Tuesday, November 25, 2008

John Smyth, John Smith, and Squanto: Some Thoughts on Thanksgiving

This is the time of year when we typically think about the Pilgrims. They left England in September of 1620 and arrived off the coast of New England in November of 1620 – not a good time to arrive in New England. They stayed on the Mayflower for a while until they found a good place to build a community. That place was Plymouth in what is now Massachusetts. Plymouth had been discovered by John Smith before the Pilgrims set sail from England. A different man with a variant spelling of the same name, John Smyth, was also connected with the Pilgrims. Smyth was a member of the same Separatist congregation in Gainesborough from which William Bradford led his group of Pilgrims to America. The Separatists experienced a lot of persecution in England. This persecution motivated Bradford’s group to go to America and Smyth’s group to go to Holland.

Smyth founded the first church to practice believer’s baptism in Holland in 1609. He baptized himself, Thomas Helwys and about 40 others. Smyth baptized by affusion, or pouring. (Immersion came into practice with Particular Baptists in 1640-41.) In 1611 Helwys led part of the group back to England and established the first believer’s baptism church on English soil in Spitalfield, a section of London. He attempted to moderate his views between the Calvinism typical of the English Separatists and the Arminianism of the Mennonites.

The Pilgrims were not the first folks from England to sail near the coast of New England. Many English traders and fishermen sailed there before the Pilgrims arrived. On one occasion an Indian called “Squanto” was captured and taken back to England. He was trained to speak English so that he could go back to New England and assist traders in making deals with the Indians. He was eventually released, but he was later captured by another group of Englishmen when he went out to greet them upon their arrival. They took him to Spain to a slave market, and he was sold to a monastery. There he became a Christian. Once again, he was returned to New England. After the Pilgrims arrived in 1620, they experienced a very tough winter. Only 50 of the 110 people on the Mayflower survived the first winter. Squanto, who had experienced persecution at the hands of English people, took pity on them, and he showed them how to plant corn (putting seeds in a mound of dirt with a dead fish for fertilizer), how to get sap from trees, how to tell poisonous plants from medicinal plants, etc. The Pilgrims would not have survived the second winter without Squanto’s help. They had a good harvest in October of 1621, and they were able to store food for the coming winter. About 90 Indians joined them for three days of a thanksgiving celebration in October.

For what should we be thankful this year? In difficult times when the economy is bad, we of course are thankful that God has provided us with the material necessities of life. We should also, however, be thankful for spiritual blessings. We see some of these listed in 2 Thessalonians 1:3-4:

1. Our spiritual growth – We should count it all joy when we fall into various trials because such tests of our faith produces patience so that we can be complete/mature (James 1:2-4).

2. The sacrificial love of Christians for each other – We should follow the example of Squanto, who risked being captured again when he helped the Pilgrims.

3. Faithful living in the face of persecution – As our culture becomes less Christian, we will see more and more of this quality. The Christians in Thessalonica were persecuted greatly. The people there were less receptive to the gospel than were the people in Berea. Some of the Jews in Thessalonica were persuaded (Acts 17:4), but many of the Jews in Berea believed (Acts 17:12), and the Bereans were more “fair-minded” (NKJV) than were the Thessalonians (Acts 17:11).

I am thankful to God for the spiritual growth I see among Christians in my sphere of influence. I am also thankful for their sacrificial love for each other and for their faithfulness in difficult circumstances. Contrary to what the prosperity teachers say, life on earth for faithful Christians quite often includes spiritual battle and painful trials; a pain-free heaven comes only after physical death. Thankfully, God has provided to us the resources we need to be victorious on the spiritual field of battle before death.