by Dennis Rupert
It seems that every year we are treated to articles attempting to disprove the "myth of Thanksgiving." In these articles we are told that:
-the Pilgrims weren't the first people in America to hold a thanksgiving
-that the first thanksgiving had no religious significance at all, but was merely a harvest festival
-that our traditional Thanksgiving dinner has nothing in common with the Pilgrim's meal.
Some of these accusations are not a serious concern. After all, who cares if the Pilgrims served cranberries or not? But what seems to lie behind some of these articles is a desire to devalue the religious nature of our present Thanksgiving holiday. This is unfortunate since Thanksgiving is one of the few holidays on the America calendar that is not swept away with commercialism or mixed with pagan elements.
So here is "The True Thanksgiving Story." We have included references to primary sources which you can read for yourself. After reading I believe that you will still be able to eat your turkey with a happy stomach and a grateful heart to God.
Who observed the first Thanksgiving?
Okay, it wasn't the Pilgrims. Of course, native Americans celebrated many thanksgiving festivals before Europeans ever arrived in America. For example, the Wampanoag (Indian allies of the Pilgrims) held six thanksgiving festivals during the year.
The first recorded Christian thanksgiving in America occurred in Texas on May 23, 1541 when Spanish explorer, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, and his men held a service of thanksgiving after finding food, water, and pasture for their animals in the Panhandle.
Another thanksgiving service occurred on June 30, 1564 when French Huguenot colonists celebrated in solemn praise and thanksgiving in a settlement near what is now Jacksonville, Florida.
On August 9, 1607 English settlers led by Captain George Popham joined Abnaki Indians along Maine's Kennebec River for a harvest feast and prayer meeting. The colonists, living under the Plymouth Company charter, established Fort St. George around the same time as the founding of Virginia's Jamestown colony. Unlike Jamestown, however, this site was abandoned a year later.
Two years before the Pilgrims on December 4, 1619, a group of 38 English settlers arrived at Berkeley Plantation in what is now Charles City, Virginia. The group's charter required that the day of arrival be observed yearly as a day of thanksgiving to God. Captain John Woodleaf held the service of thanksgiving. Here is the section of the Charter of Berkley Plantation which specifies the thanksgiving service:
"Wee ordaine that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually keept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty god."
In addition to 1619, the colonists perhaps held service in 1620 and 1621. The colony was wiped out in 1622. It was a private event, limited to the Berkeley settlement.
Thus Spanish, French and British colonists held several Thanksgiving services in America before the Pilgrim's celebration in 1621. Most of these early thanksgivings did not involve feasting. They were religious in nature, i.e. worship services of thankfulness to God.
What about the Pilgrim's Thanksgiving?
In a children's book called The First Thanksgiving, the author, Jean Craighead George says, the Pilgrims left Europe "to seek their fortune in the New World."1 That would have come as news to the Pilgrims themselves. Pilgrim leader William Bradford wrote in his diary that the voyage was motivated by "a great hope for advancing the kingdom of Christ."
The Pilgrims set aground at Plymouth Rock on December 11, 1620. Their first winter was devastating. Weakened by the seven-week crossing and the need to establish housing, they came down with pneumonia and consumption. They began to die -- one per day, then two, and sometimes three. They dug the graves at night, so that the Indians would not see how their numbers were dwindling. At one point, there were only seven persons able to fetch wood, make fires, and care for the sick. By the spring, they had lost 46 of the original 102 who sailed on the Mayflower.
The Pilgrims obviously needed help and it came from an English-speaking member of the Wampanoag nation, Squanto. Squanto decided to stay with the Pilgrims for the next few months and teach them how to survive. He brought them food and skins, taught them how to cultivate new vegetables and how to build Indian-style houses. He educated the Pilgrims on poisonous plants, medicine, how to get sap from the maple trees, use fish for fertilizer, and dozens of other skills needed for their survival.
The harvest of 1621 was a bountiful one and the remaining colonists decided to celebrate with a feast. The author of The First Thanksgiving states, "This was not a day of Pilgrim thanksgiving." Instead, she writes, "This was pure celebration."3 This is the type of subtle statement that often occurs in reading about the Pilgrim's first thanksgiving. It is not based on factual history, however. One can only guess at the motives of people who write such things, but statements like this appear to be motivated by a desire to rob the event of any religious meaning.
