So often in the public square, we are reminded by the oh-so-wise gatekeepers of American culture that our history is a secular one and our nation was founded on the principles of the secular European Enlightenment.
Nowhere is the religious devotion of the earliest Americans more evident than in the search for religious freedom that first brought the pilgrims to our shores. The Pilgrims fled first from England to Holland seeking escape from an Anglican regime that allowed no dissent, then from Holland to America when they found that the worldliness of Amsterdam was luring their children away from the fold.
But the Pilgrims’ courageous quest for religious liberty was nearly doomed at the outset because of the hard winter they encountered at Plymouth, which killed 46 of their original 102 members (not all of whom were English separatists, we should note). The entire migration would likely have died out after that first winter if it were not for the help of a man named Tisquantum, or Squanto.
Squanto’s life up to this point had been marked by violent disruption and tragedy. He had grown up as a member of the Patuxet tribe in what is now New England, but was kidnapped as a young man by an Englishman named Thomas Hunt, who tried to sell him into slavery in Malaga, Spain, in 1614, but some local friars intervened. It was they who instructed Squanto in the Christian faith. He convinced them to let him try to return home. He got as far as London, where he fell in with a shipbuilder and learned English, but it took him two attempts at joining exploratory expeditions before he returned to his homeland in 1619.
What he found when he arrived was empty land. His people were nowhere to be found. They had, in fact, been wiped out by diseases brought over from Europe, to which their immune systems had no resistance. Squanto was the last living representative of his tribe, only alive because of his cruel kidnapping. He took up residence with the Wampanoag, a neighboring tribe whose chief, Massasoit, eventually became friendly with the Pilgrims.
When the Wampanoag sent Squanto to investigate the newcomers, he knew their language. He moved to live with them after their grueling winter and taught them how to farm maize in the hard, rocky soil of New England. When the Mayflower immigrants invited the natives for a feast of Thanksgiving, they could truly be thankful for the remarkable providence that sent Squanto ahead to be their deliverer in a land they did not know.
The contemporary holiday of Thanksgiving did not descend in a direct line from that first Pilgrim feast in celebration of the harvest. But days of thanksgiving were observed at various times throughout American history as different presidents sought to commemorate significant events with appropriate thanks to nature’s God. Thanksgiving was instituted by President Abraham Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War. Lincoln invited the country to observe the day with him out of gratitude to “the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, has nevertheless remembered mercy.” Read the full text of Lincoln’s beautiful Proclamation of Thanksgiving here.
As for Squanto, we do not know whether he felt the sense of poetic justice that we now attach to his story. As he was dying “he begged the Governor [William Bradford] to pray for him, that he might go to the Englishman’s God in heaven.”
God prepared the way for Squanto and for the Pilgrims, and he will do the same for each of us until our life’s end. God bless you and your families as you celebrate this holiday of grace, and may He give grace to our nation. From our family to yours, Happy Thanksgiving!
Yours for the family,