Thanksgiving In Historical Perspective

Nov 26th, 2022 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

When did the national day of Thanksgiving begin in the United States?  After the United States had completed its Constitution in 1787 and the new Congress was in session, the Congress proposed that the Bill of Rights be added to the Constitution as the first 10 amendments.  (The Bill of Rights was one of the conditions for ratification of the Constitution).  Representative Elias Boudinot of New Jersey and Connecticut Congressman Roger Sherman proposed that President Washington declare a national day of Thanksgiving, with “one voice, in returning to Almighty God their sincere thanks for the many blessings He had poured down upon them.”  So, on 26 November 1789, Washington declared the first national day of Thanksgiving.  Of course, such a proclamation followed colonial American practices, which years earlier had offered thanksgiving to God for His faithful provision even in times of want.  How deeply is this practice of a day of Thanksgiving rooted in American history?


Even before the Pilgrims reached the New World, the practice of Thanksgiving was part of colonial life.  David D. Hall writes that “Twice en route the passengers [aboard the Mayflower] participated in a fast, and once (two days after sounding ground beneath the Arbella) a ‘thanksgiving.’  When the sailing season ended with all ships accounted for, ‘we had a day of thanksgiving in all the plantations.’”  A settlement of French Huguenots established a colony near present-day Jacksonville, Florida, and declared a time of thanksgiving to God for His faithfulness (30 June 1564)


In 1610, after a hard winter called “the starving time,” the colonists at Jamestown called for a time of thanksgiving, even though the colony had been reduced from 409 to 60 survivors.  They prayed for food and provisions that arrived from England a few days later.  An annual commemoration of Thanksgiving was begun nine years later in 1619 in another part of the Virginia colony.


In 1621 the best known of the early Thanksgiving celebrations took place in Plymouth, following the harvest.  One of the colony’s founders wrote of that day:  “Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might, after a special manner, rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. . . . Many of the Indians coming amongst us, and the rest their greatest king, Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted. . . . And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of plenty.”


None of these celebrations were national, of course, but each demonstrates strong roots in biblical Christianity.  President Abraham Lincoln on 3 October 1863 declared that the last Thursday of November would be set aside as a nationwide celebration of thanksgiving.  Listen to his proclamation:  “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. . . . I do, therefore, invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday in November next as a day of Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelled in heaven.”  Every US President since Lincoln has followed suit.  FDR changed the celebration to the third Thursday in November to provide more shopping between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  In 1941 Congress re-established the fourth Thursday as the Day for Thanksgiving.


The story of the Pilgrims is the part of the story of Thanksgiving.  [We often equate the Pilgrims with the Puritans, and assume they were identical groups.  They were not.  Pilgrims were also known as “Separatists,” meaning they chose to separate from the established Church of England, the Anglican Church.  The Puritans remained in the Anglican Church and chose to “purify” it from within; hence the name “Puritan.”]  In 1608, this group of Separatists, who would become the Pilgrims, fled England and settled in Holland.  They desired freedom of worship there.  Strongly influenced by the Calvinism of Geneva, Pilgrims believed that the Church of England was too much like Catholicism and cultivated half-hearted believers at best.  They rejected the hierarchy of Anglicanism and desired to have a gathered church of the “elect,” who joined together in a covenant.  For these Separatists, the local congregational church would only be composed of the “chosen ones” (i.e., the elect) of God, not the halfhearted or lukewarm Christians of Anglicanism.  The Bible was their guidebook for everything in life and they believed the Anglican Church was on the wrong path.  They thereby refused to worship in the Established Church of England and believed that all true believers needed to separate from Anglicanism.  That is why they fled to Holland.

After ten years in Holland, they began to fear losing their identity as Englishmen, so they began to ponder re-locating to the New World.  Thus in July 1620, they sailed for England on the Speedwell, and then from England 101 Separatists sailed on the Mayflower for the New World.  As they approached America, a majority of the men signed the Mayflower Compact, based on the Separatists’ Church covenant.  They agreed to pass necessary and just laws based on their religious convictions.  It was in many ways, an extraordinary document, for they pledged to govern  themselves.  It is therefore an important document in the history of political and religious liberty.  They landed farther north than they intended and settled in Cape Cod, New England.  They named their settlement, “Plymouth,” in honor of the English city from which they had sailed.  Because they were strangers in a new land, they called themselves “Pilgrims.”

We are all familiar with the story of the thanksgiving meal hosted by the Pilgrims.  But God’s grace to the Pilgrims was extended through a Native-American named Squanto (his actual name was Tisquantum).  They called Squanto “a special instrument sent of God for our good, beyond our expectation.”  What did the Pilgrims mean?  Squanto had been captured in 1605 and made a slave.  He was taken to England, where he spent nine years and where he learned English.  He was of the Pawtuxet Indian tribe of New England and was able to return to them on Captain John Smith’s ship in 1614.  But he was tricked by Captain Thomas Hunt, who lured him and a few others to his ship.  Squanto was enslaved again and taken to Spain.  By God’s providence, Squanto became a Christian in Spain.  Making his way again to England, Squanto got passage on a ship bound for America.  When he arrived at Cape Cod, he learned that his entire tribe had been wiped out by smallpox.

The Pilgrim’s first winter was filled with hardship and sickness; it was harsh and it was dreadful.  In March of 1621, an Indian named Samoset walked into Plymouth.  He had learned English from English fisherman in the area of Maine.  Samoset informed them that they had settled in an area developed by the Pawtuxet tribe, which had been wiped out by smallpox.  Samoset then introduced them to Squanto on 22 March 1621.  Squanto informed the Pilgrim leaders that the great chief of the Wampanoag tribe, Massasoit, who was also the leader of a confederation of Indian tribes, would be visiting their area that day.  Squanto’s connection with Massasoit produced a peace treaty that would last for decades.

In addition, Squanto showed the Pilgrims how to fertilize and protect the corn they had planted, how to catch fish from the streams and how to harvest their crops.  If Squanto had not arrived, it is doubtful the Pilgrims would have survived.  Squanto is one of the key reasons why the Pilgrims would celebrate Thanksgiving the following fall.  God’s amazing providence was evident in the life of Squanto and he is also a powerful example of the grace of God.  Squanto is an important and usually forgotten part of the Thanksgiving story.  May we remember God’s care, providence and grace this Thanksgiving weekend—and be certain to thank Him for His care, providence and grace in our lives!

This 2022 Thanksgiving weekend is a time for us to renew our commitment to this deep-seated tradition of America.  Many schoolchildren today are not even aware that Thanksgiving is rooted in the tradition of thanking God!  It is imperative that we restore the original intent of Thanksgiving.  Please be certain that you take time this Thanksgiving weekend to thank God for His providence, for His care and for His abundant provision.  These early celebrations of Thanksgiving were expressions of deep gratitude to God for life itself.  In a time of national crisis and fear, it is so important to turn our hearts and our minds back to God, the source of our blessing and our true security.  Perhaps nothing symbolizes our deepest need than the need to give thanks to God at this time on national Thanksgiving.  May the recognition of that need be the beginning of a national renewal and revival.

See Gary DeMar in Tabletalk (November 2001); and the One Year Book of Christian History, pp. 164-5.

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