The Myth of Thanksgiving


 The Myth of Thanksgiving

by Rev. Peter Connolly

A Sermon offered at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, KY, on Thanksgiving Day, November 26, 2009

This is the story of how the Pilgrims came from England in 1620, celebrated the first Thanksgiving and become the first Americans—except they didn’t. This is the story of how the people in England who became known as the Pilgrims got themselves into the situation they did—which was to become religious “puritans”; then, unwanted persons; then self-exiles; then reluctant voyagers; then scared newcomers; then villagers; then townsmen and always English subjects.

This is the story of how the Pilgrims planted the seeds of our present-day celebration of the Thanksgiving holiday, except they didn’t, so it cannot be that story. But it’s another story. Perhaps it’s a better story.

In his book A Great and Godly Adventure, Godfrey Hodgson names two “convulsive, irreversible changes” that occurred in Europe in the early years of the 16th century—a hundred years before the voyage of those religious puritans we’ve come to call the “Pilgrims,” that had a direct influence on their “adventure.” Those changes were embedded in the historical developments we call the “Reformation” and the “expansion of Europe into Africa, Asia and the Americas that has been called ‘the great frontier.'”

Events were brewing in the Holy Roman Church in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, occasioned by what the “brewers” would call corruption of the teachings and traditions of Christ. October 31, 1517, is generally taken as the date that began the great Reformation of the church. On that date, the monk Martin Luther saw fit to publicly post his objections to these abuses in a very public and a very apt place— the door of the cathedral of the town where he lived—the Church of All Souls in the town of Wittenberg in Germany. Ninety-five objections— “theses” or “propositions”— he nailed to the door— or so tradition tells us. Some sources say that he merely circulated them.

What was important about these propositions? Theologically, they aimed for a deeper Christian faith through greater fidelity to God’s word as revealed in the Holy Scriptures. Ecclesiastically, they aimed at decentralizing the role of the hierarchy of the church in its interpretation of Scripture and levying of penalty and absolution. Politically, these theses were bound to provoke, they were intended to destabilize, they meant to rattle the cages where salvation was kept hostage. Morally, Luther’s was, by any measure, a heroic stance. Ethically, it was, in his judgment, the only stance possible. “Here, I stand,” he cries “I can do no other.”

Luther, patently, took his religion seriously. In John Bowker’s text, God: A Brief History, Bowker quotes from one of Luther’s sermons as he looked back on his early life.

For more than 20 years in my cloister…I sought God with great toil and severe mortification of the body, fasting, watching, singing and praying. In this way I shamefully wasted my time and found not the Lord. The more I sought and the nearer I thought I was to him, the farther away I got. No, God does not permit us to find him so. He must first come and seek us where we are. We may not pursue and overtake him. That is not his will.

Luther found through personal experience that he could not reach God through effort and finally reached the conclusion that we can know nothing of what he calls “God’s incomprehensible and unsearchable will.” In his great phrase, “We look with the blind eyes of moles on the majesty of God,” he states his case most succinctly and falls back on whatever substance we do have for revelation. He identifies this as Scripture, sola scriptura, only the Bible. Believing that salvation lies in the will of God and that the will of God is perfectly revealed in the Bible and that the institution of the church had co-opted God’s word through perversion of doctrine, Luther saw as his great task to translate the Bible from the Latin accessible only to trained clergy to the daily language of his people, the German language. In this way, revelation is made available to all—the “priesthood of every believer,” in his memorable phrase.

Calvin, the Swiss theologian and contemporary of Luther, saw things a mite differently, but also advocated a search for revelation that relied on the centrality of Scripture. In Bowker’s account, Calvin believes that the “effects of God can be seen in Creation, but it is impossible to understand what has been revealed of God without the ‘spectacles’ that scripture provides.” We are “inherently sinful people, lost in the labyrinth of iniquity” and we can only be delivered by the Bible’s message “which leads us out into a totally undeserved salvation.”

It was this purity in the viewpoints of serious Christian theologians in the early 16th century which challenged the cynical exploitation of the poor and credulous by the institution of the church which impelled Luther and Calvin and Zwingli and the rest to take the risks they did. And it was to this “pure” vision of what Christ’s kingdom on Earth could be that attracted various pious Christians across Europe, some “purer” than others, none, it can be argued, “purer” than the Separatists that later became known a s Pilgrims.

“Separatists” they were called by others, usually. Sometimes they were called “Brownists” “after Robert Browne, a Cambridge Presbyterian who formed a Separatist congregation” (Hodgson). Sometimes they were called “Anabaptists,” which was a pejorative. They gave themselves various names. Most commonly, they called themselves “the godly.” We could certainly call them “Puritans,” for the purity of their beliefs, but that term was reserved for a group of similar-thinking folks “who chose to remain inside the Church of England.”

