It must have been the most horrifying experience of their lives. Though there were 103 people aboard the ship called The Mayflower, only 54 were from the band of Separatists who had lived in Holland the previous twelve years to escape persecution in England. They were farmers and sheepherders for the most part, though some might have been craftsmen of one trade or another. But never had they been on the high seas. And it must have seemed as though the very demons of hell had been loosed upon them during that fall of 1620.
The storms of the north Atlantic were so fierce and the ship so tossed that the main mast frequently dipped into the waves. It was a disorienting, gut-wrenching experience for even the experienced sailors among them. The small band of believers on board — men, women, an expectant mother and small children among them — were kept in the “tween deck” for fear of the buffeting storms. Many were sick. Some wailed their agonies endlessly through the terrifying nights. The icy winds wailed with them. What a filthy, smelly, terrifying time of testing that was!
But the elements were not the only opposition these Christians, who would soon be called “Pilgrims,” endured. There was one sailor who persisted in calling them “psalm-singing pukestockings,” which are exactly the two things they spent most of their time doing. Though the Pilgrims forgave and prayed for the man’s soul, he was, mysteriously, the only person to die during the voyage.
For 66 days the little ship, no longer than a modern volleyball court, made the treacherous voyage from England to the coast of Massachusetts. And when they arrived, what must their thoughts have been as they scanned the howling wilderness which was to be their home? William Bradford, their Governor, later wrote:
“Being thus passed the vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before in their preparation they had now no friends to welcome them, nor inns to entertain or refresh their weatherbeaten bodys, no house or much less townes to repair too, to seeke for succoure.”
“What could sustain them but the spirite of God and his grace. May not and ought not the children of these fathers, rightly say: ‘Our fathers were Englishmen which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wilderness.’”
And perish they almost did. More than half of them died during that first winter, often called “the starving time.” At one point, each person’s ration for a day was no more than five kernels of corn. Indian friends like Squanto and Samoset taught the white men how to harvest the bay and the land, but the yield would not be sufficient until the next year. So, they buried their dead and prayed for God’s mercy.
In the spring they planted and began to sense that God had heard their prayers. The previous winter had been the worst of times, but the harvest looked bountiful now, the settlement was growing and God seemed to be smiling upon them.
When the harvest was gathered that fall, Governor Bradford called for some of the men to go hunting in preparation for a great feast to celebrate the goodness of God. Wild fowl, fish from the sea, and venison were prepared in abundance. They invited their Indians friends and these, thankfully, brought five freshly killed deer. The white women prepared hoecakes, cornmeal pudding and a variety of vegetables while the Indian women introduced delicacies like blueberry, apple, and cherry pies. The most welcome new food which the Indians brought with them, though, was a new way of cooking corn in an earthen pot until it became white and fluffy — popcorn!
It was indeed a thanksgiving, but not just for safety and abundance of food. It was also a time to remember the words they had penned about their purpose for coming when they were yet on the The Mayflower. The came, they said, “for the Glory of God and the advancement of the Christian faith,” “for propagating and advancing the gospel of the kingdom of Christ in those remote parts of the world; yea, though they should be but even as stepping-stones unto others for the performing of so great a work.”
So they were. And we ought to remember them this Thanksgiving, and take their mission to our hearts.
“Thus out of small beginnings greater things have been produced by His hand that made all things of nothing, and gives being to all things that are; and as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone to many, yea in some sort to our whole nation; let the glorious name of Jehovah have all the praise.”
William Bradford, Of Plimoth Plantation