The View from the Hill: Thoughts on Thanksgiving

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The view from the hill

It happened here, right here, over 390 years ago!

As I stood looking out towards the bay in Plymouth, I could only imagine the scene in 1620 when the Pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower and set foot on North American soil for the first time. And the rest, as they say, is history!


What really happened?

Historian Tracy McKenzie has given us a remarkable work entitled The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History. In this brief treatise on what has become the favorite holiday for many Americans, he gently corrects some of the myths around Thanksgiving while shining a light on the character and fortitude of those first settlers in New England.

He reminds us of the difference between the past (what really happened), and history (the record of what happened) and calls us to hold in balance the tension between the vision and values of the day with the temptation for us to project the perspectives of our time into the 1600’s. McKenzie calls us to see history as an invitation to gain wisdom, not just a knowledge of the facts. He portrays the story of a people with a vision not only of building a civilization in the North American frontier but of many who maintained a keen awareness of the eternal Kingdom as their ultimate destination. 


The view from the tombstones

One advantage of our having a daughter, son-in-law, and three grandchildren living in Boston is the opportunity to visit a variety of historical sites from the early days of the nation. On the day before Thanksgiving last year, we were standing in the middle of the cemetery on top of the hill behind the church looking out onto the bay where the Mayflower was anchored so many years ago. During the starving winter, they would bury their dead at night here so as not to advertise their shrinking numbers to potential enemies. 

Standing where they stood, no doubt weeping over still another funeral of one of their courageous number, gave me pause as I considered the vision, resilience, and resolve of these early Americans. The monument to William Bradford pictured here, reminded us of a remarkable statesman, governor, and spiritual leader who kept the colony together during those formative days.


Contrasting economies

But McKenzie calls us to gather wisdom from history, not just names, dates, and heroes. A few observations and recollections come to mind. When you tour the re-enactment of the Plimouth Plantation outside today’s Plymouth, you notice that each house had it’s own garden. Early in the history of this settlement, free enterprise emerged as the soundest economic model for success. Families were expected to provide for their own. There was a spirit of community and compassion to help others, but personal responsibility was foundational for the flourishing of the community.

By contrast, the earlier settlement at Jamestown in 1607, began with the socialistic common storehouse model. They dreamed of finding gold and riches in the new world and did not initially take time to clear land, start farms, and plan ahead for their food supply. Many were in search of instant wealth and had no time for these mundane endeavors. As a result, when the common supply ran out, the colony was in deep trouble.


Unsettling reality

Another reflection on these days of early settlement in Virginia is the unsettling reality that the first ships bearing slaves landed at Jamestown in 1619, a year before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. The economic model in Virginia incorporated slaves as a means to do the work while others could look for wealth. We are reminded that all who came to America in those early days did not choose to come to the New World. Not all had visions of better opportunity for their family’s future, of religious freedom, and a new political order. It is a sad reality that some of the earliest settlers in America were, in fact, slaves.


Early church splits!

As you walk down the hill from the cemetery in Plymouth, you find two churches within twenty yards of each other. Reading the historical markers on both tells us which church was built first and that the second one, right next door, was established because the first one had begun to depart from the foundational truths of biblical Christianity. This development necessitated a second option for a house of worship that remained true to the faith. A quick perusal of the programs and activities on the bulletin board of this second church indicated that they too have drifted away from biblical faith. Evidently, sustaining commitment to the Truth of the scriptures proved to be equally as challenging as physical survival in those early days. 

There is a parallel contrast of the faith journey of our early American fathers in Boston. The first stop on the famous “Freedom Trail” is Park Street Church. We worshipped there one Lord’s Day a few years ago and sang, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness, I dare not trust the sweetest name, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name, On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.” It was encouraging to hear this gospel still faithfully proclaimed. 

However, at the other end of Boston Common is another church with a large monument to a Unitarian pastor who is praised for helping early Bostonians see the god within themselves. This heretical teaching within a few blocks of Park Street is another reminder of the responsibility of every generation to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 3)


Amidst food, football, and fellowship

So as many of us gather as family and friends to enjoy food, football, and fellowship this Thanksgiving, let’s give thanks to God from whom all blessings flow. So many around us conjure up a vague, impersonal sense of “thanks” without any identification of the One who should receive their thanks. Perhaps this day will provide an opportunity for us to point them to the Giver of all good gifts. 

May we reflect upon the courage of those who came before us and resolve to stand for faith and freedom in our day.


Happy Thanksgiving! 

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Published on by Mike Sligh.