As often happens in the history of the church on earth, God uses the events of the past to teach His people in the present time, even though these historical events may have happened hundreds of years ago.
One of these events in church history which we Americans still celebrate had its beginning across the seas nearly four hundred years ago, while the Protestant Reformation was still spreading over Europe. This special event had its setting in England, where the Reformation was not as strong a movement as it was in continental Europe. King Henry VII, who ruled at that time, was not a true Protestant. On the other hand, he hated the pope and wanted to escape from his authority. At the same time he was happy to have his country remain basically Roman Catholic. In the upheavals of doctrinal struggles, the king saw to it that the new church which emerged in England after the Reformation – the Anglican Church was a state church, under the control of the government. The liturgy and system of church government in the Anglican Church resembled that of the Romish Church, but the theology, which the church stated in the Thirty-nine Articles, was mildly Calvinistic.
What about those Protestants in Great Britain who wanted a more pure reformation – a true return to the doctrines of the Scriptures? They could not and did not attend the State Church.
Their name came naturally. They were called Separatists. They were also called Puritans because they left the State Church and tried to live pure and spiritual lives. Rather than unite themselves into a denomination, these dissenters, as they were also called, were congregationalists, or separatists, with no common or denominational ties to one another.
Weary of their persecution by the State Church of England, many of them decided to leave the country; and by it they gained another name: the Pilgrims. In the year 1620, a group of them left in the small Mayflower, under the leadership of William Bradford. They left on September 6, and arrived at Plymouth, Massachusetts on December 6, 1620.
After bidding their families, relatives and friends good-bye (God-be-with-you), they had sailed into the unknown of a long, dangerous voyage through the wintery Atlantic into the snow and cold of a North American winter; and when they landed, they also experienced the fear of withstanding savage attacks by the American natives.
At last spring came, followed by growing plants and a plentiful harvest; and after their harvest – still in sadness and hardships – these Pilgrims made a celebration of thanks to God. They never realized that this event would start a tradition.
Why not? Because these people were humble children of God, who were seeking religious freedom. Their Bibles were their most precious possessions. They were ready, with hearts filled with praise and thanksgiving, to say, “That I may publish with the voice of thanksgiving, and tell of all thy wondrous works,” Psalm 26:7; and “Return unto thy rest, O my soul; for the Lord hath dealt bountifully with thee,” Psalm 116:7.
These Pilgrims were also Calvinists, who praised their Father in heaven as the God of sovereign, free grace by saying, “O taste and see that the Lord is good: blessed is the man that trusteth in him,” Psalm 34:8. They humbly trusted their God and never realized they would be recognized in future history.
What does this history mean to us? Why write about it in Beacon Lights? Does it – should it – affect us? Should we celebrate just because they had a special thanksgiving? Although the Puritans were not in the line of the Reformation as far as church structure is concerned (for they were separatists) they did show that they were not only Bible believers, but also Calvinists. William Bradford, after describing their sad and desolate condition in the new land, commented on their lives as follows: “Thus out of small beginnings great things have been produced by His hand that made all things of nothing, and gives being to all things that are; and as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone to many, yea in some sort to our whole nation: let the glorious name of Jehovah have all the praise.”*
It is true, of course, that the history of God’s church after the time of His revelation to the apostle John at Patmos is no longer inspired history. That does not mean that we stop celebrating God’s goodness in our own geographical and historical settings. As in the springtime we ask our Father to care for us through the season of the growing crops, we also thank Him at harvest time, according to His instructions to one of the Old Testament saints, to “come again with rejoicing, bringing in his sheaves with him,” Psalm 126.
How about our sister churches and the churches in other lands whom we have gotten to know and with whom we have contact? These churches do not share our historical background. Possibly they have never heard of our Thanksgiving celebration at the end of harvest: those in Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, or the British Isles. Although their celebration of thanksgiving could not be the same as ours, for they have different cultures and historical backgrounds, it may be profitable for them also to set aside a day for thanksgiving, to praise our Father’s goodness in His providence and in His grace.
We, as the Protestant Reformed Churches of America, remember the Pilgrims on Thanksgiving Day. However, in obedience to God’s Word, we celebrate not merely a day, but we celebrate His continued goodness in seed time and harvest, as did our spiritual ancestors both in the Old and New Testament times. We remember and celebrate because “the Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endureth to all generations,” Psalm 100:5.
*Eerdman’s Handbook to Christianity in America, 1983, p. 29.