A heritage for which to Give Thanks
by Robert Docter
New England Novembers are not particularly noted for their friendliness. Its winter wind has never been described as “caressing” or “soft” or “mild.” Its snowfall is more often measured in feet rather than inches, and its temperature is such to strengthen man’s appreciation for such obvious necessities as storm windows, well-stoked furnaces, and blazing hearths.
COMING OF THE PILGRIMS
It was in early November of 1620 that 100 dedicated souls docked a tiny, tired, leaky vessel on a natural outcropping of rock within the protective arm of Cape Cod. Most of them were very religious, and their first act was to thank God for their safe passage. Their second act was to hammer out a basic principle of law under which the colony would be governed. It was necessary in order to establish some semblance of rule over those “strangers” in their midst who did not choose to associate with the religious sect known as Puritans, but who instead wished to “use their own liberty” once they were ashore.
Each member of the party signed this document before they stepped out on the rock they named for the community of Plymouth. The document became the, Mayflower Compact, and it united the group into a single body politic. The strength of this union proved to be an absolute necessity during the first winter.
Overlooking the narrow stretch of beach surrounding Plymouth Rock is a high rise of ground called Coles Hill. It was into the sod of Coles Hill that these people buried half of their number during that first winter…over 50 pilgrims failed to live more than three months in their new land of promise. Every family was touched in some way…no one was spared the penetrating, biting, sting of grief, nor its lasting after effect of lonely despair. The graves were unmarked in order to keep the weakness of the group from the prying eyes of Indians. On one occasion there were only seven persons within the colony who had strength enough to work and nurse the dying.
They were without houses and other comforts…infected with disease…discouraged, and unable to give up. There was no alternative to their struggle. William Bradford, first governor of the colony, describes the scene vividly.
“There died sometimes two or three of a day during [the depth of the winter.] Of the one hundred and odd persons, scarce fifty remained. And of these in the time of most distress there was but six or seven sound persons, who in their great recommendation be it spoken, spared no pains, night nor day, but with abundance of toil and hazard or their own health fetched them wood, made them fires, dressed them neat, made their beds, washed their loathsome clothes, clothed and unclothed them; in a word, did all the homely and necessary offices for them which dainty stomachs cannot endure to hear named; and all this willingly and cheerfully, without any grudging in the least, showing herein their true love unto their friends and brethren. A rare example and worthy to be remembered.”
It is against this backdrop that we look at our first Thanksgiving day, against a panorama of grief and death within the icy, windswept reaches of Coles Hill.
Some will say “They should never have landed in New England in the dead of winter…They should have sailed south along the coast and looked for fertile soil and warmer weather.”
Yes, that might be so. In fact, their original charter was with the Virginia Company, and technically they should have been farther south. They did try to move that way after first sighting Cape Cod, but were forced north by heavy surf. It might have been a serious mistake.
The Children of Israel
In a much earlier time another group of pilgrims set out for a land of promise for a very similar reason…religious freedom. Pharaoh felt the Children of Israel had made the same kind of mistake as the Plymouth pilgrims when Moses made a sharp turn to the Red Sea rather than north to the Promised Land. It seemed to be a major error at the outset of the journey. With glee he laughed upon hearing the news…”They shall become entangled in the land.”
On the first night, the masses making their dusty exodus from the land of Egypt camped at Succoth…on the second night at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness, and on the third night at Pihahiroth (the trap). In front of them, the sea…high mountains…to the rear, the hordes of Pharaoh.
But the mistake was Pharaoh’s …he had reckoned without God. Moses had followed his pillar to this spot…for God wanted a nation, and the treacherous wastes of the Sinai Peninsula were a part of the plan for nationhood.
The children of Israel could have walked to Canaan in two weeks…the southern walk through Sinai meant 40 years.
Six weeks after the conquest of Pharaoh under onrushing waters of the Red Sea, the group was camped in the shadow of Mt. Sinai. Moses went up into the mountain to meet with God, and when he returned he brought with him the symbols of their national life…a compact…a statement of rules guiding human interaction.