That institution, itself, was a product of the Reformation, as well, though it would be more precise, I think, to say that it was a product of the growing dissatisfaction with the institutionalized church that formed the fertile ground for the reformists’ movement. It is hard to argue that King Henry VIII had true theological differences with the church the way Luther and Calvin did. In Henry’s mind, as evinced by his actions, the institution of the church was a secular inconvenience to the hugeness of his ego and ambition.

So, our heroes can be called “Puritans” in an informal way that acknowledges the seriousness of their theological stance, but historically, that term has already been claimed. No one called them Pilgrims till generations later, but the term is generally used, even by those who dispute it because, after all, we have to call them something and who’s going to going around calling them “the godly” in a secular world and “Separatists” reeks too much of the academic, don’t you think?

The other “convulsive, irreversible change” that Hodgson speaks of is the “great frontier,” that expansion of Europe by maritime development into Africa, Asia and the Americas. The religious impulse gave rise to the search of the Pilgrims for a religious home, tolerant of their theology. The expansion of European sea power gave them the means to seek that home.

Separatists believed that each congregation should seek its own salvation and “not be bound by the rules and the regulations of the Church of England in matters of doctrine and discipline” (Ibid.). As is often is the case, at this time in England, the academy provided an institutional home for Protestantism in its challenge to the secular power wielded by the church in the name of religion. The university town of Cambridge, in this case, housed the anti-institutionalists. There were educated William Brewster and John Robinson who were to be Pilgrim leaders. Brewster became a mentor of sorts in theological matters to William Bradford, who was twenty years younger than him and would walk to his home for discussion. These three formed the core of Pilgrim leadership.

The Pilgrims’ fondest hope was to be allowed to practice their pure and separatist brand of religious observance in their hometowns, but religious intolerance made it impossible. Their migration was first to what Godfrey Hodgson calls an “unpromising cluster of villages in the English Midlands.” By the fall of 1607, it was clear that the archbishop of York was determined to destroy their church and that the Separatists would have to move. Their beliefs would allow neither assimilation nor accommodation with the institutional church: they believed that God ordained that their highest purpose was to “worship God in their own way.”

The desperate search of this band of Separatists to find a religious home qualifies them for the title “Pilgrim,” though not in the way that term is usually used, for religious folk following a prescribed path toward an agreed-upon goal. The pilgrimage that these folks embarked upon was for an unknown place, a refuge and a fortress. The obvious refuge outside of England was in Holland, “which had been a refuge for such victims of religious persecution in England since the middle of the previous century” (Ibid.). The trip includes sacrifice, betrayal, capture, loss of most of their possessions to robbery, and imprisonment for a month for the party of fifty to sixty men, women and children.

What next? To try again. A forty-mile march by the men to Killingholme while the women and children traveled by boat, a boat which got washed up on a sand bar, stranding them. The men were persuaded to board a ship while waiting for the tide to lift the boat of their families. From that ship they watched, horrified, as their wives and families were arrested by “a great company, both horse and foot, coming with bills [woodmen’s blades used as battle-axes] and guns and other weapons” (Ibid.)

What next? A fierce storm blew up. The ship was driven nearly 400 miles across the North Sea almost to the coast of Norway. They had to sail south again to Amsterdam, which they did, successfully. Amsterdam, then as now, was a bastion of liberalism. The magistrates were embarrassed at having to decide what to do with these women and children whose only crime was their passion for their beliefs. Hodgson says that “the women and children were passed from one jurisdiction to another. In the end, the authorities had the sense to let them go.” Amsterdam.

Amsterdam then is described as “the New York of the 17th century… commercial, cosmopolitan, busy, and rich.” It appears that in the early years of the 17th century, “five hundred ships left its harbor every week, trading to the Baltic, the Mediterranean, the Hudson, the Spice Islands, South Africa and Japan.” It was too much for the pious Pilgrims. After less than a year, they moved on to another Dutch town called Leiden. The religious band found the town more to their liking, but did not have the skills to compete for the jobs held by artisans. They were left to take less skilled jobs in the textile industry, becoming carders, twine makers, wood combers, glovers and hatters. Some made clay pipes.

They had two services every Sunday. The first began early in the morning and lasted about four hours. The congregation stood for the whole time. They sang their songs without accompaniment as music was considered sinful—”or at least, Catholic.” The sermon would sometimes last two hours. The second service was devoted to debating and discussing passages from Scripture, the whole congregation being encouraged to participate. This service, also, could last three or four hours.

