He leads in order to accomplish His will.

The Pilgrims earned their title by being willing to circle the globe in order to serve God more perfectly. Do we have that same mentality in the 21st century? Do we appreciate and use the religious liberty which they so desperately longed for?

As pilgrims we must be willing to follow the Lord wherever He calls us.

2 Power: The Pilgrims demonstrate the value and potential of a small church (Rev. 3:8).

So often in this day of mega-churches and church growth principles, the small church feels left out, as if its value is limited and its service unimportant. Thus, the Pilgrim example should be encouraging to many. The Pilgrim Church (yes, the Pilgrims were part of one congregation) demonstrates for all time that a very small church may have a very vibrant and vital ministry.

The post-exilic prophet Zechariah asked: “Who hath despised the day of small things?” (Zech. 4:10). History resounds with the cry that none dare despise these Pilgrims.

The Pilgrim Church began from nothing in 1606. It started as a bold idea among a handful of God’s servants who continuously placed purity over popularity and consecration over comfort. God blessed their work and caused the congregation to grow to include about 300 people in Leyden, but the number that came over to Plymouth was only 35.

Yet God used that small band to form the beginning of this nation—while they meanwhile became its first great evangelical missionaries! There is no limit to what God can do through those who trust Him as completely as the Pilgrims did—no matter how small their numbers, or how great the odds against them.

3 God’s Plan: The Pilgrims display the faithfulness of God to His people (Phil 1:6).

God has a plan and purpose for history, and this includes a plan and purpose for each individual who knows Him. The Bible tells us that God “worketh all things after the counsel of His own will” (Eph. 1:11), and He graciously chooses to use us to fulfill His plan. Thus, until His plan is accomplished in and through us, He will be faithful to us.

God allowed the Pilgrims to suffer numerous trials as they fled persecution in Europe and sailed the Atlantic to come to the New World, but even in those times He gave evidence of His faithfulness to them. (For instance, while they were crossing the ocean, the Mayflower crew used a large screw—probably a piece of a printing press—to secure a cracked beam and save their entire journey.)

The Lord worked out His plan in their lives and used them to lay the foundation for this great nation. He allowed them to have influence in both the civil realm and the theological and spiritual realm.

God was faithful to show His love for us in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, and He is ever faithful to continually guide His people through all things. Like trailblazers before us, the Pilgrims show us the way to trust Him in unusually difficult circumstances.

4 Perseverance: The Pilgrims model perseverance in the midst of difficulty (Phil. 3:14).

The Pilgrims were persecuted, jailed, harassed, hunted and humiliated. They knew almost every type of danger and embarrassment. Even modern action films cannot match the stories of their harrowing escapes from danger. They were betrayed by a shipmaster in their first attempt to escape persecution in England in 1607, but that did not stop them.

William Bradford and his mentor, William Brewster, are perhaps the most notable in this regard—having led the church in the midst of peril all the way from Scrooby to Plymouth. When the Pilgrim women and children were arrested after the men had successfully escaped to Amsterdam on their second attempt in 1608, it was these two men who stayed behind to care for those wives and children. Yet Bradford still managed to outlast many of his brethren by serving for more than 30 years as governor of Massachusetts.

The Pilgrims suffered loss, hardship and ruin. Finally, many of them died in Holland without ever reaching their goal in this life. And all but four families who arrived in the New World suffered at least one death during the winter of 1620-21. But they never quit. They kept pursuing what they believed to be the will of God for them. They never turned back but kept pressing forward.

How many of us would be so determined to follow and so quick to obey in the midst of such hard circumstances? The Pilgrims give us a tremendous example of steadfastness.

5 Praise: The Pilgrims exemplify the spirit of Thanksgiving (1 Thess. 5:18).

The first Thanksgiving didn’t grow out of the enjoyment of abundance, but out of gratitude for the provision of necessities. The Pilgrims had very little to eat in their first year at Plymouth—a year marked more than anything by the scourge of sickness and death. With overwhelming odds against them, they devoted themselves to God and His principles for all areas of their lives. When He blessed them, they did not forget His benefits, but turned themselves to Him wholeheartedly in thanksgiving.

In the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims gave thanks to God for sparing the lives of those who had not died in the first winter. They were grateful that He had brought them to this new land and given them a bountiful harvest. We have so much more than they did, but I wonder if we have as much gratitude as they did. Surely at this time of Thanksgiving all of us have so much to be thankful for: our Savior Jesus Christ, the freedom to worship, the opportunity to serve God, our families, our churches, our homes, our health, our strength—and many other provisions from God as well.

The Apostle Paul teaches in Romans 1:21 that thanklessness is far from an innocent omission, and is actually a crucial step in man’s downfall into degradation. The picture Paul paints is one of a society which is one step away from a free-fall into gross, godless immorality, with the tread of that step being thanklessness.

Among the many things for which we ought to be thankful to God is the great heritage which we as believers have in those we follow—including these amazing Pilgrims.

May the lessons we can learn from the Pilgrims encourage and inspire you this Thanksgiving season and help you to say with all the redeemed—“Thanks be unto God” (2 Cor. 2:14)!

Paul J. Scharf is a graduate of Maranatha Baptist Bible College (Watertown, WI) and Faith Baptist Theological Seminary (Ankeny, IA). He is the editor of the Columbus Journal in Columbus, Wis., an associate with IMI/SOS International in Hudsonville, Mich., and a ministry assistant for Whitcomb Ministries, Inc. in Indianapolis, Ind. Scharf served as a pastor for seven years and has taught the Bible on the elementary, secondary and college levels. He is a contributor to Coming to Grips with Genesis: Biblical Authority and the Age of the Earth (Master Books, 2008) and has written numerous articles for Gospel Herald and The Sunday School Times. He is a member of the Pre-Trib Study Group. Paul is married to Lynnette, and the couple resides near Columbus, WI.
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