By all appearances, Americans still cling to the Thanksgiving holiday, setting aside a few hours for a special meal with family and friends before turning on the football game or heading to the mall for a deal on electronics. But we have long since abandoned any idea of a Thanksgiving season, an extended period in which to anticipate the holiday, reflect on its significance, and live out its meaning. In my neighborhood at least, the Christmas decorations went up in the stores as soon as the Halloween decorations came down. On television, the moment the calendar turned to November the Hallmark Channel began its “Countdown to Christmas” movie marathon. Less sentimental, Amazon.com immediately began trumpeting the “Countdown to Black Friday.” Who has time for Thanksgiving any more?
This is sad for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that, if we only have ears to hear, the Pilgrims might have much to say to us that we need to take to heart. To begin with, meditating on the Pilgrims’ story might show us our worldliness. “Do not love the world or the things in the world,” John the apostle warned, referring to the hollow rewards held out to us by a moral order at enmity with God (I John 2:15). From our privileged perspective the Pilgrims lived in abject poverty, and imagining ourselves in their circumstances may help us to see more clearly, not only the sheer magnitude of pleasure and possessions that we take for granted, but also the power that they hold over our lives.
Years afterward, Plymouth governor William Bradford would recall the “great labor and hard fare” that defined the Pilgrims’ material circumstances while in Holland. Their homes were ridiculously small by our standards, some with no more than a couple hundred square feet of living space. Half or more of the congregation had become textile workers. In contrast to the seasonal rhythm of life they had known in England, they now earned their bread by carding, spinning, or weaving in their tiny homes from dawn to dusk, six days a week, merely to keep body and soul together.
Although they looked forward to greater prosperity in New England, upon their arrival in the autumn of 1620 they had immediately encountered almost unimaginable hardships, and by the following spring fully one half of their original number was dead. When they celebrated God’s provision of an adequate harvest that fall, the survivors consisted largely of widowers and orphans. (Fourteen of the eighteen wives among the original party had perished.) That the Pilgrims could celebrate at all in such circumstances should humble us.
What what was the source of such resilience and gratitude? The answer, I believe, lies in the Pilgrims’ theology, the heart of which lies hidden in plain sight. We have referred to the passengers of the Mayflower as “Pilgrims” for so long that the term has lost all significance to us. Literally, the word “pilgrims” refers to a person on a journey, often, but not always, to a place of religious significance. When the Pilgrims thought of themselves as “pilgrims,” they meant that they were temporary travelers in a world that was not their home.
This is clear from the context in which Governor Bradford used the term in his famous history of the colony, Of Plymouth Plantation. Toward the middle of book I, Bradford movingly described the departure from Holland, as the members of the Leiden congregation who were leaving for America said goodbye to the friends and loved ones remaining behind. (Bradford himself was parting from a three-year-old-son.) With “an abundance of tears,” Bradford wrote, the group “left that goodly and pleasant city which had been their resting place near twelve years; but they knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lift up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits.” As he penned these words, Bradford was almost certainly thinking of the eleventh chapter of the book of Hebrews, that great survey of Old Testament heroes of the faith. There, in the text of the 1596 edition Geneva Bible that Bradford brought with him to Plymouth, we read that these men and women “confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on earth.”
In the world as the Pilgrims knew it, material comforts were scarce, daily existence was arduous, starvation was possible, and death was always near. Readily might they echo the Apostle Paul: “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable” (I Corinthians 15:19). What a consolation to believe that, when their “earthly house” had returned to the dust, they would inherit “a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (II Corinthians 5:1). What a help, in time of heartache, to “lift up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country.” What a balm to their souls, to quote Bradford’s poignant prose, that “they knew they were pilgrims.”
May that be said of us as well.