Thanksgiving. Often, we think about the holiday as we did in our youth – historically rooted, central to America’s founding, filled with gratitude, family, friends, football, somehow proving faith and democratic principles – like the Mayflower Compact –stand time’s test. All that is good.
But Thanksgiving – and we seldom think on this – is about something bigger than Thanksgiving, bigger than the historic feast, 53 pilgrims breaking bread with 90 Indians, in that fall of 1621.
The day is recorded by William Bradford in his diary, and we look on it as a starting point – symbol of our nation’s destiny and resilience, determination to seek commonality, understanding of differences, joy even in adversity, common humanity, shared gratitude for God’s bounty.
All this is good, like the 50 years of peace that followed that feast, often overlooked. But even that is not what seems regularly forgotten. The day did mark a beginning, but also a continuation.
You may ask, “Continuation of what?” In the Pilgrims’ minds, even as they mourned the loss of half their number that feast day, there was a continuation of the sentiment that God was with them. He was when they left, was at sea, and was still now.
More there was a sense – and you see it in their writings – that no one among them really deserved to live more than any other. There was a sense, in the passing of friends, of mercy.
Embedded in them was the notion – first given voice by St. Paul – that everything they enjoyed, each breath, dawn, day, fire’s warmth, friend’s smile, time to ponder life awhile – was a blessing.
This, if we peel things back a layer, may be the real meaning. What they saw – those first religious pilgrims – was what befell others no less deserving. They knew they were fortunate. The phrase was common even then – “There but for the grace of God go I.”
Now pause and ask, “where did the phrase come from?” To what did the Pilgrims trace the importance of stopping, appreciating all they had, realizing that many do not have the ability to take a breath as free people, see the next dawn, live, love, celebrate, and yawn?
For the answer, go back to England, to where The Pilgrims started, and dig a bit. That phrase – which captures the idea – surfaced in the 1500s. It says it all. When we see others suffering, see unfairness, injustice, poverty, persecution, and oppression, we know how blessed we are.
We are blessed in America, we Americans. And they knew they were blessed to have survived that first winter. They do not use that phrase in their diaries, but the spirit of it is there.
So where does the phrase – which filled their hearts – come from? Surprisingly, we know. It comes from a law student who abandoned law for theology, was a devout Protestant, served in St. Paul’s Cathedral under Edward the VI, was persecuted and executed by Mary I, a Catholic.
It comes from a man who died for his faith in 1555, five years after William Bradford – the American Pilgrim – was born. The man, who history says dared where others did not, was John Bradford.
To close the circle, Thanksgiving is about giving thanks, as The Pilgrims did in 1621 – intrepid Mayflower survivors who knew their good fortune. It is also about a spirt that predates them, transcends them, and follows us right to this day, gratitude for being where we are, who we are, surrounded by those we are, able to pray, speak, write, and read as we are – even as others around the world, and throughout history, could not.
In a phrase, passed from one Bradford to another, and then on to us, “There but for the grace of God go we.” So long as we remember our blessings, we will be happy. Happy Thanksgiving!