Lessons from the Thanksgiving Pilgrims (Part 1)

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.

For many, many years, there was little secular, commercial connection to Thanksgiving at all—except for sales on turkey, and the occasional silly commercial message, in which those advertising a product dressed up in supposed 17th-century garb. For the most part, though, the closest that retailers got to this celebration was speaking of the day which follows it.

Thanksgiving also has never 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.

And, perhaps never before has a season of Thanksgiving been as necessary as a healing balm for our spirits as it is during this most trying year of 2020.

Personally, I also enjoy this holiday because I love to study and teach about the Thanksgiving Pilgrims. I first tackled that undertaking in 1996, with a single sermon on the Pilgrim congregation, including several lessons that we can learn from them. Since then, that sermon has grown into a multi-media series of messages that I have been privileged to present numerous times, and my knowledge of the Pilgrims has continued to expand.

And now this year of 2020 marks the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival on these shores!

In this series of articles, I would like to share some lessons that I believe to be evident from the Pilgrims’ lives. Before we look at those lessons, however, I must make three introductory and 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. That is not my particular calling. However, I have come far in my understanding of them over the past quarter century, and my own theological interests intersect with Pilgrim history on a number of key points.

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 both church and American history, I nevertheless find myself in disagreement with numerous significant points to which the Pilgrim Church held.

Third, the purpose of this series of articles is not to tell the Pilgrims’ whole story. I will refer to some details for the sake of illustration, but mostly presume that the reader is already familiar with the outline of 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.

With those details in mind, we will be considering five brief lessons which we may learn from the Pilgrims, and in so doing we must 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 for the performing of so great a work” (Of Plymouth Plantation).

Later Puritan leader John Winthrop would refer to his Massachusetts Bay Colony as “a city that is set on a hill” (Matt. 5:14). The Pilgrims, likewise, modeled these five essential truths for us in such a way that their light would “so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).

We will begin to consider those lessons in the next installment.

Paul Scharf 2019 Bio


Paul J. Scharf (M.A., M.Div., Faith Baptist Theological Seminary) is a church ministries representative for The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, serving in the midwest. He also assists Whitcomb Ministries and writes for “Answers” Magazine and Regular Baptist Press. For more information on his ministry, visit foi.org/scharf or email pscharf@foi.org.

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Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I appreciate the look back. So much has changed. So much hasn't!

One detail that feels a bit more important lately than it might have before 2020: 

"...left England completely (and illegally) in 1608"...   The sect's separation from the Church of England was illegal at the time, but I didn't think their physical departure to the Netherlands in 1608 was illegal, or their departure from there to America. Do I have that wrong?

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Paul J. Scharf's picture

Aaron,

Thanks for running this series this week. I hope that everyone has a wonderful Thanksgiving!

On the point about leaving England, I would be interested to know if anyone has any specific insights, or can quote chapter and verse.

Bradford did state, "... they could not stay, yet were they not suffered to goe." Also, the group was arrested in 1607, at their first attempt to leave, when betrayed by an English ship captain; and the women, along with Brewster and Bradford, were arrested as the men left in 1608, with ther Dutch ship captain.

There may be complexities, though, beyond my simple summary of events.

God Bless!

Church Ministries Representative, serving in the Midwest, for The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry 

Bert Perry's picture

I believe that they had permission when they went to the Americas, but if I remember Bradford correctly, the drama over the exit visas was a great part of why they left for the Americas on short notice and with short supplies, both of which contributed strongly to the landing in Massachusetts and the horrendous death rates they suffered once there.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Paul J. Scharf's picture

I have not investigated the concept of visas.

My understanding has been that leaving either the Church or the country of England amounted to treason against the king.

Church Ministries Representative, serving in the Midwest, for The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry 

Bert Perry's picture

Just using the modern term, Paul.  Main point is what you mention; there is a reason that Englishmen were "subjects" of the King.

The story I remember hearing about the Puritans about the same time from a history professor is that he believed the King was actually pretty happy to see them on the other side of the ocean instead of diluting the strength of the C of. E in England.  One has to wonder if the horrific death toll among those in Virginia and Massachusetts influenced his decision.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Bradford did state, "... they could not stay, yet were they not suffered to goe." Also, the group was arrested in 1607, at their first attempt to leave, when betrayed by an English ship captain; and the women, along with Brewster and Bradford, were arrested as the men left in 1608, with their Dutch ship captain.

That is interesting. I'm sure some historians have dug into what "not suffered to goe" means there. It may mean that the Church of England was instructing to stay so they could be disciplined in some way? Or was it the King or some local authority?

Smithsonian Mag says there was law in the way ...

But immigrating to Amsterdam was not so easy: under a statute passed in the reign of Richard II, no one could leave England without a license, something Brewster, Bradford and many other Separatists knew they would never be granted. So they tried to slip out of the country unnoticed.  

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

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