Reflections on Thanksgiving

Like so many of you, I’m sure, I just had a wonderful time celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday with members of my family.  Now that it is over, I have a few thoughts to share.

It occurred to me that there are quite a few similarities between the story of the Pilgrims coming to America and settling in Massachusetts and the story of the German Lutherans also coming here and settling in Perry County.

I think one obvious similarity between these two movements of people is that they both had basically the same motivation for leaving their home country.  Both of these groups can be referred to as pilgrims.  If you define a pilgrim as a person who makes a voyage for a religious reason, then both of these groups qualify.  Both the Pilgrims and the German Lutherans were dissatisfied with the state religion in their respective countries.  The Pilgrims were in disagreement with the Anglican Church in England.  The Stephanites from Germany were disgruntled with how the civil authorities in their homeland were dictating doctrines and practices which were in opposition with their beliefs.  The Pilgrims decided to become Separatists, not desiring to just attempt to reform the Church of England, but to separate themselves and start their own church.  In the end, they eventually made the decision that the only way they could accomplish that would be to relocate.  In a similar way, the German Lutherans would arrive at the decision that the only way to resolve their situation was to move elsewhere.  They too were Separatists.  So even though the Lutherans left Europe over 200 years after the Pilgrims, they had similar motivation for leaving.

Both sets of pilgrims left Europe in the fall of the year.  The Pilgrims, after much difficulty including having to change ships, left on the Mayflower on September 6, 1620.  The Lutherans left aboard five different ships departing on several different days during the month of November in 1838.  Since the Mayflower’s intended destination was present-day Virginia, they took a northern route across the Atlantic.  The Lutherans were headed toward New Orleans so they would take a route much closer to the Equator across the ocean.  Recorded stories in both cases told of the amazingly difficult passage both groups would have to endure.

One of the similarities that I find very interesting is the fact that both of these groups of people came to a new land very unprepared for what they were going to experience here.  They were not people trained for survival in primitive surroundings.  They were mostly craftsmen who, for the most part, would be unable to use those special skills when they arrived in America.  They would have to dedicate almost all of their time and effort to staying alive.  And in both cases, many of them would die during their first year in their new land.  In the case of the Pilgrims, about half of them died over their first winter in America.

Both of these groups of people can attribute their survival to what I would describe as “angels” sent by God.  In the case of the Pilgrims, they were assisted by a Native American named Squanto.  By the amazing hand of God, Squanto had been to Europe where he learned English and had returned to his homeland, only to find that his tribe had pretty much vanished due to a horrific plague.  However, he was now in a position to help these English immigrants who were in dire distress.  Squanto would teach these newcomers many survival skills, including assisting them with the planting of crops.  I can only conclude that God had His hand in this miraculous set of circumstances.

squantoteaching

The German settlers in Perry County were also the recipients of unexpected help.  Scots-Irish Presbyterians in Brazeau, Missouri who had arrived there about twenty years earlier recognized the hardships that were being experienced by their new German neighbors.  They were able to provide provisions to help them get through their first difficult year and also teach them very valuable survival skills that they had already learned.  They helped the Germans avoid things like poison ivy and poisonous snakes.  They also were able to advise the Lutherans about what crops would grow well in this area.  The German Lutherans also viewed this help as a very unexpected but appreciated gift from God.

Both the Pilgrims and the German Lutherans would lose a leader in their first year in America.  The first governor of the Pilgrims was John Carver.  He was apparently chosen the governor on the passage across the Atlantic and was the leader during the first  year in America.  He would die in the spring of 1621, but not before many of the Pilgrims placed much of the blame for their horrible existence upon him.  John Carver is said to have been a very wealthy man who came on the voyage with several personal servants.

The first leader of the Lutherans was Rev. Martin Stephan.  Although he was already considered the leader of the immigration before they left, on the voyage aboard his ship, he managed to get himself declared the Bishop.  He also traveled with several “maids” who served him in many capacities.  In fact, it ended up that his relationship with these servants resulted in a scandal which led to his exile from the community.   Rev. Stephan would die in Illinois about a year after his arrival in America.

Both of these first leaders were replaced by men who would end up with legacies that are still remembered today.  The next leader of the Pilgrims was William Bradford.  He is recognized as providing the guidance which resulted in the Plymouth settlement’s success.  The next leader of the German Lutherans was Rev. C.F.W. Walther, who went on to become the first president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

It can also be said that both of these men came to realize that their intended ways to govern themselves when they came to America were not going to work.  They both discovered that the freedom they found in this country would lead them both to change their minds about their respective polities.  Those changes would lead to the eventual success of both of these settlements.

In retrospect, we can see the guidance of Divine Providence in both of these stories.  The Almighty God was able to work with sinful people going through very difficult times to accomplish His plan.  Both of these groups can attribute their survival and success to a gracious God.

The story of the Pilgrims is one which is an integral part in the founding of our country.  The story of the German Lutherans is one which an integral part in the founding of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.  Both of these stories are ones worth remembering.  It is important for both of these stories to be taught to our children.  It is important to remember that it is God who directed the destinies of both of these groups.  We should not forget our history and God’s part in it.

The Lutheran Heritage Center & Museum exists to help us remember our history.  We hope you keep us in your prayers and help support us in any way you can.

In my opinion, one of the most important things that America can do is to occupy the pews in our churches to thank our God for His Divine guidance.  And that kind of Thanksgiving Day doesn’t just have to happen once a year.

 


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