The Who's Who of Thanksgiving
The Sad Story of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags
Jackson Snyder, November 20, 1997

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(Mat 3:8-10 KJV) Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance: {9} And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. {10} And now also the ax is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.

These are the words of John the Baptist, who was sent here by God to prepare us for the Kingdom of God. He preaches from the arid wasteland to those religious city folk who came out to question him. He tells them that the evidence of true faith doesn't consist in their parentage, or their race, or their religious affiliation, or how they were baptized. Rather, John insists that the evidence of their salvation consists in the fruits of their repentance -- fruits such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness -- goodness -- benevolence. These lacking, the "tree" is not only chopped down, but destroyed in the bonfire, making room for the fruitful.

We, the people of God present this evening, desire to be fruitful. We know in our hearts that Jesus will come quickly and set up his Kingdom right here on earth. And that if we are fruitful trees, we shall reign with him forever.

The Pilgrims believed this, too. They considered themselves to be the spiritual descendants of John the Baptist, setting forth from a hostile England to set up the Kingdom of God in the Americas, in hopes that Jesus might join them there. It's their story that tonight I will tell.

Who Were the Pilgrims?

In the early years of the 17th century, there was a sect of religious folk in England. They were called "Puritans" because they desired to purify themselves from anything and anyone which didn't fit into their slant on the Bible. They believed that their destiny was to be fulfilled in the prophecies of the Revelation. They understood their time to be the end-time, and that they alone were God's last hope for the world. Through them, God spoke damning judgment against England; and through them, Jesus was establishing the New Jerusalem. Our group of 101 Puritans, whom we know as "The Pilgrims," set sail for America in September, 1620 to do just that -- to establish the eternal Kingdom of God right here on earth.

When the Mayflower landed on Plymouth's rocky shore November 21, we can only imagine what the Indians might have thought. Regardless of their fearsome appearance, the Indians' religion taught them to help all strangers in need, so they treated the newcomers with courtesy. Had this not been so, the Pilgrims would have expired soon after landing.

And Who Were These Indians?

These Indians were the Wampanoags, a tribe of the "The Delaware League." They were a civilized people who lived in round, wooden wigwams gathered into villages along the seacoast. They wore deerskin clothing and moccasins, and bearskin coats. They wore braided hair; the men adorned with a single feather. Like us, these Indians farmed. During hunting season, they moved with their prey.

And they worshiped one god, "The Lord of Heaven." Their faith taught that charity was to be extended to the needy and hospitality to the helpless. They believed in the Creation and respected all creatures as equals. The Indians practiced the Golden Rule.


One of these Indians was a Christian who spoke English. His name was Tisquantum. We know him as "Squanto." Long before the Mayflower, Squanto had met Christ, was discipled by an English explorer, and taken to Europe. While there, he met another coastal Indian named Samoset, a freed slave. After 15 years in Europe, Squanto and Samoset decided it was time to go home -- back to Squanto's village of Patuxet in Massachusetts.

When the Indians arrived home, they found their village deserted (except for the skeletons). Slave traders had been there; they captured the strongest to sell, and killed the rest will smallpox. Squanto's family was dead or gone. He and Samoset left in horror. When they returned to Patuxet a year later, they were surprised to find a tiny encampment on the very site of their village. The camp was the Pilgrims' New Jerusalem.


For several days Squanto and Samoset watched from a hiding place. Finally, they ventured out. Samoset said one word to the Pilgrims: "Welcome." Now, the Pilgrims were surprised. Two Indians who spoke English! Unbelievable! And the Pilgrims were very glad.

For, by this time, God's Chosen were in bad shape. Half had died the first winter. Now they were living in dirt huts with no food. So Squanto decided to stay for a few months to teach the Pilgrims how to survive their Apocalypse. He hunted deer and beaver for their food and clothing. He taught them how to plant vegetables and how to build wigwams. He taught them the difference between medicine herbs and poison plants, how to dig and steam clams, how to tap maple trees, how to use fish for fertilizer, and dozens of other things.

The First Thanksgiving

By harvest time, life was much better for the Pilgrims. God had saved them through his Indian servant, Squanto. The Pilgrims had accumulated enough food to last the winter. They were living in cozy wigwams. They had even build a little church. So thankful were they for their preservation, they decided to throw a Thanksgiving feast.

Actually, feasting is quite out-of-character for Puritans, because the English Church, against which they were rebelling, obligated the people to observe certain holidays. The Puritans saw holidays as pagan, including Christmas and Easter. Observance of such was blasphemy. For them, Thanksgiving meant a long fast, not a feast!

On the other hand, the Wampanoag Indians held six thanksgivings every year honoring the "Lord of Heaven" for his creation, including the maple dance, the strawberry festival, the harvest feast and the new year. The Pilgrims' first thanksgiving of the year was the Indians' fifth!

Captain Miles Standish, the Pilgrim leader, declared the feast open, and invited Squanto, Samoset and Chief Massasoit to come. As the meal proceeded, Indians just kept coming -- twenty little, thirty little, forty little Indians -- until there were 90 little Indians. Seeing the dab of food the Pilgrims offered, the Chief ordered his men to go get more. They brought back five deer, turkeys, fish, beans, squash, soups, corn bread and fruit.

When all was ready, Captain Standish held down one end of the long, long table, and Chief Massasoit the other. This was the first time the Wampanoags sat to eat rather than recline on furs. The Pilgrim men sat with the Indian men and women as though they were equals. The Pilgrim women, however, had to stand aside. That was the rule.

