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November 20, 2016

I was preaching a community Thanksgiving sermon at Highland Presbyterian Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, two days before the holiday in 1978. As I closed my message, the minister of music stepped forward to announce the closing hymn. He placed on the pulpit a note written in large letters:


I left the sanctuary through a back door, hurrying to our Pontiac station wagon. True to form, our children had always been full of surprises. As I hurriedly drove through the rainy night, I realized that the length of labor for Clare had been shorter with each birth. This child would probably arrive before morning.

Back in the days before cell phones, I could not check with Clare ahead of time. When I arrived at our home, I found that a good friend had come to stay with Clare and had offered to stay with our three sons. Clare met me in the driveway, her bag packed and ready to go. Before getting into the car, she paused, bracing against the fender for an intense contraction.

We had gone through Lamaze childbirth classes. I had been privileged to be present in the delivery room with Clare for all three births. We might have thought that we were old hands at this, but I had learned from my dad, the father of eight, that each birth is different.

“Let’s get you to the hospital,” I said to Clare.

“Did you get the message?” she asked.

“Yes. How far apart are your contractions?”

I didn’t need to ask. She had gripped the dashboard, having another hard contraction.

“About that far,” she groaned.

I reached over and took Clare’s hand as I drove through the misty darkness, offering an open-eyed prayer, “Gracious God, be with Clare and this child. Help me get them to the hospital, please.”

I pulled into the emergency drive of Forsyth County Hospital and parked at the door. A security officer stopped me, saying, “Sir, you can’t park here.”

“But my wife is in labor and needs to get to the delivery room, now!”

The officer summoned a triage nurse who met us at the door and asked, “How close are her contractions?”

Right on cue, Clare had another one.

Two orderlies appeared with a gurney and whisked her away, leaving me to provide necessary basic information. Fortunately, Clare and I had gone through a preadmission process, so it didn’t take long before I could leave admitting and go to the delivery area.

As the nurse there directed me to scrub and dress in a mask and gown, she said, “Your wife is waiting for you. We didn’t have time to prep her, and she wants you to be with her.”

And I wanted to be with Clare.

In the delivery room, I moved near Clare’s head, kissing her on the cheek.

“I’m ready now,” she said.

“O.K., Mama, give me a big push!” instructed the physician. “Now, one more big push!”

We had gone through this birthing process three times before. It is rightly called labor for the mother. For both of us it was always a miracle. Our fourth son, Kristofer Mitchell Neely, was born at 10:30 P. M. on the Tuesday night before Thanksgiving.

When I brought Clare and Kris home from the hospital on Thanksgiving Day, our three older boys, all dressed as Pilgrims and Native Americans, greeted us. Members of our church graciously provided a traditional dinner of turkey and all the fixings. That day remains our favorite Thanksgiving memory.

A Thanksgiving child gives a family special reason for gratitude. American author Carl Sandburg wrote, “A baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on.”

When our children celebrate a birthday, we share the story of their arrival in this world. Our grandchildren enjoy hearing those stories.

During our family Thanksgiving celebrations, I share the stories of three children born early in the history of this country.

Elizabeth Hopkins gave birth to a son aboard the Mayflower while crossing the Atlantic during the historic voyage which brought the Pilgrims to America.  His father, Stephen Hopkins, named the infant Oceanus, the Latin word for ocean. The child’s birth occurred sometime between the boarding date of September 6 and the arrival date of November 9, 1620. Oceanus did not live beyond his third year.

Born August 18, 1587, Virginia Dare was the first child born in the Americas to English parents, Ananias and Eleanor Dare. Virginia was born into the short-lived Roanoke Colony in what is now Eastern North Carolina. What became of this child and other members of the Lost Colony has remained a mystery.

Virginia’s birth is known because the leader of the colony, John White, was Virginia’s maternal grandfather. Following her birth, Governor White returned to England to seek assistance for the new settlement. When he returned three years later, the colonists had vanished.

Peregrine White was the first child born in Plymouth Colony. His parents, William and Susanna White, had boarded the Mayflower with their young son, Resolved. Susanna gave birth to Peregrine before the end of November, 1620 while the Mayflower was anchored in Provincetown Harbor.

William White died that first winter in Plymouth Colony. Susanna White married fellow Mayflower passenger Edward Winslow. In 1636, Edward and Susanna moved their blended family to the new settlement of Marshfield, north of Plymouth.

Peregrine had his first military experience at age sixteen and continued to serve in the militia, first as a lieutenant and then as a captain. Like most of the settlers, Peregrine was a farmer. He served his community as a representative to the General Court. He married Sarah Basset in 1648. The couple had seven children. At age seventy-eight, Peregrine officially joined the Marshfield church. He lived until July of 1704, dying at the age eighty-three.

Around our family table, each Thanksgiving we read this poem written by Rosemary and Stephen Vincent Benet about Peregrine White and Virginia Dare. Here is an excerpt.


Peregrine White

And Virginia Dare

Were the first real Americans*



Others might find it

Strange to come

Over the ocean

To make a home.


One of them born

On Roanoke,

And the other cradled

In Pilgrim oak.


Men might grumble

And women weep

But Virginia and Peregrine

Went to sleep.


They had their dinner

And napped and then

When they woke up

It was dinner again.


There was lots of work

But they didn’t do it.

They were pioneers

But they never knew it.


Wolves in the forest

And Indian drums!

Virginia and Peregrine

Sucked their thumbs.


They were only babies.

They didn’t care.

Peregrine White

And Virginia Dare.

*(Except, of course, Native Americans)

After we read the poem, we read an appropriate Psalm.

More importantly we give thanks, not only for the food on our table, but also for the family gathered around.

The truth is that all children are Thanksgiving children.

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