William Brewster took to publishing books. Is it any surprise that the kind of books he printed were just the kind destined to get him in trouble in England? By now is it any surprise that copies of these books made it back to England? One was an attack on James I and his bishops for “trying to impose episcopy on the Presbyterian Scots church. The unbound books were smuggled in the false bottoms of French wine barrels.” Those were the days. The book was “denounced as an ‘atrocious and seditious libel,’ and the king ordered his ambassador in Holland…to find Brewster and bring him to justice” (Ibid.). The king’s hirelings searched for Brewster for months in Holland but did not find him because he had made his way back to London.

“By 1617, the Leiden congregation, led by John Robinson and William Brewster, had come to the conclusion that they must leave Holland and emigrate to the New World that was opening up” (Ibid.) at that time in history. They were influenced in coming “to that conclusion by… Thomas Weston, a wealthy London ironmonger and…investor, whose business took him to Holland” (Ibid.) Weston was eager to find a way to break into the trade emerging from the vast resources of the North American continent. “He was willing and able to advance to the Pilgrims the substantial capital they would need to establish themselves in America” (Ibid.)

So, from their beginning, the Pilgrims had two aims in their goal of settling across the Atlantic. Their primary aim was religious— to find a place and a way “to practice their own… Protestant version of Christianity” free from interference from king or bishops. But it had to be a business venture, too, because if it were not, the Pilgrims could in no way afford to bear the expense of the trip. They had to earn enough to repay the loans they had secured from Weston and the other backers. The plan was to trade for furs with the native population.

Weston, meanwhile, strove to alter the terms to his advantage after the agreement had been struck and the Pilgrim leaders had to muster the fortitude to refuse to yield to this pressure. Meanwhile, political events across the European continent added pressures to the religious folk to find another place. “The Hapsburgs were the archenemies of Protestant religion,” says Hodgson, and “their victory would mean a Calvary for Protestant Holland.” The dangers from “wild men and wild animals” on this new continent might have looked less scary with this as a prospect.

It was August 22, 1620, when the pilgrims were finally ready to sail on two ships, the Speedwell and the Mayflower. The Speedwell was a small ship, a sixty-ton vessel. The Mayflower could hold 180 tons of cargo. The Speedwell never made it. William Bradford said that it was “as leaky as a sieve.” As it turns out, the ship was sabotaged by her master. “He was afraid the expedition would run out of food, and that the Mayflower would make sure it kept all the supplies.”

It may be surprising for you to learn, as it was for me, that hundreds of ships, some much smaller than the Mayflower, had been crossing the Atlantic every year for more than a century, since John Cabot had first landed in Newfoundland in 1497. By 1620, thousands of European sailors were spending their summers fishing on the Grand Banks and on the shores of Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Maine. They almost always sailed in the summer, though.

The Mayflower was on the North Atlantic hundreds of miles from shore when the autumn storms were most fierce. For days at a time, they reefed the sails as short as they could because the winds were so strong and the seas so high. It’s remarkable that only one man died during the voyage. And there was one birth as well. They started out a hundred strong and landed on the North American shore at 99 and an infant.

The Mayflower was at sea for two months and three days. She landed at 8 in the morning on November 9, but did not find a safe place to disembark for another day. They landed, not at Plymouth, but at Provincetown at the tip of Cape Cod. The water was so shallow for such a long stretch that they had to wade several hundred yards in near-freezing water.

Only 57 or 58 of the passengers could be called “Pilgrims,” even by the looseness of the term we are using. The rest were sailors and adventurers, in service to the backers of the voyage and in no sympathy with what must have seemed to them to be religious zealots.

The Pilgrim leaders feared a mutiny by those who did not share their religious beliefs. In addition, they were not sure if their landing place, as far north as it was, would still be considered part of the Virginia Territory and thus under British jurisdiction. For these two reasons, they drew up a document that was designed to keep order and state their covenant. It became known as the Mayflower Compact.

John Quincy Adams and others, looking back, saw this as one of the founding texts of American democracy. Godfrey Hodgson thinks otherwise. He says that to see “the compact as a forerunner of the Declaration of Independence, is anachronistic, unhistorical nonsense. The compact was not a state paper. It was written, hurriedly…It cannot have been written as a founding document for an American nation, because there was at that time no such nation, nor any intention or even conception of creating one.” Clearly, the Mayflower Compact pledges loyalty to the king. Clearly, the Pilgrim fathers thought of themselves as transplanted Englishmen, living elsewhere, but still loyal to the crown.

The church form that the Puritan Pilgrims fought for is called congregationalism. A central tenant is that each congregation is entitled to design for itself its own polity, its own system of governance, its own rules for worship. It is perhaps ironic that these separatists founded a version of Protestant Christianity that became state-sponsored, that the church and the state became fused in the process known as “the standing order.” This was an institution that held to the Trinitarian formula it had inherited, but as the centuries progressed, the standing order began to crumble due to the inevitable introduction of alternative pieties expressed in denominationalism.

