“Blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies”
by Robert Docter –
New England autumns display a majesty all their own. Dramatic colors provide a rich panoply of red and gold and green and brown covered with a backdrop of an azure sky. Visitors comment on the breathtaking sight in reverential tones as they marvel at the beauty of nature and nature’s God.
No such sight confronted a small group of pilgrims as they disembarked from their tiny ship on a cold, late afternoon on December 11, 1620. This was not their plan. Their departure from Plymouth had been delayed. One of their ships, the Speedwell, was so leaky that they were fearful of leaving safely. After many attempts at repair, the complete company, 102 souls, crammed into their other ship, Mayflower, and set out—very late.
These pilgrims were part of the Puritan sect—rigid fundamentalists with a narrow, legalistic interpretation of Scripture. They saw themselves as a ìChosen Electî fleeing the religious bigotry of the time. It was their intention to establish a new land in which everyone shared the same belief system. If someone chose not to believe as they did, they were persecuted and excluded from the community with much the same bigotry they had sought to escape.
The crossing, fraught with great danger, heavy storms, and strong winds took seven weeks and pushed their landing sight much farther north, from the warmer climes of Virginia to a small bay they christened Plymouth.
An unforgiving winter greeted them, exhausted from the struggle of battling battering winds and manning hand pumps enough to stay afloat. Their first task was construction of facilities necessary to protect them from the conditions of a harsh New England winter.
Many became ill—often with highly infectious diseases—and almost half of them, 46, died that first winter.
Relating to the natives
Their landing sight was in Wampanoag territory. This confederation of natives spoke Algonkian and had been at war with the Iroquois, also a strong confederation of tribes in the area. Even though the Wampanoag had been accosted by European explorers acting as slavers for the settlers in Virginia, their custom was to be helpful and friendly.
Squanto, the native hero of this first year, had earlier met a British explorer whom he had adopted as a second father, and from whom he had learned some English. He decided to stay with the Pilgrims, and facilitated their communication with the natives. He taught them how to survive—how to build temporary shelter, plant crops and relate to his fellow tribesmen.
As spring beckoned with its own glory, they set about the task of preparing for the second winter with food and firm shelter. Through some scorching periods of drought during the summer, their efforts were rewarded with a bountiful harvest.
The Pilgrim leader, William Bradford, decreed a day of festival—of games and celebration. The construction was completed and food for the winter had been harvested. The settlers asked Squanto to invite his leader with his family. At the appointed time, they arrived accompanied by 90 ìfamilyî members. They chose a date similar to harvest festivals in Britain—somewhere, probably in late September.
Together, the group celebrated, expressing thanks according to the dictates of their own culture.
They knew whom to thank. They had mastered the elements; they had dealt successfully with the native population. And they had overcome despair. They were alive, and they gave credit to God in the midst of their joy.
They had learned the importance of sharing their problems with God and had received his answer with the pleasures of the harvest.
A generation later, with the settlers now greatly reinforced with new arrivals, the settlers and the natives were killing each other. How soon we forget!
The Confederation of American States had come and gone. George Washington, hero of the Revolution, is now the first president of the United States of America. The nation’s birth had been a tremendous struggle. The Confederation had failed, but with firm faith in the democratic process and in God, a small group of men created a new nation with a Constitution hammered out through the give and take of compromise. The same arguments are still heard in our nation’s capitol today—where should the power lie—with the Federal government or with the States?
On November 26, 1789, Washington announced a national day of thanksgiving in honor of the birth of the nation. He knew whom to thank. Here is part of his proclamation:
Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me ìto recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness î:
I beseech the great Lord and Ruler of Nations to pardon our national and other transgressions; to enable us all whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.
For over 60 years no president had asked the nation to pause in thanksgiving, but 1863 had been a very difficult year for Abraham Lincoln. The Civil War was dragging on. Northern Generals seemed no match for Lee. Grant, in the West, seemed bogged down in the siege of Vicksburg: The battles in The Wilderness and Chancellorville were crushing defeats and demonstrated Lee’s genius once again. Matters looked grim for Union forces. Following this triumph, Lee decided that once again he would swing through the North.
Then Grant took Vicksburg and was appointed to command all troops in the West. A chain of victories ensued.
George Meade commanded the Army of the Potomac to move north, and, on June 30, 1863, a small detachment of his cavalry suddenly came face to face with Confederate cavalry around a small Pennsylvania town named Gettysburg. The two armies had found each other. The major battle of the Civil War began July 1 and lasted three days.
Thousands died. Union troops were victorious.
On November 19, 1863, the Gettysburg battleground was dedicated. Lincoln gave an address of approximately two and one-half minutes. The words reveal the character of the man and have become enshrined for their sensitivity and admired for the quality of its rhetoric.
Two weeks later he presented his Thanksgiving proclamation. He began with these words Ö
The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of almighty God.
and concludes with:
I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity, and union.
I pray that as you celebrate Thanksgiving, you have determined in your own heart who to thank.