History & Culture

Thanksgiving – Grace of God


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!

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2 months ago

God Bless America & pray that we get a POTUS that believes in & follows The Ten Commandments to make America righteous again.

2 months ago

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday as it exists for all us of us to recognize our good fortune and
all that which has been given us not only in material ways but in the even greater intangibles which our nation and our God has given us. It is the one day in which we do not wish for more and regret our circumstances but stop to count and appreciate what we do have today.

2 months ago

Thank you Mr. Charles for your Thanksgiving article. My husband, a retired history teacher, and I had a long discussion over turkey dinner about the history of the pilgrims and indians and it was so enjoyable and a good reminder of how blessed we are. Thank you for writing it.

David Millikan
2 months ago

The United States was the First country in the world to create the First National Holiday. And that First National Holiday is Thanksgiving.
This use to be taught in schools as part of our American History curriculum and should be returned in schools as it is part of our History as a Nation.

John D. Beach
2 months ago

I heard the phrase, “There but for the grace of God go I,” repeated over the years by preachers retelling an anecdote in the life of evangelist D. L. Moody upon encountering a drunken person.
The attribution that it was only by God’s grace that the person suffering the problem was not self.

2 months ago

I think of that phrase often. This article is a blessing

Paul W
2 months ago

Amen, RBC! Happy Thanksgiving one and all.

David Millikan
2 months ago

GOD BLESS THE UNITED STATES of AMERICA. Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

Tom Llewellyn
2 months ago

The societal switch in the struggling Pilgram village away from a socialist/communist “share food equally” regardless of effort, was so dramatic, that in only one year, the harvest was tremendous! An abundance so huge they were convinced that God himself had intervened on their behalf. So great was the stockpile of food, that they insisted on sharing their good fortune with the local Indians, who had helped feed the village during the previous harsh winter.
That means the original Thanksgiving Feast was to celebrate FREE ENTERPRISE and the bountiful reward from applying yourself.
Clearly, from our county’s earliest beginning, our forefathers acknowledged the ability of each of us being able to apply ourselves in a free and unencumbered market.

2 months ago

great article We should all be Thankful That we live in AMERICA , We all have our problems but we live in a country that is the best country in the world & we can enjoy our freedoms . Just be thankful you live here & Thank GOD For Everything You Have

Philip Hammersley
2 months ago

The Pilgrims learned in just one year the failure that is socialism! When they switched to free enterprise, they prospered!

Elena Tellez
2 months ago

BEAUTIFULLY WRITTEN article, as always, Bobby Charles… with an awesome, eternal, theme. Having traveled to all seven continents, I constantly feel gratitude every day… for living in America; in Florida, in The Villages, and being alive and (relatively) healthy. So many Americans, especially youngsters and those who have not traveled widely, take for granted our clean running water; our beautiful landscapes and seascapes; in most cases, our abundance of food (and charity for those who are in tough times); and except for some BLUE state urban areas, relatively safe streets & neighborhoods. HAPPY THANKSGIVING, everyone… and please, remember to be grateful for what we have… and don’t focus on what you might not have. No one has it all… be careful what you wish for!!!

2 months ago

I appreciate this article on Thanksgiving. Oftentimes we forget so easily, with the chaos and evil that seems to be so prevalent in the world, our blessing’s do shine forth. Thanks to God’s Holy Spirit!
Happy Thanksgiving to all!

anna hubert
2 months ago
Reply to  Vinbo

Good to remember how the greatest country on Earth was conceived

2 months ago

Without gratitude life is nothing but trouble.

Larry W.
2 months ago

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone who takes the time to express their feelings on these AMAC pages.
Let us all give thanks to God for all His bountiful blessings He bestows on our country.

J. Farley
2 months ago

Happy Thanksgiving to all the members of AMAC, with all the problem that America is going through at this point in time, America is still the best place to live, and I will be forever grateful that I was lucky enough to be an America.
God Bless Everyone!

Karen Knowles
2 months ago
Reply to  J. Farley

Well said, Mr. Farley!

J. Farley
2 months ago
Reply to  Karen Knowles

Thanks! Karen!

2 months ago
Reply to  J. Farley

God bless you, too, J. Farley.

J. Farley
2 months ago
Reply to  Sheila

Thanks! Shelia!

2 months ago
Reply to  J. Farley

Thank you & pray that we become the United States of America again —- like the generation of WWII united to protect the freedoms they passed on to us. Do not take them for granted.

Stephen Russell
2 months ago

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Meet Needs

2 months ago

The following was found at phrases.org: “The case against Bradford being the source is this:
– All of the sources that claim Bradford as the originator themselves ultimately derive from The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. These include an entry in the usually authoritative The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, which cites the DNB. The biography of John Bradford in the DNB contains no claim that he uttered the words in question. If such a claim appeared there in earlier editions, the editors have now seen fit to remove it.
– An extensive, 1000-page, collection of the writings of John Bradford was published by The Parker Society, in 1848. The 19th century editors do repeat the story, which they describe as “a universal tradition, which has overcome the lapse of time”. Despite that, the book contains nothing in Bradford’s own writings that could be seen as the source of the quotation.
– The phrase “there but for the grace of God, go I” isn’t to be found in print until centuries after Bradford’s death. The earliest example of it that I have found is in A treatise on prayer, by Edward Bickersteth, 1822, in which the author repeats the Bradford story.” Bradford died in 1555.

Dan W.
2 months ago
Reply to  Monica

To quote a more recent sage: “I really didn’t say everything I said.”

2 months ago
Reply to  Monica

???”Bradford died in 1555″?How , then , was he writing about the first “Thanksgiving” (In 1621) in his diary?I’m SO confused…

2 months ago

Thank you, RBC. I appreciate your writings that you have shared with us on this forum. May you have a good Thanksgiving with your family.

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