Thanksgiving, Puritans and the American Creed?

Article excerpt

WHEN the Pilgrims gathered at Plymouth in November of 1621 to celebrate the first Thanksgiving with Native Americans, who had helped them during their very difficult first year, it became the basis of the American holiday we enjoy today.

We gather with family and friends to give thanks for our blessings with feasting and prayer, as did the Pilgrims, a prayerful people. Upon arrival on the Mayflower in 1620, while still at anchor off what is now Provincetown, Mass., after a lengthy and hard voyage across the Atlantic, they gave thanks in a prayer.

The prayer, Nick Bunker claims in a new history of the event, had its origins in a Jewish ritual called birkat-ha-Gomel. This would not be surprising, since the Puritan Pilgrims from England who founded Plymouth, Boston, Providence, Hartford, New Haven and other colonies in New England were well-versed in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Their leaders were well-educated in the great Cambridge and Oxford universities in England and Trinity in Dublin, Ireland.

But for many years, Puritans were seen as self-righteous and too often in conflict with Native Americans. They endured bad publicity after the Salem witch trials. However, several great scholars of American history, such as Yale University's Edmund S. Morgan, in recent generations have written impressively about their importance.

The ideas and principles they brought with them became a system of beliefs and institutions that were creative, vital and sustaining here. They provided a remarkable heritage for American education, literature, morality, philosophy and, especially, constitutional government.

For example, before they disembarked at Plymouth, the Pilgrims signed the Mayflower Compact "to covenant and combine themselves" into a "civill body politick" promising "just and equall laws" for the betterment of their soon to be established community and the glory of God.

The compact became one of the foundational documents of American democracy with its commitment to equality and self-government.

Soon thereafter, the founders of Connecticut, led by the Rev. Thomas Hooker and Roger Ludlow, would create what many historians believe to be the first written constitution of modern democracy, The Fundamental Orders of 1639. Beyond describing and limiting the government, the document placed sovereignty in the people. …