- November 18, 2020
Here’s a likely picture in millions of homes across this Great Land on this Thanksgiving 2020:
Smaller than usual numbers are gathered around the festive table. The tone and atmosphere are less jolly than previous years — muted, almost somber.
It has been a tough year.
When the Thanksgiving blessing begins, heads bowed, there is likely to be gratitude — deep, sincere gratitude for the blessings, however great or small, that the good Lord has bestowed on the family members present and afar.
We can also be sure that in these prayers there will be many pleadings to the Almighty that he look with favor on our nation and bring peace, understanding, tolerance, protection, healing, good health and love of neighbor and country during this time of strife, division and fear.
When the blessing ends, and after a heartfelt toast, someone probably will announce: “Let’s not spoil our Thanksgiving dinner with any talk of politics.”
Hear, hear. Let’s not.
Instead, we want to tell a different story, one that is seldom told, if ever. It is not the story of the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock — that extraordinary story of 102 courageous Puritans aboard the Mayflower falling to their knees when they stepped on land and their settling at New Plymouth 400 years ago. Yes, 400 years ago!
With remarkably little fanfare, this year marks the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims laying the bedrock foundation for what would become the U.S.
Nor is the story we’re about to tell that of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians coming together in 1621 in peace and thanking the Almighty for a bountiful harvest at that first Thanksgiving celebration.
The story we’re about to tell occurred 276 years after that first Thanksgiving — on April 29, 1897. On that day in Boston, Thomas Bayard, the U.S. ambassador at the Court of St. James in London, handed over to the governor of Massachusetts, Roger Wolcott, a manuscript that one of the dignitaries present at the ceremony described as “the most precious manuscript on Earth, unless we could recover one of the four gospels as it came in the beginning from the pen of the Evangelist.”
Bayard had traveled from London to Boston carrying the original 270-page manuscript of Gov. William Bradford, one of the leaders on the Mayflower and longest serving governor of Plymouth Colony. The manuscript was Bradford’s firsthand account and history of our nation’s first settlers.
Entitled “Of Plimouth Plantation,” Bradford chronicled in vivid detail life among these separatists from the time they fled religious persecution in England and Holland; to the creation of the Mayflower Compact, the document that served as their constitution and later as a foundation for our existing Constitution; through a period of discovering how self-interest in property ownership saved them from starvation; to the signing of treaties with Native American tribes. In all, his manuscript covered nearly 30 years — from 1620 to 1647.
Bradford’s manuscript is the only authentic, comprehensive, firsthand account of the real birth of this nation.
On that April day in 1897, when Bayard delivered the manuscript to Wolcott at a ceremony of dignitaries from England and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, U.S. Sen. George Hoar of Massachusetts delivered a 4,000-word speech, explaining the complicated route of Bradford’s manuscript coming home to its roots in Massachusetts.
Historians for nearly 90 years believed Bradford’s manuscript was lost — last seen in 1767 in the hands of the last British governor of Massachusetts. But in 1855, when an American historian was in England doing research for a book on the history of Massachusetts, he came across a copy of Bradford’s manuscript in a London bookstore.
As Hoar explained, the historian contacted a noted British historian to help him find the whereabouts of Bradford’s original manuscript. The Brit began his own search and eventually discovered Bradford’s manuscript had been stored all these years in the Bishops of London Library at Fulham Palace, the residence of British bishops.
Over the next four decades, American and Massachusetts officials made several attempts to have Bradford’s manuscript returned to its origin. But the Brits refused, saying it required an act of Parliament and Queen Victoria.
Hoar himself spent months in 1895 pursuing the manuscript’s release. Finally, he won an audience with the Bishop of London, who agreed with Hoar that Bradford’s manuscript belonged in the U.S. But he told Hoar:
“I think I ought to consult the archbishop of Canterbury. I think I ought to speak to the queen about it. We should not do such a thing behind Her Majesty’s back.”
Hoar returned to Massachusetts to tell the governor, other state officials and officers of historical societies of his success, urging them to send letters to the bishop of London in support of the manuscript’s return.
