Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Plymouth: The Faith Behind the Feast

That iconic first feast at Plymouth may not have looked much like ours.

What kind of faith bears believers across oceans and sustains them through the valley of the shadow of death?
We don't know that much about the Pilgrims' feast, but we know a great deal about their faith.

Their Feast: What We Don’t Know

Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent four men on fowling that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labours.
– Edward Winslow
The truth is, we don’t know as much about the quintessential American feast as you might suppose. We don’t know the precise date, although we can narrow it down to between mid-September and mid-November of 1621. “Wild fowl” and venison are mentioned, but we don’t know what else was for dinner. 

Cranberry sauce? No. While cranberries would have been available, sugar in the quantity needed to sweeten them was not. Potatoes, white or sweet? No and no. Pie? Probably not. Dessert may have been something like this: Sweet Pudding of Indian Corn

We do know from Edward Winslow’s description that they “entertained and feasted” for three days. And we know about 140 attended. At that point, the settlement at Plymouth consisted of 52 men, women and children who’d survived the voyage and that first brutal winter—just over half the 103 who’d sailed from Plymouth. The settlers welcomed guests: the “great king”, Massasoit, “with some ninety men.” The guests contributed five deer.


Their Faith: What We Do Know

William Bradford’s 1592 Geneva Bible, on display at Pilgrim Hall Museum.
It traveled with him from England to Holland to Plymouth.

While we don’t know so much about their iconic feast, we know quite a bit about their faith. In William Bradford’s words, the Puritans “endeavored to establish the right worship of God and the discipline of Christ in the Church according to the simplicity of the gospel and without the mixture of men’s inventions.” 
This attitude put them at odds with King James and the Anglican church. 
In England, the Reformation had replaced an authoritarian and traditionalist Roman Catholic church with an Anglican church that looked… authoritarian and traditionalist. A monarch in London had taken the place of a pope in Rome. Those found “disobedient in matters of religion”—meeting in house churches to study their chosen translation of the Bible which didn’t happen to be the “authorized” one, rejecting church doctrine, straying from the Common Book of Prayer—faced fines, imprisonment under potentially deadly conditions—even the gallows. 



We don’t know when the Plymouth settlers were first called “pilgrims” but we think we know why. Bradford and the Puritan band escaped to Holland in 1608. But like Abraham once he’d gone out from Ur and traveled as far as Haran (Gen 11:31), they felt the Lord’s call to go further. William Bradford, the colony’s governor for some thirty-five years, wrote this about their decision to leave Holland:
So they left that good and pleasant city… but they knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lifted up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country." 
- William Bradford, Of Plimouth Plantation
This is a clear reference to Hebrews 11:13-16, which in the Puritans’ favored Geneva Bible reads:
All these died in faith, and received not the promises, but saw them afar off, and believed them, and received them thankfully, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth…. But now they desire a better [country], that is an heavenly… (Heb 11:13-16)
The “these” in the passage are Abraham and Sarah and other patriarchs of the faith.
By faith Abraham… went out, not knowing where he was going… (Heb 11:8)
You can see where Bradford and his company would have identified. Like Abraham, the pilgrims left behind everything familiar. Many families split, sending men and older boys ahead to establish a settlement—“offering up” their Isaacs to a highly risky venture (Heb 11:17). 

“Not knowing where they were going….” They intended to settle further south but the vagaries of storm and sea drove them to Massachusetts. Like Abraham, the settlers would “live as aliens” (Heb 11:9) among tribes that already dwelt there. And like Abraham, they would have skirmishes with hostiles (Gen 14:12), but by and large would be blessed to live in peace and cooperation with their neighbors (Gen 23:6).



Although they didn’t “live in tents,” the bitter first year could not have been more difficult. They landed too late in the season to build, so they were forced to winter on the cramped and unsanitary Mayflower. Scurvy, pneumonia and tuberculosis ravaged them, claiming nearly half their lives. Bradford wrote: 
But it pleased God to visit us then with death daily, and with a disease so disastrous that the living were scarcely able to bury the dead, and the healthy not in any measure to tend the sick.
But he also testified: 
…they had borne their sad afflictions with as much patience and contentedness as I think any people could do. But it was the Lord who upheld them, and had beforehand prepared them….


The Crux of the Story 

And here, for me, is the crux of the story. How could people who gave up everything to obey God’s callonly to face weeks of illness, the loss of wives, husbands, children—not start to question at least a little?

“God, are You really in this thing? Heavenly Father, are You there?”

But the Pilgrims' accounts give no hint of this. Instead, they
  • Accept God’s sovereign will when they experience it as adversity;
  • Thank Him when they experience it as blessing; and
  • Approach Him with an attitude of trust at all times.

They stood prepared even to “die in faith, without receiving the promises,… having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.” (Heb 11:13)

The Pilgrims' story reminds us that sometimes—many times—the rewards that come from keeping faith with God aren’t immediately visible. 

Lord, make me ready to “confess myself a stranger and pilgrim” for whom “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21).

Read more in Linda's free eBook, The True Story Isn't the Turkey: TWO Holiday Stories Every Believer Should Know, or visit her at her blog, Five Stones and a Sling.
Linda's debut novel, The Plum Blooms in Winter, launches next October from Mountain Brook Ink. Inspired by a remarkable true story from World War II's pivotal Doolittle Raid, the novel follows a captured American pilot and a bereaved Japanese woman on her quest for ritual revenge.
Linda lives just outside Phoenix with her husband, a third-generation airline pilot who doubles as her Chief Military Research Officer. They share their home with two all-grown-up kids and a small platoon of housecats.


  1. A beautiful post and reminder that this world is not my home with all it's trials. But our faith and trust in God will give us our eternal reward.

    1. Thank you so much, Marilyn! Going deeper into the Thanksgiving story was truly an inspiration and a challenge to me. May God grant you a wonderful season full of thanks and praise!

  2. This is wonderful! Thank you for bringing some reality to our idealistic views of history.

    1. Thank you, Connie, and praise God if this blessed you! Their dedication and commitment makes the story well worth the telling. May God grant you a wonderful holiday season full of thanks and praise!

  3. Great post Linda. Love the way you weaved it all together. As a Canadian, I celebrated Thanksgiving in October, however my husband's 8x great grandfather was a puritan and one of the founding fathers of Guildford, Connecticut. As such, I read your post from a genealogical point of view as well as a spiritual one. Thank you.

    1. Thank you so much, Anita. I'm delighted to hear the post blessed you. And what a wonderful family legacy! My own immigrant forebears were farmers and, ahem, barkeeps, but certainly they benefited from the groundwork yours laid. May God bless you with a wonderful and meaningful holiday season!

  4. I so enjoyed your beautiful post Linda. I love how you brought things to light I had not known before, including how their faith sustained them in every way...good times & bad times.
    Blessings, Tina