The pilgrims who came over from England in 1620 were, in many ways, ordinary men and women. Some of them were members of the English Separatist Church (a Puritan sect of Christianity). These Separatists originally fled England and sailed to Holland to escape the religious intolerance and oppression of their homeland. In their day, the Church and the State of England were one, and independent congregations who desired to explore their own, differing relationship with the Christian God were unable to practice their faith independent of the State Church. Separatists had come to the conclusion membership in the Church of England violated Biblical teaching. They fled their homeland so they could pursue God in a way they considered to be truer to the teaching of the Bible. This group successfully escaped religious persecution from the Church of England, but eventually became disenchanted with the Dutch way of life. They observed the lifestyles of those around them and believed they were in an ungodly land. So once again, they pushed on toward a new place where they could both worship the Biblical God of Christianity and live in a way honorable to this God.
The Mayflower held more than just the Separatist Puritans. The ship also contained other pilgrims who still remained loyal to the Church of England but came to the new world for economic reasons or because they sympathized with the Puritans in one way or another. But one thing was certain about everyone on the ship. Whether they were part of the Puritan group or simply along to assist them and make a new life for themselves, everyone shared a fervent and pervasive Protestant faith permeating all aspects of their lives. So, when the pilgrims made ground at Plymouth Rock on December 11th, 1620, they were also grounded in their faith as Christians. In less than a year, they suffered the loss of 46 of their original 102 members, but they never lost their faith.
At the end of the harvest of 1621, the pilgrims decided to celebrate. The pilgrims brought with them both religious and secular customs from their homeland. Among these customs were the tradition of a secular harvest festival and the tradition of a religious holy day of thanksgiving. These were two separate celebrations for the original pilgrims, but both celebrations had strong religious overtones. Even the secular harvest celebration included a religious component of thanks to the Christian God who had provided the harvest. In addition to this celebration, the pilgrims also dedicated a day of thanksgiving that was purely religious in nature.
When pilgrim Edward Winslow described these thanksgiving celebrations, his description included the following Biblical themes:
Nevertheless he left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
With these passages certainly in mind, Winslow described the first Thanksgiving setting:
“Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent four men on fowling [bird hunting] so that we might, after a special manner, rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as… served the company almost a week… Many of the Indians [came] amongst us and… their greatest King, Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted; and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought… And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God we are… far from want”
Thanksgiving was one of only three Christian holidays celebrated by the pilgrims (the Sabbath, the Day of Humiliation and Fasting, and the Day of Thanksgiving and Praise). In these early days, Thanksgiving was not celebrated on a regular basis, but only in direct response to God’s Providence.
Thanksgiving celebrations followed for many years, and often became part of the political and corporate life of larger groups as the colonies grew and formed in the New World. On June 20, 1676, the governing council of Charlestown, Massachusetts, met to decide how to best express their thanks to God in a corporate celebration of thanksgiving. They had just established themselves as a community and they wanted to thank God in a public way. The council unanimously voted to instruct clerk Edward Rawson to proclaim June 29th as a Day of Thanksgiving, and his proclamation reflected the following Biblical passages:
O LORD, I have heard thy speech, and was afraid: O LORD, revive thy work in the midst of the years, in the midst of the years make known; in wrath remember mercy.
Ye that fear the LORD, praise him; all ye the seed of Jacob, glorify him; and fear him, all ye the seed of Israel.
