There is a word often associated with the American holiday of Thanksgiving that God inspired the authors of the Bible to use to describe His saints. David used it in 1 Chronicles 29:12–15 when he praised God for His blessings and lovingkindness upon ancient Israel. In Hebrews 11:13, we see it used describing those great Old Testament men and women of faith who “all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them.” The Apostle Peter also used this word to address the Israelites who had been dispersed throughout the Roman Empire (1 Peter 1:1; 2:11). What is this word—and, more importantly, what is its relevance to Christians today?
Both the Hebrew word in the Old Testament and the Greek word in the New Testament may be translated as exiles, sojourners, or pilgrims—and the word has been applied to God’s saints through the ages. Additionally, through reviewing some of the events leading up to the first Thanksgiving in America some 400 years ago, we will see that there are indeed some extremely relevant lessons for “Christian pilgrims” today.
Pilgrims and the First American Thanksgiving
Once familiar to most American schoolchildren, the history of the Mayflower and the first Thanksgiving has become increasingly assailed, ridiculed, and abandoned. It is, of course, a story of imperfect human beings—but, contrary to attacks made by revisionist historians, it is also a story of hope, perseverance, sacrifice, and divine intervention.
In November 1620, the battered ship named Mayflower arrived in the cold waters off Cape Cod in what would later become the state of Massachusetts. The Mayflower normally carried cargo, but in 1620 it carried 102 passengers, many fleeing severe religious persecution in England. These were the original American pilgrims who became known as the nation’s “Pilgrim Fathers,” as Daniel Webster aptly termed them.
The Pilgrims were not the first European settlers in America, but they were different. These people did not come to seek wealth. They were settlers, families, and religious refugees. They were men and women of vision, seeking escape from religious persecution. They were men and women of courage, willing to leave all behind to brave the ocean and settle in a wild, new world. And they were men and women of character with the tenacity to persevere and to overcome. In addition, they were not ignorant or uneducated people. In their brief charter, the Mayflower Compact, they established principles of governance that would later become incorporated into the United States’ Declaration of Independence and Constitution—principles of the rule of law, equality, and faith in God.
The Pilgrims’ first winter was infamously difficult. Only 53 of the original 102 passengers survived the cold, starvation, and disease of that first brutal winter. According to their journals, sickness and malnourishment so weakened the group that there were seldom more than five or six strong enough to care for the others at any given time. They would all likely have perished had it not been for God’s mercy, accomplished through the arrival of Samoset, the famous Native American who in March 1621 walked alone into the Pilgrims’ camp. He had previously learned English while working with English fishermen off the Atlantic coast. Soon after, Samoset brought Squanto, who spoke even better English, and then Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoag tribe.
With the help of their new, native friends, the beleaguered Pilgrim colony survived its first winter. They learned how to farm and hunt the local area. And, in the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims shared their bountiful harvest with their native friends—a three-day feast that was the first American “Thanksgiving.” They had endured much, but they were thankful for God’s providence. They were thankful for escaping religious tyranny, they were thankful for surviving their first winter, and they were thankful for the friendship of the local Wampanoag people. This was no temporary or passing friendship; the Wampanoag tribe and the Pilgrims established a friendship and peace that lasted for more than 50 years.
Lessons for Christian Pilgrims
The American Pilgrims had vision, which true Christians must also have in an even more profound way. Vision is what gives Christians the motivation to leave behind their old lives. Even through trials, vision convicts Christians that their “salvation is coming,” and that “His reward is with Him” (Isaiah 62:11). Vision convicts pilgrim Christians of the truth of Christ’s words, “He should give eternal life to as many as You [the Father] have given Him. And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:2–3).
This thankful vision is fueled by the knowledge that it is the God who called them who made possible their deliverance (John 6:44) and that Jesus Christ offered redemption from their bondage (Galatians 4:4–5). Because of this vision, true Christians will develop deep faith and courage. The Old Testament men and women had vision to look for what is still ahead (Hebrews 11). And, like those examples of old, Christian pilgrims today combine vision with faith and courage. Like Paul, they “press on” that they “may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me,” being confident in “the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12–14).
Like the saints of old, and like the American Pilgrims 400 years ago, Christians are also people of endurance. Christians understand that through many trials and tribulations they will attain the Kingdom of God (Acts 14:22), and that ultimately God will deliver the righteous from affliction (Psalm 34:19). Christians endure tests and trials; they understand that they are “blessed who endure” (James 5:11). Driven by vision, and full of faith and courage, true Christians will endure. They seek strength from “the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, [who] neither faints nor is weary. His understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the weak, and to those who have no might He increases strength” (Isaiah 40:28–29). Christian pilgrims are men and women of endurance, the word used in many English-language translations of Revelation 14:12. As the English Standard Version translation states, “Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus.”
Finally, the American Pilgrims were famously conscious and appreciative of the blessings they had received. After braving the ocean and surviving their first winter in a new land, these men and women who had sought freedom from religious persecution and who had attempted to live in peace with their new, native neighbors were profoundly thankful—they had deep appreciation for the relief God gave them, and acted on that thankfulness, sharing their bounty with their Native American friends and praising God for His deliverance.
True Christians have much to be thankful for. As Mr. Richard Ames wrote:
We thank God for the sacrifice of His Son to pay for our sins. We are thankful for God’s forgiveness and grace. Remember, Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). We are thankful for the gift of the Holy Spirit after repentance and baptism (Acts 2:38). We are thankful not only for the sacrifice of Christ, but that He is alive as our High Priest, Savior and Intercessor! (“Thanksgiving and Our National Purpose,” Tomorrow’s World, November–December 2008).
Christian pilgrims are thankful for God’s calling and for Jesus Christ’s sacrifice. Even when enduring severe trials, and even more than the American Pilgrims, Christian pilgrims will be “thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18, New Living Translation). Christian pilgrims are thankful for the promise of Christ’s return (John 14:3). They are thankful that He will desire the work of His hands (Job 14:15), and they are thankful that He will bring His reward with Him (Revelation 22:12).
Four hundred years after the first American Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims’ example should be instructive for us today. Like the saints of old, even in times of increasing distress, Christian pilgrims combine vision, faith, courage, and endurance with thankfulness as they look for Christ’s return and as they claim the promise that their redemption draws near (Luke 21:28)!