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Thursday, November 28, 2013


for most people here in the USA, is something of a precursor of Christmas, a day when family and friends often get together across a table laden with various delicacies once claimed to be eaten by Pilgrims and Indians, yell at a TV screen showing colossal characters ramming into each other over an oval shaped ball, and, hopefully, take time to be thankful for their blessings and help those in need of assistance, as we all do from time to time in life. For me personally, it is usually a quiet day spent cooking with my parents, and we’ve cooked up a storm in the past – turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, salt n’ pepper mashed potatoes, candied yams, cooked carrots, corn, string beans, pumpkin pie with cool whip, eggnog. You get the picture. Lots of leftovers. After finishing cooking, we usually watch classic films and spend time in prayer, thanking God for the bounty.

    The concept of having an official holiday set aside to giving thanks to God for things may sound quaint at best and superstitious at worst to some readers leaning more towards atheism or agnosticism. Obviously, we don’t all see the overt actions of a Supreme Being moving things around in our lives, nor can we even detect an overt action directing the gradual ebb and flow of nature. But therein lies the paradox of it all. It is not in the loud crash of thunder, per se, but in the whispering wind that God’s voice is heard. In other words, as Christians, we accept that the workings of God can be either subtle or astounding, but that all things are under His control and the end results are part of His plan. God is the “Prime Mover”, setting the chain reaction of natural and human history into motion, giving each of us the ability to choose right and wrong, and, in the end, working all things to good for those who love and serve Him.

    The adjoining concepts of hope and providence are brought to the fore in J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy epics. He himself called them “fundamentally religious works”, and beneath to surface, it is not difficult to see why. In these stories of Middle Earth, a force is constantly playing a part in the lives of the characters, working through their virtues and vices to bring about the unexpected conclusion of each plot. Darkness seems impenetrable at times, but the characters cling to hope – not futility, but the theological virtue of hope – with a keen awareness that this world is only a testing ground to prepare for a higher plain. Tolkien rebuked hopeless cynicism in a world of haughty cynics, and that is what has made his writings so timeless. He believed that human beings were more than electric meat or a conglomeration of scientific microcosms.

    Enter the Pilgrims, the ultimate religious and cultural “bridge” between Old England and Young America. Many times, historians have brought up the query just why the arrival of the Scrooby Separatists at the cranberry bogs of Massachusetts should elicit such a general hub-bub. After all, the Jamestown colonists were the first ones to plant the Union Jack on American soil, the Spanish and the French certainly beat them to the punch by many centuries, and the Pilgrims were only one among many groups seeking religious toleration for themselves in America. Admittedly, I am rather put out that the Catholic English refugees who fled to Lord Baltimore’s fair and pleasant colony don’t get better promo!

    But the reason the Jamestown adventurers failed to capture our imagination was because their primary goal for being there was to “get rich quick”, plain and simple. The French and Spanish were just a little too different from our own Anglicized culture to feel completely “part of us.” And the fact still remains that the Pilgrims we all know and love were the first major group of ordinary Englishmen and Englishwomen to make the miserable Atlantic crossing to the New World for religious reasons. And in the end, in spite of all the technicalities and nay-saying, they really deserve to be remembered, both in their native land and their adopted home. I have vowed to myself that should the winding road of life ever lead me to settle in Britain, marry a Brit, and have a bunch of little British children, I will insist upon them all celebrating Thanksgiving. Or no cooking from me. Ever.

     The Pilgrims were a fascinating bunch. While they certainly were very prayerful and not much into having shin-digs on holy days, when they set their mind to partying, records reveal they really “set the house on fire” – sometimes literally! Also, they didn’t perpetually tromp around clad in black funeral garb. More interesting records reveal that some of them were quite “decked out” in seriously crazy colors and fashions that conjure up images of the ‘60’s as opposed to the 1600s! Unlike the Quakers, they weren’t shy about fighting and sometimes teamed up with one Indian tribe against another for their own benefit. There actions were not always as clean as the driven snow, but their obvious dedication to their beliefs in spite of persecution and courage in the face of the unknown cannot help but be a testimony to the endurance of the human spirit.

