“And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”
— Edward Winslow, Dec. 11, 1621, Mayflower passenger, speaking of the first Thanksgiving
Most historians believe the American pilgrims were deeply religious people who studied the Bible and whose intent was to create a new community based on Biblical teaching. As they were trying to find a way to express their thanks for their early survival and good harvest, it is quite possible that they looked to the Bible (Leviticus 23:39) for an appropriate way of celebrating and based their first Thanksgiving, in part on the Feast of Tabernacles, a Jewish fall harvest festival.
Yet there had not been much to celebrate during the previous year. The long stormy passage left many of the Pilgrims sick with scurvy and typhus. The first winter was devastating with less than 50 of the original 102 colonists surviving the exceptionally severe winter. By spring, 12 of the 18 married women had died, including Edward Winslow’s own wife, and the living had barely the strength to put in the next year's crop.
We all know the story that with the help of the Native Americans, who showed the Pilgrims how to plant corn, food shortages were resolved, resulting in a great harvest and a Thanksgiving celebration.
But few of us know the rest of the story.
In reality, the Pilgrims continued to face chronic food shortages for the next three years. But it was not bad weather or lack of farming skills that caused them.
I suspect that, based on a misunderstanding of the opening chapters of the book of Acts, the Plymouth Plantation was founded in 1620 with a system of communal property rights, not biblical property rights. The community held everything in common, including food and supplies, distributing them equally and as needed by plantation officials. Everyone received equal portions regardless of their contribution.
In his 1647 “History of Plymouth Plantation,” Gov. William Bradford wrote:
“this system was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. The problem was that young men, that were most able and fit for labor, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense. Because of the poor incentives, little food was produced.”
In the spring of 1623, facing potential starvation, the colony abandoned their communal system and each family was given their own land on which they could keep everything they grew for themselves. But now they alone were responsible for feeding themselves, taking to heart Paul’s admonition in II Thessalonians 3:10, “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”