The Thanksgiving Story
During the early part of the 17th century, The Church of England under King James I was dealing disaster to anyone who didn’t recognize the absolute spiritual and civil authority of the church. And not to get off on a tangent, but this was close to a century after Martin Luther had nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. As a result, many people in England were aware of the existence of alternative methods to worship other than the Church of England, and that’s more or less the beginning of the pilgrims and the American Thanksgiving story.
King James could really mess you up for not worshiping exactly as prescribed by the COE: you could be hunted down if you were seen or someone ratted you out, thrown in jail for any amount of time, and even executed for not worshiping as King and Church prescribed.
But wherever there’s repression and oppression, there’s always expression and revolt (see: Spartacus, William Wallace, Storming of the Bastille, and so on), and a group of people in England who weren’t so happy with the King James version of religion came together and tried to figure out a place where they could go where they could worship as they pleased without fearing the King. They chose Holland.
Then as now, Holland was kind of a cool country that pretty much allowed anything and everything, but it wasn’t exactly the Nirvana utopia the pilgrims had imagined or yearned for. When you allow anything and everything, some people still aren’t going to like it. They could worship as they pleased in Holland, but the head-banging neighbors and raucous partying all around them got old.
After about 11 years, the group decided they needed to find someplace out in the wilderness, really far removed from all government and established societal mores, to kind of start their own free and equal society thing, basically from scratch.
So, the group pooled their money (what tiny bit they had), and solicited a few merchants as sponsors of the venture from Holland and England, and planned to hire a boat to sail to a previously discovered but undeveloped and desolate land far across the Atlantic Ocean. The group selected forty of its own members, all basically young and in good health. Imagine NASA selecting a group of forty people to fly out to Mars to establish a colony, and you kind of get the gist of what kind of healthy, mostly young and hearty men and women were being looked at to cross the ocean toward the uncertain unknown.
On August 1, 1620, the forty set sail on The Mayflower. Passengers and crew totaled 102 people. The pilgrims were led by William Bradford.
Then, as today, businesses that sponsor a venture expect to be repaid; for them, it’s an investment. The sponsors figured the pilgrims would get over here to the new world and grow crops and produce things that would be shipped back for sale in the old world for a profit. And the pilgrims would get to set up their own community and worship and do as they pleased: a win-win for all involved.
Most of us don’t go anywhere without some kind of plan, and the pilgrims led by William Bradford were the same. So, during the 60-odd day voyage across the Atlantic, they made a plan, and wrote up an agreement: a personal contract with each other they called The Mayflower Compact. No more king to suck the cream off the top. Everybody would get an equal and fair share of the taste.
The Mayflower Compact decreed that, in the new world, everybody would be equal, with just and equal laws for everyone, no matter what they personally believed as far as religion was concerned. Being spiritual, they used the Old and New Testaments of the Bible as a guide. They had incredible faith. They wanted all wealth and property to be distributed fairly and equally in the new world they were about to create.
They essentially set up what we called a hippy commune back the 1960s: no one person would own anything, all the crops they grew and all the buildings they built would belong to everyone, with all members of the community pitching in equally on the labor, and each owning one share in the community. Plus, the sponsors were expecting repayment, so everything the pilgrims grew, made, or produced went into a common store. No one owned any personal property.
Of course, when the pilgrims arrived in New England, there was nothing there. Nothing. No hotels, no houses, no cleared land, no cheering crowds to greet them, no friends or relatives to couch surf with. They only had what was on the Mayflower, and winter was setting in.
The first winter was really tough. Many died – including Bradford’s own wife – as people starved and succumbed to the diseases that prolonged exposure to the weather can bring. The pilgrims, like astronauts on a modern day mission to Mars, were living day to day those first few months on only the stores they brought with them on the ship.
The next spring, they began farming, and clearing land for houses. According to the Mayflower Compact, everyone was equal. No one owned anything, progress was slow, and crops struggled. Not everyone was working as hard as they could. Human nature has always been human nature.
Looking around at the slackers, the governor of the colony had an epiphany. He realized the Compact had created a costly and destructive form of collectivism. William Bradford saw that the most creative and industrious people had no incentive to work any harder than those who slipped off for an afternoon nap, or spent most of the day writing poetry or even praying. Everyone received the same allotment of food and other resources no matter what, and it wasn’t working. You could produce nothing and still eat and have a home, much to the chagrin of the individuals who were busting it.
Bradford wrote that the younger men felt discontentment that they were expected to spend their time and energy and strength for the benefit of other men’s wives and children with no compensation to themselves or their families.
Bradford quickly changed the system and ended the communal socialist approach. He assigned a plot of land for each family to work and manage, and whatever they produced was theirs to do with what they wished. They could keep it and work it, sell it, or sell the excess of what they produced off of it, and Bradford saw that he’d unleashed the awesome power of competition.
Bradford had opened the box of Free Enterprise. Nearly everyone became industrious, as they owned the product of their individual efforts. At that time, they began to set up trading posts to trade with the Native Americans. Buying and selling took root. Profits were used to pay off the original investors, and then to profit from the cross-Atlantic trade.
Word of the progress and success the Plymouth colony was now spreading back throughout England, Holland, and Europe, setting off the Great Puritan Migration. Lots of people wanted to come to this hostile untamed place, because it meant they could own their own land privately and profit from it. Under the feudal system of the old world, you owned nothing. Everything was owned by the King, who redistributed the goods as he saw fit, keeping the best of everything for himself.
And as with any society, there’s give and take. The natives did teach them how to fish and build small boats, and better ways to grow their crops, because being invested in ownership of their own land, the pilgrims were most interested in the very best and most efficient ways to produce crops and other products. Profits soared, and farmed goods and rustic furniture and homespun clothing were in abundance.
Being Godly people, the pilgrims began celebrating every fall after the harvests, and inviting their customers and friends among the indigenous people and thanking God for their success by feasting and giving thanks.
And that’s how we got Thanksgiving, a celebration of our Judeo-Christian beliefs and a thankfulness for the fruits of our labors. Have a happy one.