    Not only did they establish a successful colony on the edge of nowhere, but they also brought “The Mayflower Compact” into being, serving as a landmark of democratic development, which acknowledged the power of God, the power of the king, and the power of the people. Their emphasis on the written word, entrenched in them not least because of their devotion to the Bible, made this possible. The Pilgrims journey to the New World truly lent life to the allegory Pilgrim’s Progress by the Puritan author, John Bunyan, who was imprisoned in England for his nonconformity. I think the following hymn by Bunyan sums up his spirit, along with that of Tolkien, the Pilgrims, and Thanksgiving itself, best:

Who would true valour see,
Let him come hither;
One here will constant be,
Come wind, come weather
There’s no discouragement
Shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent
To be a pilgrim.

Whoso beset him round
With dismal stories
Do but themselves confound;
His strength the more is.
No lion can him fright,
He’ll with a giant fight,
He will have a right
To be a pilgrim.

Hobgoblin nor foul fiend
Can daunt his spirit,
He knows he at the end
Shall life inherit.
Then fancies fly away,
He’ll fear not what men say,
He’ll labor night and day
To be a pilgrim.

print of Mike Haywood's painting of the Pilgrim Fathers' first landing 13 Nov 1620
"To be a Pilgrim......"


  1. What a delightful essay! Thank you.

    Lord Baltimore's first Catholic colony was in what is now known as Ferryland on the Avalon peninsula in beautiful Newfoundland. The English Catholics, alas, were burnt out by French Catholics, and so sailed south to a less hostile environment.

    The government of Canada (God's second-favorite / favourite nation) has sponsored some brilliant archaeology in Ferryland, and one can still walk along the first paved road (only a few yards long) in the Americas.

    The Puritans could understand Squanto because he spoke English, which he learned in Newfoundland. What a wonderful story -- English colonizers were welcomed by a British subject!

  2. I like this. Excellent analysis of Tolkien's application of hope, and overall a nice appreciation of the Pilgrims and the Thanksgiving holiday. I like the hymn as well. Do you know if there is a tune to go with it?

    Interesting idea, connecting LOTR to the Pilgrims, but I do see your point.
    "There’s no discouragement
    Shall make him once relent
    His first avowed intent"

    sounds an awful lot like Frodo! ; )

    Happy Thanksgiving!!

    - Katherine

  3. @Mack: Wow! That's a terrific story about Lord Baltimore's first colony in Newfoundland, and the connection with Squanto! I must look into it further. Thanks so much for sharing!

    @Katherine: I'm glad you liked my connectivity applications revolving around Tolkien, Bunyan, and the Pilgrims. "Who Would True Valour See" does indeed have a tune -- check out Maddy Prior's version on YouTube. And yes, it does sort of fit for Frodo and the other characters from Middle Earth, as well as innumerable saints and heroic characters for history and legend.


  4. I'm afraid Tolkien would have adamantly opposed association with the Puritans. And to be honest, I'm slightly offended that you linked them.

  5. Hello, "Anonymous",

    I am keenly aware that Mr. Tolkien's theology differed in many ways from Mr. Bunyan's. That, however, does not discount their similarities, as I believe the above hymn shows as clear as day.

    As far as your being "offended", I am sorry, but I really see no cause for it. Tolkien was a very fine writer, but I find that too often he is lifted up on an unreasonably high pedestil by his fans at the expense of other fellow authors and their talents. This is innacurate and unfair to all involved.


    P.S. I prefer not to put up anonymous comments without a signed name at the bottom, so if you could please add that in the future, I would appreciate it.

  6. Tolkien spent years writing those books. His publishers told him it was too much for one book and to rewrite the entire thing several times. He derived all his names from real life, including his landlady. And the very premise of the burning eye in the tower is something he took back with him from the horrors of World War One. I have no problem drawing comparisons with the Pilgrims. When I lived in Britain there still stands today a Pilgrim meeting house,that would have been disguised back then for fear of religious repercussions. Interesting take on thanksgiving which I am always willing to hear more of since I had an ancestor on that small vessel and sadly did not live too long. The winters were just cruel and they were not prepared for such hardships. Thank you......Ken Phelps