This is the week we observe Thanksgiving Day. The origin of this day is from the Pilgrims in the area of Plymouth, Massachusetts, in the fall of 1621. They gathered to give thanks to the Lord for their first harvest in the new world. We can learn a lot about the true meaning of Thanksgiving from studying the Pilgrims. We can learn from their reasons to come to America. They originally left England and moved to Holland to have religious freedom from the established church under King James I. Holland, unlike England, allowed liberty to worship God according to your own conscience, but the Pilgrims soon found out that it was a difficult country to raise children.

After living in Holland for almost 12 years, the Pilgrims began to discuss plans to go to America. William Bradford, who would later become Governor of the Plymouth colony, said they wanted to go to America to “enjoy the ordinances of God in their purity and the liberty of the gospel.” The worship of the Lord was of first importance to these Christians. 

They also desired to come to America for the sake of their children’s souls. Bradford said their children were beginning to be influenced in a negative way by the “wickedness and the temptations of this land; to the great grief of their parents, dishonor to God, and danger to their souls.” The Pilgrims saw the worldly culture in Holland leading their children away from the Lord. It was a major reason they wanted to come to America. The souls of their children came before ease or comfortable living. 

Another reason Bradford gives for their coming to America is to spread the gospel of Christ: “They cherished a great hope of laying a good foundation for the advance of the gospel of Christ in the remote parts of the world, even if they were but stepping stones to others in the performance of so great a work.” Notice that the Pilgrims knew they would not be able to evangelize America during their own lifetimes. They were willing to be “stepping stones” for others, to lay the foundation with their lives. They were not “this life is all there is” people. They considered their earthly lives as something that belonged to Christ. 

We all know the story of that first Thanksgiving. How the Pilgrims gave thanks, despite the fact that 52 out of the 102 people who landed in Plymouth the previous winter had died. Almost all the Pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving had lost family members; and all the survivors had suffered miserably and had no certainty if they would be there for the next spring. How could they offer thanks to God in this circumstance? The answer is in what Bradford tells us: “They knew they were Pilgrims.” Not pilgrims going west to discover new lands, but pilgrims on the way to God. Their eternal souls were the first things in their lives. They thanked God, not first of all for the harvest or turkeys to eat, but for the redemption they had in Christ. God could use them as he willed, or take them from this life as he willed; only let us be found in Christ was their main desire. 

This disposition is easily lost if we are not careful. About 30 years after the first Thanksgiving, Bradford threatened to resign as governor, “…unless the spiritual state of the colony improves.” The colony was now prospering economically. Bradford lamented: “Instead of the afterlife, it is material rewards of this life that moves our children and grandchildren. The grace of God is an afterthought; they hoard wealth, are boastful, and unthankful.” How easy in times of prosperity it is to forget Christ. The Pilgrims teach us to be thankful for temporal blessings, but to be especially thankful for the gift of Christ for the soul. Without Christ, the temporal blessings, however bountiful, are empty indulgences that last but a short while.

We still have great blessings in the land we live in. We should pause and give sincere thanks. However, our circumstances can change quickly. What cannot change are the eternal blessings in Christ. We would be wise to follow the Pilgrims in weighing eternal things rightly.