Commentary by WFA president Julaine Appling:
On November 11, 1620, after over 2 months at sea on the Atlantic, the Mayflower landed at what is today Provincetown Harbor in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. In late December, after exploring the area from the Cape southwest and then north, the exploration party determined that Plymouth Bay was the right place for those who had come over on this voyage to establish their colony.
And who were those who had come over on the Mayflower? Many of them were Pilgrims and Puritans who left home and extended family to come to the New World for one reason—to find religious freedom for themselves and their children.
Twelve years earlier these folks and their pastor had left England and its Anglican Church whose teachings often conflicted with theirs and gone to Holland thinking life would be better for them there. It wasn’t better, and the desire for religious freedom again rose within them, eventually causing them to make their way to America.
For the Puritans and Pilgrims it was not a better economic system or better jobs that motivated them to leave all that they had ever known and make a perilous journey across the sea to a place that was virtually unknown to them. It was religious freedom. And that’s not supposition. They left proof.
When the leaders of this band of Puritans and Pilgrims realized they were off course from where they were supposed to land, they recognized they had no charter from the King of England for the new land they were going to be occupying. William Bradford, thus concluded they needed to have a means for governing themselves in this New World and drafted what became known as The Mayflower Compact.
Before disembarking, Bradford, who would soon become the Governor of Plymouth Colony, gathered the 41 men who would become part of the Colony and together they signed America’s first document of self-government.
In this historic document, multiple references are made to God, beginning with the opening sentence—“In the name of God Amen.” The substance of the document clearly states the purpose for the voyage: “Having undertaken for the glory of God and advancement of the Christian faith….”
That was the motivation—to have the liberty to advance the Christian faith according to the dictates of their own consciences and beliefs. What is so misunderstood today is that it is those Christian principles and values lived by our forefathers and codified in so many of our early governing documents that allow for that better economic system of free markets and capitalism, limited government, and entrepreneurial endeavors.
Those systems, quite frankly, do not work unless the presence of religion is strong and vibrant in a nation. Without the teachings of Christianity, capitalism quickly succumbs to greed, graft and corruption and limited government becomes impossible because people will not rule or govern themselves.
You know the rest of the 1620 story—and how I hope you are passing the story on to your children and grandchildren. Within the first year, half of the first settlers at Plymouth Colony died. It was not an easy year, but by the fall of 1621, as the remaining 53 settlers brought in their harvest, as their English custom had been, they gave thanks to God for the bounty they had—and shared said bounty with some 90 Massasoit Indians.
The people were truly living out why they had come to the New World. They were setting up a new country, although they couldn’t see that far down the corridors of time, that would be a place where eventually religious toleration would give way to true religious freedom, where Thanksgiving would be enshrined as a national holiday with the country’s leaders calling upon the people to give thanks to God Almighty for His blessings on them.
That is our heritage. Even though much has changed in America 391 years after the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth Colony, that doesn’t mean that you and your family should not follow the example of those who came to this country for the glory of God and the advancement of the Christian faith—and who thanked that same God for His blessings and protections and shared with others.
May we make this Thanksgiving season rich with our thanks and gather close those we love, making sure they know the truth of the Scriptures and the truth of those who came to this country, set the course for our religious freedom and gave us the First Thanksgiving.