Rawson’s words represent his Christian beliefs and Biblical understanding:
“The Holy God having by a long and Continual Series of his Afflictive dispensations in and by the present War with the Heathen Natives of this land, written and brought to pass bitter things against his own Covenant people in this wilderness, yet so that we evidently discern that in the midst of his judgments he hath remembered mercy, having remembered his Footstool in the day of his sore displeasure against us for our sins, with many singular Intimations of his Fatherly Compassion, and regard; reserving many of our Towns from Desolation Threatened, and attempted by the Enemy, and giving us especially of late with many of our Confederates many signal Advantages against them, without such Disadvantage to ourselves as formerly we have been sensible of, if it be the Lord’s mercy that we are not consumed, It certainly bespeaks our positive Thankfulness, when our Enemies are in any measure disappointed or destroyed; and fearing the Lord should take notice under so many Intimations of his returning mercy, we should be found an Insensible people, as not standing before Him with Thanksgiving, as well as lading him with our Complaints in the time of pressing Afflictions: The Council has thought meet to appoint and set apart the 29th day of this instant June, as a day of Solemn Thanksgiving and praise to God for such his Goodness and Favor, many Particulars of which mercy might be Instanced, but we doubt not those who are sensible of God’s Afflictions, have been as diligent to espy him returning to us; and that the Lord may behold us as a People offering Praise and thereby glorifying Him; the Council doth commend it to the Respective Ministers, Elders and people of this Jurisdiction; Solemnly and seriously to keep the same Beseeching that being persuaded by the mercies of God we may all, even this whole people offer up our bodies and souls as a living and acceptable Service unto God by Jesus Christ.”
The founding fathers of our country also embraced and affirmed the notion God alone is ultimately responsible for our provision and success. That’s why the first founders and presidents all affirmed the Thanksgiving celebration. The original 13 colonies joined together in October of 1777 to celebrate their first joint Thanksgiving Holiday. It was much like the occasional pilgrim Thanksgiving celebrations following an act of God’s provision. In this case, the colonies were thanking God for their recent victory of the British at Saratoga. But national celebrations of Thanksgiving didn’t end here. They continued throughout the first years of our national history. In fact, they were endorsed by the federal government which, in turn, affirmed the role God played in providing for His people. George Washington proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving in 1789, and once again it was filled with Christian overtones harvested directly from the Bible:
Jehovah upholdeth all that fall, and raiseth up all those that are bowed down. The eyes of all wait for thee; and thou givest them their food in due season. Thou openest thy hand, and satisfiest the desire of every living thing.
Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever.
For the kingdom is the LORD’s: and he is the governor among the nations.
Washington’s words clearly reflected a Christian theology and notion about God as the Provider of all things, unchanging, and ruling the nations:
WHEREAS it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favour; and Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me “to recommend to the people of the United States a DAY OF PUBLICK THANSGIVING and PRAYER, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:”
NOW THEREFORE, I do recommend and assign THURSDAY, the TWENTY-SIXTH DAY of NOVEMBER next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed;– for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enable to establish Constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted;– for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge;– and, in general, for all the great and various favours which He has been pleased to confer upon us.
And also, that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions; – to enable us all, whether in publick or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us); and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.
GIVEN under my hand, at the city of New-York, the third day of October, in the year of our Lord, one thousand seven hundred and eighty-nine.
(signed) G. Washington
Over the years, and even as the nation became more and more secular, there was a popular outcry to continue the holiday. This was recognized by a number of presidents along the way, particularly by President Abraham Lincoln who, in 1863, established Thanksgiving as a national day of celebration and prayer to be celebrated on the last day in November. Once again, Lincoln revealed his Christian upbringing as he crafts a proclamation that echoes Christian themes:
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.
Know ye that the LORD he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name. For the LORD is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endureth to all generations.
Lincoln’s famous proclamation reiterated the Christian themes first expressed by George Washington, restated in the context of the civil war:
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.
No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.
Regardless of how people may feel about the Thanksgiving Holiday, one thing should be obvious to even the most casual observer of history: Thanksgiving was (and still is) founded on the Christian notion we have something to be thankful for and someone to be thankful to. These first observers of Thanksgiving understood who it was they were to thank. Over and over again, through the early years of the colonies to the most difficult days of our national history, believers and leaders have affirmed and humbled themselves to the providence and protection of God. Those who initiated this national holiday intended it to be a day of thanksgiving and prayer; a day in which all of us could offer thanks to the God of the Universe.