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Squanto, the Indian vital to Thanksgiving story, parallels Joseph in Old Testament

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–In elementary school, most Americans learn that an Indian named Squanto played a key role in the first Thanksgiving by teaching the Pilgrims how to grow the food they enjoyed at the historic feast. But a closer look at the character’s life discloses a strong parallel to the story of Joseph in the Old Testament.

In a portion of his 13-week educational curriculum on early American history titled “The Spirit of America,” Kenyn M. Cureton recounts the story of the Pilgrims, Squanto and Thanksgiving with a special emphasis on the role of the Christian faith.

Cureton, the newly elected vice president for convention relations with the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, begins with Squanto’s story in 1605, when Squanto and a half-dozen of his friends were captured by some Englishmen on a fishing expedition and taken back to England.

“Squanto lived there with an English Captain, where he learned to speak English fluently, learned to eat English foods, and learned English customs and ways,” Cureton writes. “Nine years later, he came back across the Atlantic on another fishing expedition, and he was let off to return to his village.”

But a few months later, another group of Englishmen arrived and Squanto was taken prisoner again and toted back across the ocean with other Native American captives to the slave trading port of Malaga, Spain, Cureton recounts.

“All 27 were auctioned off one by one, many to Arab slave traders. When it came time for Squanto to stand on the auction block, a monk providentially walked by, looked at Squanto, took pity on him, bought him, and took him back to the monastery,” he writes. “There he learned about Jesus. Eventually, the monks granted Squanto his freedom. Homesick, he made his way back to England and joined up with another fishing expedition to the coasts of New England.”

But when Squanto arrived at home, he discovered that his entire tribe had been killed by a mysterious disease that likely had been introduced by the white men. Grief-stricken, he went to live with a neighboring tribe until in 1621 he received word that a group of Englishmen were attempting to settle on the ground that once belonged to his kinsmen.

“Instead of seeking revenge, Squanto came and offered them his services,” Cureton writes. “The Pilgrims had been craftsmen and townspeople in England, with little experience as farmers or hunters. In four months time they had caught only one codfish. Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to provide for the necessities of life, including how to fish for cod, how to plant corn with a fish, stalk deer, plant pumpkins, skin beavers, and determine what berries were edible.”

In fact, William Bradford, governor of Plymouth Plantation, called Squanto “a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation.”

The Pilgrims decided to have a Thanksgiving celebration at harvest time to rejoice in their fruitfulness. Ninety Indians came with five dressed venison on poles and 12 dressed turkeys along with berry pies, fish, fowl and vegetables.

“They had three wonderful days of feasting and celebration, with foot races, wrestling, archery contests … [and] a prayer of thanksgiving to God,” Cureton includes in his study. The event became a tradition each year.

In 1622, Squanto became ill with Indian fever, Bradford recounted in his writings, and died within a few days. He desired “the Governor to pray for him, that he might go to the Englishmen’s God in Heaven.”

“Here was this Native American who understood English fluently, he understood English customs and ways, he ate English foods, and he reportedly became committed to the same Christ that they were,” Cureton writes. “He was the right man, at the right place, at the right time. Only God can do that! Squanto’s story is not unlike Joseph in the Old Testament — he was shaped and molded through suffering and slavery to become the instrument of God to literally keep the people of God alive.”

Cureton, former pastor of the Nashville-area First Baptist Church in Lebanon, Tenn., said his interest in early American history began several years ago, when he and some leaders with the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission were contemplating ways to mobilize churches to be salt and light and also to educate people about who they are as American citizens.

“Our nation’s story is filled with Christian heritage and heroes, which have been left out of our modern textbooks,” Cureton told Baptist Press. “Their story needs to be told so believers grasp that they’re standing in a long line of Christians who’ve molded and shaped this country and its culture from the very beginning.”

Cureton began researching and writing the content for the curriculum and then decided it needed to be video-driven “because history can be kind of dry for people.” In order to bring alive the history of America from Christopher Columbus to George Washington, Cureton and a film crew flew to Plymouth, Lexington and Concord, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Mount Vernon and other places where key events in America’s history took place, all the while tying in the element of Christianity that is left out of the history books in schools.

Once the series was finished, Cureton tested it in his church to see what people would think.

“There were senior adults that I assumed had heard these stories and knew about our spiritual heritage,” he said. “But they didn’t have a clue. They were just so surprised, and they felt robbed, frankly. They had missed out on a vital part of America’s story.”

So through the project, telling the stories of the faith of such national heroes as Squanto, Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, George Washington and a host of others has become a rallying point for Cureton to educate people on America’s Christian foundations. And the curriculum has struck a chord with people, he said. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, has endorsed the material and is urging publishing companies to pick it up.

As for Squanto, Cureton said his story was obviously significant for the Pilgrims because they were starving to death and he came to their rescue.

“To me, the big story with Squanto is that he went through so much — being captured, being made a slave — and yet somehow by the grace of God he didn’t want to seek revenge on those people who had moved into his village and settled,” Cureton said. “He wanted to help them, and I want to read into that that he had come to Christ and had a totally different outlook.

“He is just like an American Joseph, going through slavery and all the bad things. You don’t get a quote that ‘you meant it for evil but God meant it for good,’ but you’ve got the actions.”

Cureton said Squanto’s story is significant to Americans today because he’s a model of how to deal with adversity in a positive manner for the greater good of others.

“A lot of people go through difficulty and hardship and become bitter because of it,” he said. “Other people go through the difficulty and hardship and see how God has used that to mold them and shape them to do good. I think that’s his story, and I love it. It’s a great story.”

For children, Cureton recommends a book titled “Squanto and the Miracle of Thanksgiving” by Eric Metaxas.

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  • Erin Curry