And in the course of time, came those progressive ideas best reflected in the theology of William Ellery Channing, that claimed no Biblical justification for Trinitarian belief— the God of Christian scripture is one. The theology was known as Unitarianism, so perhaps today is, for us, a day to give thanks for the dedication, the courage, the fortitude, the strength of faith of the Puritan separatists whose understanding of God and humanity’s relationship to God is so far from our own, but whose determination made possible the flowering of a source of our religious heritage and possible, indeed the existence of this church which we now inhabit and so love, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green.

From Matthew, Ch. 18, verse 13: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Well, when I came upon two of our church members yesterday in Kroger as we shopped for our Thanksgiving meal, it was not in the name of Jesus that we met, but, as always, I think, in the spirit of this church. As discussion touched on this sermon I had to prepare, one good churchwoman said “You’re not going to diss on my Pilgrims, are you?”

Well, no, I don’t think I’m doing anything but paying them homage. We are deeply indebted, as I’ve tried to demonstrate today to the lives of courage and integrity lived by our Pilgrims. It’s important that we tell their story, but it’s important, too, to separate our history from our myth.

The myth of Thanksgiving has been built up over time, but it originates in the eyewitness of one of the Pilgrim fathers called Edward Winslow who lists the crops that did well and the ones that failed. The gathering of crops is the harvest. The end of the harvest comes when the last sheaf of wheat, the last ear of corn has been harvested. The harvest is then “home,” hence the English celebration called “Harvest Home.” In all likelihood, this was the celebration held in Plymouth in 1 621 a year or so after the Pilgrims landed. It is true that the Pilgrims used the occasion to give thanks, but when did they not give thanks? Hodgson cites a number of instances in the previous year when the group gathered to give thanks.

“Our harvest being got 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,” chronicles Edward Winslow. Whatever fowl that they killed, it is almost certain that turkey was not included because their weapons were much better suited to shooting ducks and geese on the water than birds on the wing, but also because after ten years of excavations at Plymouth, only one turkey bone has been found.

The Native Americans and the newcomers ate pumpkin, but not in pies as they had no butter or flour for piecrust nor ovens for baking; they sliced and fried their pumpkin. Sweet potatoes were unknown in New England at the time; pecan pie was eaten in the southern part of the country, but much later.

The centerpiece of the feast celebrating harvest home was made up of the five deer brought by the Wampanoag Indians. The deer was usually prepared in a stew added in to the boiling maize or Indian corn, kidney beans and a variety of other meats. One description of Indian stew written in 1674 says that “they (the Indians) boil in this fermenty all sorts of flesh that they take in hunting, such as venison, beaver, bear’s flesh, moose, otters, raccoons…several sorts of roots, as Jerusalem artichokes, and ground nuts…and squashes.” And there was no cranberry sauce because there was no sugar with which to make the bitter berries palatable.

Hodgson describes the gathering of Pilgrims and Indians on that November day as “a kind of backwoods diplomatic encounter.” He says that “both the Pilgrims and the Indians were nervous of one another in 1621, but they met because they needed one another.” This feast was one of a series of meetings in which both sides tried to establish good relations. The leader of the Wampanoag Indians at the feast was called “Massasoit” by the Pilgrims and that name has come down to us today, but that was not his name, but his title; in their dialect, “Massasoit” means “the king.” And the Pilgrims did not wear funny hats or buckles on their shoes. These were touches made by 19th century artists, as they dressed up Santa Claus, as well—touches that were meant to denote quaintness.

No, there was no first Thanksgiving in Plymouth in 1621, no turkey, no pumpkin pie, no funny hats, no buckled shoes, no start of a tradition. But we need traditions and we need to stop and give thanks. Layer upon layer has been added to create tradition and what is wrong with that? We stop and give thanks for the bounty in our lives, the food that awaits us and this community we share are high among those gifts. Hodgson quotes an Italian proverb: “If it is not true, it is well invented.”

A closing reading comes from yesterday’s Boston Globe, the newspaper of record in my hometown. The author is columnist Yvonne Abraham. The title is “Redemption, and Gratitude.” The neighborhoods mentioned are Roxbury where the population is largely black and poor and Jamaica Plain where I lived for fourteen years. It captures, I think, the real meaning today of Thanksgiving in the United States of America.


  • Godfrey Hodgson, A Great and Godly Adventure (New York: Public Affairs, 2006).
  • John Bowker, God: A Brief History (New York: DK Publishing, 2002).
  • John Bartlett, Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, Seventeenth Edition, Justin Kaplan, General Editor (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2002).
  • Yvonne Abraham, “Redemption and Gratitude,” The Boston Globe, 11.25.2009

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