First came a presentation of the case for which the statement was made.
I am the Lord thy God which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt…out of bondage.
FOUNDATION OF FREEDOM
A similar statement for a similar case was phrased by the descendants of those Plymouth pilgrims 150 years later. They said:
When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another…and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which Nature and Nature’s God entitled them…a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to separation.
So begin the immortal words of Thomas Jefferson in one of the most memorable, remarkable, and courageous pieces of political literature ever framed, The Declaration of Independence.
Just as the Declaration of Independence gave to the American colonists a potential for separateness and freedom, so did the statement Moses received from God give to the children of Israel a potential for freedom never before experienced in the history of humanity. For the decalogue of Moses, received from God on Mt. Sinai, was in essence a constitution to light man’s pathway to liberty…to the discovery of truth in the highest and noblest elements of human interaction. The decalogue is a summary of the fundamental principles of both human relations and national life. It is the one ethical symbol that has never been amended or improved. Even Christ said, “I am not come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it.” It gives a comprehensive statement of the rights of man…to life…to liberty…to the pursuit of happiness in all phases of life…whether it be domestic, social, or political.
These are the laws that have shaped our culture. They have given us the heart of our ethic, the essential worth and value of every human individual. They still dominate the jurisprudence of the western world today.
“WORTH FIGHTING FOR”
But a simple statement of declaration, or the bare possession of codes of conduct, does not in itself guarantee the freedom which that code or which the declaration inspires. It is only potential. Moses said: “A nation of slaves is strange to the meaning of freedom.”
Liberty is tempered in the trials of tyranny…it is learned in the discipline of hope built on despair. Those American colonists carving out a livelihood along the eastern seaboard of this continent pledged their lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor to purchase that freedom. They earned their freedom in the cauldron of armed combat.
But their children, our ancestors, learned the meaning of freedom within the privation and despair of pioneer life. The conditions of this life gave to every person the worth they assign themselves. Class barriers were crossed; social levels were non-existent. Each man was free to act within the borders of his own assessment of the common good, for each man knew for a fact that his own livelihood, his own existence, depended on more than the simple efforts he could bring to a task.
And so he learned of his responsibility to his neighbor and thus chose to impose certain limitations on his own freedom. Here the meaning of liberty came clear to him; its requisites stood in bold relief on a panorama of mutual need. In the words of Thomas Paine, “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.”
The tablets that Moses brought with him down from the mountain—the constitution for a new nation—soon lay crumbled in the dust of disgust. The children of Israel were unworthy of them: unworthy of the freedom that could be granted them through those principles. They had yet to learn discipline. The meaning of freedom was strange to them. Their conduct was self centered, just the opposite of the behavior of the free soul.
They stayed within the shadow of Sinai for a full year, and here it was that they learned the discipline necessary for the journey ahead. At the end of that time, with a renewed constitution received from God, they ventured out into the wilderness, and they were not entangled. Forty years later a nation emerged: hardened—free—in full understanding of the meaning of liberty. And Moses sang:
Give ear, oh ye heavens, and I will speak; and hear 0 earth the words of my mouth. My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distill as the dew, as the small rain upon the tender herb, and as the showers upon the grass because I will publish the name of the Lord: ascribe ye greatness unto our God. He is the Rock, his work is perfect: for all his ways are judgment: a God of truth and without iniquity, just, and right is he.
His journey was complete…his nation was built…his praise was for God.
A NEW BEGINNING
In the spring, as the first signs of budding trees burst forth to remind viewers of the richness of their potential, those Plymouth pilgrims crawled forth into the sunlight and counted their dead by subtracting the number living from the number of signatures found at the bottom of the Mayflower Compact. The graves of the dead were marked only by God as they gave a richer green to the 50-odd rectangular plots set into Coles Hill.
