top of page

God's Ways and the First Thanksgiving

Most of us are familiar with the story of the First Thanksgiving. The barebones story goes something like this: “The Puritans on the Mayflower fled religious persecution in England and landed at Plymouth Rock. After a rough start, they befriended the Indians and at harvest time had a celebration, thanking God for His many blessings.”

But there is more to the story than this, a background story that encourages us to trust in God and His providence even in the face of horrible and incomprehensible evil and injustice. “Man’s ways are not God’s ways” we are told. These words are a colloquial way of rephrasing the words of Isaiah 55:8-9: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

In the years before the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620, trade between the Indians and merchant ships occurred along the northeastern coast of what is now the United States. The Indians would trade furs and dried fish for metal goods, such as knives and pots and metal tools. On one of these voyages (1608?), the commander of an English ship lured a group of Indians aboard and took them captive, to sell them into slavery in the Spanish port city of Málaga. Despite the fact that a 1537 papal encyclical, Sublimis Dei, forbade the enslavement and mistreatment of Indians, there must have been nominal Catholics and/or non-Catholics willing to purchase slaves.

At least one of these Indians was purchased by Spanish priests--- some say Jesuits, others, Dominicans--- whose intent was to set him free. His name was Squanto. It is believed that the priests baptized and catechized Squanto. But Squanto wanted to go home. No one knew exactly where “home” was, but apparently the priests thought that Squanto would increase his odds of getting back there aboard an English trading vessel. In 1612, Squanto went to England, and after spending several years there, secured passage to Newfoundland. Eventually, he found passage down the east coast of North America, where he recognized a landmark, perhaps Plymouth Rock. There he disembarked, in 1619, (though some say 1618 or 1621).

Squanto was “home,” but home wasn’t there. The Patuxet, his tribe, had all died, apparently by contracting smallpox or some other disease to which they were highly susceptible. His dream of seeing his loved ones again had gone up in smoke. He was alone. He did have some interaction though, with nearby tribal peoples.

Meanwhile, the Mayflower pilgrims set sail on September 16, 1620 for a new life in the New World. After a horrible 12 plus weeks at sea, on December 11, they arrived--- just in time for winter. Of the 102 passengers that had set out, about half were dead at winter’s end. “How could God allow this to happen?” The pilgrims prayed for deliverance, for divine help. Then, on March 22, 1621, a Native American walked out of the woods, a Christian, some say a Catholic, speaking perfect English. (What are the odds?) It was Squanto. Squanto taught them how to fish and hunt and plant and acted as a mediator between them and neighboring tribes. He lived among them. That autumn, the Puritan pilgrims and the nearby tribal peoples celebrated the First Thanksgiving.

This Thanksgiving, we might thank God not only for obvious blessings, but for those things that looked bad at the time, but that now, in retrospect, were blessings. The Thanksgiving feast is nothing compared to the Eucharistic feast at the Sacrifice of the Mass, where the Great Mediator offers Himself again to the Heavenly Father for us. We might resolve to live our lives in such a way that, at the end of time, when all is revealed, we might all give thanks and feast together in the New World of Heaven in the presence of the Holy Trinity.

Happy Thanksgiving!

(Note: Reputable sources provide differing dates and versions of this story. One source is an article from the Wall Street Journal, by Eric Metaxas, Nov. 25, 2015)

bottom of page