On December 11, 1621, Edward Winslow sent a letter from the new settlement of Plymouth to a friend in England, describing the first Thanksgiving of the Pilgrims in the New World.
As you probably remember from grade school, the Pilgrims were English settlers who fled religious persecution by the Church of England. They hoped to establish a settlement in American where they could worship freely, without fear of punishment from the English crown. After a difficult 66-day crossing aboard the Mayflower in the fall of 1620, followed by a treacherous winter in which about half of the settlers died from exposure, illness, or malnutrition, the Pilgrims must have greeted the spring of 1621 with trepidation.
In March of that year, the Pilgrims made an alliance with the Wampanoag, who taught them how to grow corn, catch fish, harvest wild plants, and other things vital to their survival. By November 1621, the Pilgrims were ready to celebrate their first successful harvest, which brings us back to Edward Winslow. His letter is the only firsthand account we have of that first Thanksgiving:
We set the last spring some twenty acres of Indian corn, and sowed some six acres of barley and peas, and according to the manner of the Indians, we manured our ground with herrings or rather shads, which we have in great abundance, and take with great ease at our doors. Our corn did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown, they came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom.
Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after have a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors . . . 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 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.(1) (emphasis mine)
(1) Mourt’s relation or journal of the plantation at Plymouth . ed by Dexter, Henry Martyn Boston, J. K. Wiggin, 1865.
After a year of unimaginable hardship, loss, depravation, and uncertainty, the Pilgrims had nothing but praise and thanksgiving to offer God.
Beloved, it’s easy to be thankful when God’s blessings are clear, complete, and full. It takes spiritual discipline to be thankful when we’re facing (or coming out of) a confusing, inconsistent season that has more apparent loss than anything else. But the Bible tells us, and the Pilgrims understood this, that our thankfulness cannot be dependent on earthly circumstances. Let’s look at what the Bible says about giving thanks.
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”—1 Thessalonians 5:16–18.
Friend, do you know that prayer and thanksgiving produce peace and composure in us, no matter our circumstances? We must always be in a posture of rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks—God wills it for our good.
“. . . giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ . . .”—Ephesians 5:20.
It is our duty always to give thanks and to give thanks for all things. This includes what causes us pain. Doing this requires having an eternal perspective. Paul understood this well. Take a look at what he said in Romans 8:18.
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.”—Romans 8:18
Paul suffered much for the Gospel (2 Cor. 11: 23–33), but he considered the sufferings of “this present time” not worthy of the glory “that is about to be revealed to us and in us and for us and conferred on us” (Amplified). Paul encourages us to look beyond our earthly suffering and place our gaze on the glorious work God is doing.
“And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ Likewise He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you.’”—Luke 22:19–20
Here in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus offers the most exquisite example of giving thanks. He had just washed His disciples’ feet—the men who would betray, deny, and abandon Him. He took the bread and the cup, knowing it would soon be His very body and blood, and He gave thanks. How did Jesus give thanks in this moment? Fully Man, He could have felt despair, rejection, or self-pity, but because of His Kingdom perspective, He knew what Paul would later express in Romans 8:18—that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy of comparison to the glory to come.
Beloved, even if we feel like we have nothing else to be thankful for, we have this: Jesus loves us so much that He would rather have died than spend eternity without us, and so He did. Our eternity is secure, and it will be glorious!
“. . . giving thanks to the Father who has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins.”—Colossians 1:12–14
This past year has been a season of tremendous change for us: Sarah and have embarked on a call to disciple outside the walls of the church. And in the midst of this transitional season, our family has never taken our eyes off of what God has done, is doing, and will continue to do for and through us—for the glory that is to come.
God has delivered us all from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the Kingdom of the Son of His love. Like Jesus, Paul, and the Pilgrims, we offer thanksgiving to the One who loves us first, most, and last. Rejoice this season with thanksgiving in your hearts!