The highlands of New England almost meet the sea. The narrow strip of land between the sloping hills and the shore was naturally rocky, infertile, and unsuitable for profitable agriculture. The motivation of those pioneers, however, was not for profit, but simply for existence. They moved about their land and shaped their homes and plowed their fields and planted their seed, carefully transported across the north Atlantic.
They were constructing within themselves some essential ingredients, some basic principles of human behavior which influence our thinking even today. They lived and learned important ideas: ideas that man’s life on earth should have meaning and fulfillment for him in light of his own aspirations—not on the assigned level of existence given him before his birth by someone else, but according to his own capabilities.
They learned and lived the principle that all men should have the right to strive, both individually and cooperatively, toward greater human happiness. And as they worked within their fields, as they saw their homes take shape during that first spring, as they saw their first feeble shoots of green bursting forth from hard, rocky soil—they knew that man could use his knowledge and skill to improve the patterns of his own social existence.
Legend tells us that the first crops were stunted—almost inedible—and that from this incident stemmed the first positive interaction with the Indian population. Someone showed trust. Someone looked someone in the eye and said to himself, “I see another human…I see potential for love…I see the makings of a soul.” And at the same time the other man said the same thing. Who knows what they were called…who knows how they were dressed? But trust was formed. The Indians introduced the settlers to their mainstay—corn.
Seed changed hands and the first lesson in American agriculture was taught as a freshly caught fish was planted with a shallow furrow just beneath the gold pebble of corn, one source of food sacrificed for another.
The corn was planted within the spirit of friendship and brotherhood as pilgrim listened with respect to the teachings of Indian, thus acknowledging his sense of worth and dignity. The harvest, needless to say, was rich, not only in the fruits of the soil, but also in the ideas of humanity. Ideas that all men should be considered as individuals and that they should be judged on their merit—that differences should be respected, and the rights of all safeguarded.
A HARVEST AT LAST
A New England autumn is a symphony of color, with brilliant splashes of gold and red spread against a backdrop of green. It is the sabbath of the year: the afternoon, the intermission. Shelley described it:
The day becomes more solemn and serene
When noon is past—there is harmony
In autumn, and a luster in its sky,
Which through the summer is not heard or seen.
As if it could not be, as if it had not been!
In New England’s glorious autumn the early settlers gathered their crops, stored them carefully, and then paused for a period of thanksgiving. Their attitude was that of praise. It could not be described as a festival; their mood was not buoyant. They were simply recognizing God’s dominion over them and expressing their gratitude to Him.
Easily they could have blamed God for the dreadful tragedy of their first winter: they could have fled His presence. Certainly they knew of the harsh, bitter days ahead. Now they stopped to thank God, not curse Him. They were different people now. They had learned the discipline of the wilderness; and this act of thanksgiving, this short period of prayer, showed that even though they had entered the wilderness, they had not become entangled.
A nation was being built…our nation!
Brotherhood also attended that first American Thanksgiving, for the Indian was present, bringing with him a different culture, different values, different ideas. In a large sense, he was the honored guest, for without his generosity, there would have been no opportunity for thanksgiving.
A few short few years later, a Mohawk Indian chief, at a treaty conference between the colonies and five Indian nations, ended his speech with these stirring words:
“We now plant a tree whose top shall reach the sun, and its branches spread far abroad, so that it shall be seen afar off, and we shall shelter ourselves under it, and live in peace without molestation.”
His prophecy has been verified through the years and validated with the test of time. This is not to suggest that we have achieved perfection—no. Neither did those Plymouth pilgrims. But they were not thanking God for things: they were thanking God for opportunity. Let that be our lesson. Things have no value in themselves, only in the manner in which they are used.
As we give thanks, it is returned to us as brotherhood…as love.
All of us face our own wilderness: our own entanglements from which we must achieve order and meaning. Meaning comes from God.
Let us, on this day, give thanks to God for nationhood, and for the lessons which designed it…and for the opportunities which a free society grants us all.