In 1621, Richard Warren, almost certainly a refugee from debtors’ prison, scuffled for his survival on the eastern edge of the North Atlantic with the Pilgrims at Plymouth. His wife and their five children remained in England, as almost half of the small contingent of 102 souls died in that first year from disease and deprivation.
Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Mr. Warren joined the surviving Pilgrims –– in thanking God for bringing them to what would become the United States.
They were not alone.
The first Thanksgiving on American soil probably occurred in May 1541 near Canyon, Texas, where Father Juan de Padilla said Mass for an army of 1,500 soldiers under conquistador Francisco Vasquez de Coronado. Or it may have occurred on September 8, 1565, when Father Francisco Lopez said a Mass for the 800 newly-arrived Spanish colonists in St. Augustine, Florida.
Or among the English, the leader of the settlers who landed at Berkeley Hundred (in present-day Henrico County, Virginia) on December 4, 1619, commanded that: “We ordain that this day of our ships’ arrival, at the place assigned for plantation, in the land of Virginia, shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving for Almighty God.”
Despite the competition, the Pilgrim celebration remains the dominant narrative of Thanksgiving in our society and probably for a good reason. In 1621, in the wake of a bountiful harvest after a year of terrible sickness and unimaginable hardship, the Pilgrims set aside a day to give thanks to God for all of it.
Thanksgiving for bounty? Absolutely. Thanksgiving for sickness and hardship? Again, absolutely.
The Pilgrims believed that everything we receive is a gift from God, both the events and people we immediately recognize as good and the events and people in which we have trouble seeing the good.
If you think about Thanksgiving Day now, we tend to endure litanies of whatever happy things have happened to relatives, friends, and famous people. Worse, many are “thankful,” but it’s never clear to whom or what they are thankful. How often is the Author of all things mentioned?
The reality is that bad things happen to all of us, and for whatever reason, God lets them happen. Our lives are not solely our own; we did not create ourselves, nor did we create the universe in which we live. Consequently, we are rarely in a position to determine which experiences are good and which are bad.
Many of the bad experiences people endure are also the richest opportunities for learning and growth, although they may not be understood as such when in the moment. The German philosopher Nietzsche captured that when he wrote that: “What doesn’t destroy me makes me stronger.”
The Pilgrims were grateful not for the harvest or the friendly Indians or whatever. They were grateful for God’s providential, watchful, and caring love; however, that was manifested. They were well familiar with St. Paul’s admonition in his letter to the Ephesians that we “have not here a lasting city.” Everything we see and touch will one day cease to be, so it’s pointless to worry too much about any specific event or material thing in the long run.
These are uncomfortable facts for some; for others, they are the source of comfort and resilience. Our destiny, and that of our nation, are, in many respects, in the hands of a loving and just God.
This brings us back to Richard Warren. His wife and children joined him in 1623, and they had two more together before he died in 1628. His children survived into adulthood and had large families. It is estimated that 40% of those who claim ancestors on the Mayflower (including me) are related to Richard Warren. His descendants include Joseph Warren (the founder of Harvard Medical School), the Roosevelts, and Ulysses S. Grant.
We all remain very grateful for his sacrifice and suffering in those first harrowing moments on this continent. Moments which, in the long sweep of time, yielded fruit a hundredfold.
This Thanksgiving, think about Richard Warren and the millions of others who have struggled and still struggle to improve their lives and those of their children, neighbors, and nation. Make sure to thank the Author of all things for these people and for everything you’ve been given – both the good and bad.
• Michael McKenna, a columnist for The Washington Times, is the president of MWR Strategies. He was most recently a deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of the Office of Legislative Affairs at the White House.