It’s not necessary to stuff Thanksgiving with all sorts of overt religious references. While they do exist, sometimes it’s better to be satisfied seeing what the Puritans called “a drop of glory.”
Thanksgiving weekend has become notable for travel, sumptuous eating, and shopping. It’s hardly the sooty, smelly affair of the first feast, which involved a few dozen settlers and perhaps a few hundred Native Americans who, Godfrey Hodgson reports, “protected themselves from cold, insect bites and so on with a thick layer of fat or grease.” They may have eaten well, but those who gathered around the table stunk.
Hodgson is a British journalist and author of A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving. He reminds readers that the Pilgrims came to America risking life and limb among Indians who, they had heard, flayed prisoners with scallop shells. They braved these dangers because they wanted to practice their faith – a faith somewhat unfamiliar to us, one marked by a remarkable response to death and loss.
The Pilgrims arrived at Cape Cod in November 1620. By December, six had died. In January, eight more passed away. In February, seventeen more Pilgrims died; leaving only five men able to care for the sick. The dead were buried at night so the Indians didn’t discover the losses. In March, thirteen passed away; bringing the total to forty-seven dead (50 percent of the original number). Thirteen out of eighteen were wives; only three families remained unbroken.
The next month, April, Squanto taught the remaining Pilgrims how to plant maize, beans, and squash. In October they enjoyed their first good harvest. Governor Bradford declared a public Thanksgiving, celebrated in October of 1621. In the only surviving firsthand account of the meal, Edward Winslow describes it this way:
Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, among other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed upon our governor, and upon the captain, and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.
Such entertainments as hunting and shooting firearms had no place in many faith traditions of that time. They did belong, however, in the long tradition of harvest festivals, with which the Puritans would have been quite familiar. In their native England, days of feasting and leisure commonly followed the harvest, even if the preceding year had been difficult. And the Native Americans apparently loved to shoot firearms. The Puritans tapped into these desires while borrowing from old secular celebrations, seeing in both what the Puritan divine Richard Baxter called “a drop of glory.” In the Puritan world, nothing fell outside the experience of faith, as Leland Ryken writes in Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were:
Puritanism was impelled by the insight that all of life is God’s. The Puritans lived simultaneously in two worlds – the invisible spiritual world and the physical world of earthly existence. For the Puritans, both worlds were equally real, and there was no cleavage of life into sacred and secular. All of life was sacred.
The Puritans are good guides in a post-Christian world. Like the Native Americans, Americans today enjoy feasting more than hearing about the faith. The Puritans would have accommodated this, believing it’s not necessary to stuff Thanksgiving with too many overt religious references. If your family is not that familiar with the faith, look for a drop of glory in the feasting, resting assured that, as Paul and David wrote, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1, 1 Cor. 10:26). Happy Thanksgiving.
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