Time passed, during which the bishop of London whom Hoar befriended became archbishop of Canterbury. The archbishop then advised Hoar and Bayard that a formal petition for the manuscript be presented to the Episcopal Consistorial Court of London.
On March 25, 1897, the court issued a decree, published in the London Times, ordering the manuscript be returned to Massachusetts.
As Hoar concluded his speech describing the efforts to bring Bradford’s manuscript back to Massachusetts, he put into perspective the importance of Bradford’s manuscript:
“Wherever it shall go, it will be an object of reverent care. I do not think many Americans will gaze upon it without a little trembling of the lips and a little gathering of mist in the eyes, as they think of the story of suffering, of sorrow, of peril, of exile, of death and of lofty triumph which that book tells, which the hand of the great leader and founder of America has traced on those pages.
“There is nothing like it in human annals since the story of Bethlehem. These Englishmen and Englishwomen going out from their homes in beautiful Lincoln and York, wife separated from husband and mother from child in that hurried embarkation for Holland, pursued to the beach by English horsemen; the 13 years of exile; the life at Amsterdam ‘in alley foul and lane obscure’; the dwelling at Leyden; the embarkation at Delfthaven; the farewell of Robinson; the terrible voyage across the Atlantic; the compact in the harbor; the landing on the rock; the dreadful first winter; the death roll of more than half the number; the days of suffering and of famine; the wakeful night, listening for the yell of wild beast and the war-whoop of the savage; the building of the state on those sure foundations which no wave or tempest has ever shaken; the breaking of the new light; the dawning of the new day; the beginning of the new life; the enjoyment of peace with liberty. …
“Of all these things, this is the original record by the hand of our beloved father and founder. Massachusetts will preserve it until the time shall come that her children are unworthy of it; and that time shall come — never.”
To underscore the significance of Bradford’s original manuscript returning to its rightful home, Wolcott followed Hoar with his interpretation of this historic event, equally profound:
“On the sloping hillside of Plymouth, that bathes its feet in the waters of the Atlantic, such a voice is breathed by the brooding genius of the place, and the ear must be dull that fails to catch the whispered words. For here not alone did godly men and women suffer greatly for a great cause, but their noble purpose was not doomed to defeat but was carried to perfect victory.
“They established what they planned. Their feeble plantation became the birthplace of religious liberty, the cradle of a free commonwealth.
“To them a mighty nation owes its debt. Nay, they have made the civilized world their debtor. In the varied tapestry which pictures our national life, the richest spots are those where gleam the golden threads of conscience, courage and faith, set in the web by that little band. May God in his mercy grant that the moral impulse which founded this nation may never cease to control its destiny, that no act of any future generation may put in peril the fundamental principles on which it is based: of equal rights in a free state, equal privileges in a free church and equal opportunities in a free school.
“In this precious volume which I hold in my hands — the gift of England to the commonwealth of Massachusetts — is told the noble, simple story ‘Of Plimoth Plantation.’
“In the midst of suffering and privation and anxiety the pious hand of William Bradford here set down in ample detail the history of the enterprise from its inception to the year 1647. From him we may learn ‘that all great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties and must be both enterprised and overcome with answerable courages.’
“The sadness and pathos which some might read into the narrative are to me lost in victory. The triumph of a noble cause even at a great price is theme for rejoicing, not for sorrow, and the story here told is one of triumphant achievement, and not of defeat.
“As the official representative of the commonwealth, I receive it, sir, at your hands. I pledge the faith of the commonwealth that for all time it shall be guarded in accordance with the terms of the decree under which it is delivered into her possession as one of her chiefest treasures.
“I express the thanks of the commonwealth for the priceless gift. And I venture the prophecy that for countless years to come and to untold thousands these mute pages shall eloquently speak of high resolve, great suffering and heroic endurance made possible by an absolute faith in the over-ruling providence of Almighty God.”
A truly magnificent story. While we give thanks for all our blessings on this Thanksgiving Day 2020, the story of the recovery of William Bradford’s manuscript gives greater meaning to this special day. It affirms forever the bedrock of our nation’s founding — that of the birthplace of religious liberty, a free people and our faith in God.
God bless America.