The most famous Pilgrim couple of all, John Alden and Priscilla Mullins, were among those who participated in the Plymouth Colony’s first Thanksgiving feast during the fall of 1621. John and Priscilla would marry about two years later and go on to have 11 children. Historians now estimate that the Aldens have more descendants than any of the other original Pilgrims who rode the Mayflower ship from England to the land that would become the United States of America.
John and Priscilla’s courtship and marriage became part of American folklore after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote about it in his epic poem “The Courtship of Miles Standish” (1858). The poem describes stories that passed down through generations of the Alden family through oral tradition. In the poem’s narrative, widowed Mayflower captain Miles Standish is shy about expressing his love for Priscilla, so he asks John (who worked aboard the Mayflower as a barrel inspector and in Plymouth Colony as a magistrate) to propose to Priscilla on his behalf. Priscilla, sensing that John himself is in love with her, replies: “Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?”
The poem ends by describing John and Priscilla’s glorious wedding day, making it seem like a storybook fantasy:
“Onward the bridal procession now moved to their new habitation/Happy husband and wife, and friends conversing together. / Pleasantly murmured the brook, as they crossed the ford in the forest / Pleased with the image that passed, like a dream of love through its bosom / Tremulous, floating in air, o'er the depths of the azure abysses.”
As every married couple learns, however, each day of marriage brings challenges to overcome – no matter how perfect their wedding day may have seemed.
John and Priscilla suffered through many challenges in their storied relationship, just as all spouses do. Some of those challenges included:
- Grief: One of their 11 children died in infancy, and both John and Priscilla lost many friends and family members to death during the first harsh winter at Plymouth Colony, where Priscilla’s entire family died.
- Exhaustion: Both had to work hard at the many demanding chores involved in developing the new colony and parenting their children.
- Anxiety: They had to deal with the uncertainty of whether or not they would successfully survive in the New World amid threats such as famine and violent attacks from Native Americans and rivals from other colonies.
- Illness: They fell ill at various times during their marriage, as colonists lacked the advantages of modern medicine.
- Gossip and slander: John was arrested for a fight he didn’t participate in (between the Plymouth Colony and the Massachusetts Bay Colony, over trading rights) because rival colonists were looking for a high-ranking Plymouth Colony member to punish and John happened to be nearby. One-sided accounts of what happened then landed John in prison until Plymouth Colony officials intervened to tell their side of the story, and John was finally released to go home to Priscilla.
Yet despite the many hard times they suffered through together, John and Priscilla are best known today for giving thanks to God.
Gratitude is a key ingredient of a strong marriage. A 2013 research study from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill showed that the more romantic partners expressed gratitude to each other, the more satisfied they reported feeling about their relationships. Couples also developed more positive attitudes about their partners when they both communicated thankfulness for loving actions that they had done for each other recently.
Today, spouses often tend to give thanks only when something good happens in their relationship, overlooking the Bible's guidance in 1 Thessalonians 5:18 to "give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus." But the Aldens gave thanks even during terrible suffering.
You can use this Thanksgiving holiday as inspiration to renew your marriage by making a new habit of thanking God together for whatever is going on in your lives -- whether good or bad -- because God can use it all to draw you and your spouse closer to Him.
Here are some ways you can strengthen your marriage by giving thanks in all circumstances:
You can learn to value each other in new ways. Going through hard times together can teach you a lot about each other that you couldn’t have learned otherwise, since crises tend to reveal people’s deepest thoughts and feelings. Responding to those hard times with gratitude will train you to appreciate each other in fresh ways. Consider what happens when illness or injury changes a previously beautiful or handsome spouse’s body, or when job loss changes a previously rich spouse’s income. The hardship forces you to see each other from a different perspective – and gratitude opens your eyes to new aspects you can appreciate about each other.
You can both develop stronger character. Every time you or your spouse chooses to give God “a sacrifice of praise” (Hebrews 13:15) by following His call to thank Him in all circumstances, that obedience strengthens your character so that you become more like Jesus. The more each of you become like Jesus, the more His love will flow between you, strengthening your marriage.
You can focus your mind on what God wants you to think about. Hard times present you with a stark choice about how to respond: You can choose either to focus on your negative circumstances, or you can choose to focus on the positive fact that God is greater than your circumstances. Giving thanks sets your mind in a positive direction. As you start to notice the good work God is doing in your lives even during hard times, you’ll renew your minds, and Romans 12:2 promises that then “you will be able to test and approve what God's will is” for every part of your lives, including your marriage.
You can learn more about God by trusting in His sovereignty. Pilgrims like John and Priscilla Alden often emphasized the importance of trusting God’s sovereign will in any situation. They made a habit of thanking God for who He is (which remains constant) rather than just for His blessings (which vary). When you and your spouse choose to give thanks no matter what – simply because God is good and involved in your life – you’ll discover that you serve a God of love who will constantly give you fresh doses of His love to strengthen your marriage.
Whitney Hopler, who has served as a Crosswalk.com contributing writer for many years, is author of the new Christian novel Dream Factory, which is set during Hollywood's golden age. Visit her website at: whitneyhopler.naiwe.com.