Ohio UCC congregation celebrates first Thanksgiving

The women went in first to a cold, dark and bare sanctuary, the pastor called out sinners, the men argued with the minister during the sermon, and everybody drank beer at the feast afterward because they couldn’t trust the water.

Not a typical UCC worship service, but one that may have actually been celebrated by our forebears. This one was celebrated at the United Church of Christ, Congregational Church in Vermilion, Ohio, on Sunday, Nov. 23 (except for the beer).

“It is a re-enactment of the first worship service of a [Pilgrim] congregation thanking God for seeing the remaining Mayflower passengers safely through the trip, and through the previous winter,” said Diane Langham, one of four members of the reenactment planning committee, and a retired art teacher in Vermilion. “We are a Congregational Church. The Pilgrim Congregation sought freedom of religion. They were the first Congregational gathering, to celebrate their God after suffering religious oppression.”

Worshipers, dressed in period clothing, entered the bare sanctuary for the Sunday service. Pastor Emeritus Louis Bertoni, carrying his Geneva Bible, served as beadle, leading the procession into the church, and announced the start of services. The Rev. Bob Richardson, pastor of UCC Congregational, delivered a sermon eliciting active questioning by several male worshipers, as was customary in the 17th century. Women, who were not allowed to challenge, preceded the men in or out of the church in case there were bears or other wildlife outside.

“It was a great event and wonderful way to take a glimpse at life in 1623,” said Richardson. “The church was darkened, the heat was off, the sermon was a stern warning and admonition to Christian charity, welcome and care for all in the community. Although we ‘called out sinners’ from the community, it was clear that the roots of our extravagant welcome were being sown even then.”  

“We actually began planning this service in March (and set the date in April for the week of Thanksgiving). This is the third one we have done, and we were able to capitalize on a lot of our experiences,” said Judy Williams, who coordinates the church’s reenactments of the first Thanksgiving feast. Williams was first inspired to bring the idea to her congregation after a visit to Plimoth Plantation, near Boston, several years ago.

“I didn’t know if I knew the Congregationalists were descended from the Pilgrims before I went to Plimoth Plantation but once I found that out, I said this is something we have to do. It has become a tradition and we’ve enjoyed it.”

The majority of the UCC Congregational members got involved, dressing in period clothing and participating in the feast that followed, with authentic foods and recipes, including turkey, seethed fish (simmered in equal amounts of water and beer), venison, boiled salad, and stewed Jerusalem artichokes.

“We have a small youth group, mostly children under sixth grade, and they made posters to put around town, and learned to play some games from Pilgrim times,” said Williams. “The Sunday school children wrote their own Mayflower compact, all the children signed it, and it was posted in the fellowship hall.”

“I think it’s important for us to remember we do have our roots from the separatists,” said Williams. “The church is what it is today because they were independent thinkers and not afraid to act upon their beliefs. The Pilgrims didn’t agree with the Church of England, and they didn’t just talk about it, they acted on it, at great expense to their families.”

Only about half of the number of Pilgrims who left England in 1620 lived through the first winter in the New World. Many individuals were the only survivors in their families. The harvest festival included 16 men, 4 women, 23 children, and 9 hired seamen and servants. Guests included Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanoag (the Native Americans who lived in the area when the Pilgrims landed), and his entourage of 90 men.

About 80 members and guests attended Sunday’s reenactment service at UCC Congregational, and Williams is already thinking about the next one. She has already cracked out her copy of The Thanksgiving Primer, a Plimoth Plantation Publication.

Categories: United Church of Christ News

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