Thus the first Thanksgiving was a time of peace and friendship; here Chief Massasoit gave the Pilgrims Patuxet village as a sign of friendship. But the friendship didn't last. You see, the Pilgrims considered these native Americans to be Philistines in their Promised Land -- a godless race to be subdued -- sinners to be purified or destroyed.

True Colors

You see, Pilgrim evangelism was not based in charity, but in fear and judgment and punishment. Despite their aid, the Pilgrims saw the Indians as instruments of the devil; and Squanto as merely the means by which God insured the survival of His chosen people, the Pilgrims. Because the heathen Indians were powerful, they were also dangerous; the Pilgrims would bide their time only until more Pilgrims arrived to shift the balance of power.

In the meantime, they threatened God's wrath if the Indians wouldn't quit their way of life and customs to become Puritans. The Indians had to submit to be saved. Such coercion and threat is far from the biblical model; it in itself is godless and full of pride. Legalism never leads to conversion, but to a breakdown of relationship; and ultimately, to war. Soon, more Pilgrims migrated to Plymouth, and the holy war began. After years of musket and smallpox, the few Wampanoags left were captured and sold as slaves -- some payback for their hospitality and help.

It's sad to recount the third Thanksgiving prayer in 1623, but it exemplifies Pilgrim-brand religion. The Pastor, Elder Mather, began the feast by giving thanks to God for sending the smallpox that had wiped out the Indians during the last two years. He praised God for killing "chiefly young men and children, thus clearing the forests to make way for a better growth" -- a "better growth" of Puritans, of course. But Elder Mather should have known that it wasn't God who brought the smallpox; it was the Pilgrims. The same white-washed Pharisees that the Pilgrims had fled, they had now become.

350 Years Later

Today, 376 years later, there are no real Puritans left in Plymouth, but there are still plenty of heathens. There are even a few Wampanoags round about. In 1970, one of them was asked to speak at the 350th anniversary celebration of the Pilgrim's arrival in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Here's part of what was said:

Today is a time of celebrating for you -- a time of looking back to the first days of white people in America. But it is not a time of celebrating for me. It is with a heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my People. When the Pilgrims arrived, we welcomed them with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end. That before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a tribe. That we and other Indians living near the settlers would be killed by their guns or dead from diseases that we caught from them. Although our way of life is almost gone, we still walk the lands of Massachusetts. What has happened cannot be changed. But today we work toward a better America, where people and nature once again are important.

Who's Who

The question that remains is, "At Plymouth Colony, just who were the true Christians -- the Pilgrims or the Indians?" The answer seems easy. The Pilgrims left England because the were persecuted for the sake of Christ. They came to the New World to facilitate the coming of Christ. They had their Bibles and prayers and liturgies and candles and salvation formulas. They didn't smoke, drink, cuss or go to dances or movies. They made it plain that they were religious, entirely sanctified, perfected.

After all, save one, these Indians didn't know Christ -- they were heathens. They smoked a lot and drank a lot and danced whenever they felt like it. They didn't have correct doctrine, or Bibles, or candles, or liturgies, or Sunday suits, or churches. They called God "Lord of Heaven" -- that's not God's correct name, is it? They didn't even put up a Christmas tree after that first Thanksgiving. It's obvious that the Pilgrims were the Christians in our story.

But in light of John the Baptist's message, we might ask an even more pertinent question: "Who bore fruit meet for repentance? The Pilgrims or the Indians? The Christians or the Savages?" That too is easy to answer; the Pilgrims may have been Christians, but their fruits were stinkin' rotten. The fruits of dead religion are always rotten. The true fruits of repentance were found -- in the deeds of the Indians.

So who's who? As to fruits, who fulfilled John's requirements?




As Americans, the spiritual children of the Pilgrims, whom we call "Fore-fathers," where do we stand in light of John the Baptist's indictment? Do we have all the religious trappings, while the fruits are smothered? Do the heathens know who we are by our love and good deeds, or only by the Bibles under our arms, the crosses around our neck, the churches we attend, the things we don't do? Friends, come to know Jesus; learn of his ways. Be just like him -- bear sweet fruits and be thankful.


The story of the First Thanksgiving and its aftermath may have brought some sadness. But there is a joyful side. Plymouth Rock still has a Thanksgiving ceremony each year to commemorate that first Thanksgiving. And since 1898, Thanksgiving has been a national holiday on which both saints and sinners give thanks to God. We, like believers all over, gather this week to worship God and thank him for his faithfulness. And, just like at the first Thanksgiving, while we worship and give thanks together, peace will reign among us.

An Indian Thanksgiving Prayer


Now the time has come! We are your children, Lord of Heaven! Hear us. We are here to speak the truth, for you do not hear lies. Thus we offer our prayers to you.

In the beginning of all things, you provided that we inherit your creation. You said, "I shall make the earth on which people shall live. They shall look to the earth as their mother. They shall say, 'It is she who supports us.'"

You said that we should always be thankful for our earth and for each other. So it is that we are gathered here; we are your children, Lord of Heaven. You said that we should have food -- ours in exchange for our labor. You thought that ours should be a world where green grass of many kinds should grow. You gave us medicine herbs and corn, beans, and squash to sustain us. This is what you thought, Lord of Heaven. Thus did you think to provide for us.

And you ordered that when the warm season comes that we should see the return of life, remember you, and be thankful. And as we gather here once again, the smoke rises, and we offer our prayers. We are thankful, Lord of Heaven.