It is quite true that the word "thanksgiving" is not used in referring to the feast. Much is made of this by secular authors who attempt to reinterpret the Pilgrim thanksgiving. But the only letter that we have telling us about the first Thanksgiving praises God for the harvest, makes reference to the "goodness of God" in providing for them, and says that the feast was held so that they "might after a special manner rejoice together."4 That sounds like a Thanksgiving feast to me!
The event occurred between September 21 and November 11, 1621, with the most likely time being around Michaelmas (September 29), the traditional time for English harvest homes. The settlers asked Squanto and the leader of the Wampanoags, Massasoit, to bring their immediate family and to dine with them. The English had no idea how large Indian families could be and Squanto and Massasoit arrived accompanied by 90 relatives. The feast lasted three days. The Pilgrims and Indians ate outdoors at large tables and competed together in tests of skill and strength.5
Governor William Bradford sent "four men fowling" after wild ducks, geese, and turkey.6 The warriors brought five deer. The feast probably consisted of the following items (constructed from original sources and historical research by the Plimoth Plantation):
Seethed [boiled] Lobster...Roasted Goose...Boiled Turkey...Fricase of Coney...Pudding of Indian Corn Meal with dried Whortleberries...Seethed Cod...Roasted Duck...Stewed Pumpkin...Roasted Venison with Mustard Sauce...Savory Pudding of Hominy...Fruit and Holland Cheese
Were there other thanksgiving feasts held by the Pilgrims?
The Pilgrim's first thanksgiving feast was not repeated the following year. In the third year, when many of them had become preoccupied with cultivating more land, and building on to their houses, and planting extra corn for trading with the Indians, they were stricken by a prolonged drought. Week followed week with no rain, until even the Indians had no recollection of such a thing ever happening before. The sun-blasted corn withered on its stalks and became tinder dry, and beneath it the ground cracked open and was so powdery that any normal rain would be of little use. And still the heavens were as brass.
Finally, in July, Governor Bradford called a council of the chief men. It was obvious that God was withholding the rain for a reason, and they had better find out why. Bradford declared a day of fasting, humiliation and prayer, and they gathered in their blockhouse church and began to search their hearts. It turned out that even these 'saints', had things to repent for -- spiritual pride, jealousy, vindictiveness, and greed, as well as a number of broken relationships. One after another, as they became convicted, they asked God's forgiveness and that of their fellow Pilgrims.
A tender, peaceful spirit grew among them and was enhanced as each hour passed. Late in the afternoon, as they emerged from the blockhouse, the sky which that morning had been hard and clear (as it had been every morning for nearly two months), was now covered with clouds all around them. The following morning, it began to rain -- a gentle rain that continued on and off for fourteen days straight. Writing of it, Bradford said:
"It came, without either wind, or thunder, or any violence, and by degreese in yt abundance, as that ye earth was thorowly wete and soked therwith. Which did so apparently revive & quicken ye decayed corne & other fruits, as was wonderfull to see, and made ye Indeans astonished to behold; and afterwards the Lord sent them shuch seasonable showers, with enterchange of faire warme weather, as, through his blessing, caused a fruitfull & liberall harvest, to their no small comforte and rejoycing."
Their harvest that fall, was so abundant that they ended up with a surplus -- to the benefit of Indians to the north who had not had a good growing season. To everyone's delight, the Governor "sett aparte a day of thanksgiveing" and apparently once again invited Chief Massasoit and his braves to eat with them.
A generation later, after the balance of power had shifted to the English settlers, the Indian and White children of that first Thanksgiving were striving to kill each other in the conflict known as King Philip's War. The settlers prevailed and in June of 1676 another Day of Thanksgiving was proclaimed. The governing council of Charlestown, Massachusetts, held a meeting to determine how best to express thanks for the victories in "Warr with the Heathen Natives of this land." By unanimous vote they instructed Edward Rawson, the clerk, to proclaim June 29 as a day of thanksgiving. The following is part of that proclamation:
"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 Favour, 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."
Was Thanksgiving practiced during the early days of the United States?
December 18, 1777 marked the first time that all 13 colonies joined in a thanksgiving celebration. It commemorated the patriotic victory over the British at Saratoga:
"It is therefore recommended by Congress, that Thursday the 18th. day of December next be set apart for Solemn Thanksgiving and Praise; that at one time, and with one voice, the good people may express the grateful feelings of their hearts, and consecrate themselves to the service of their divine benefactor; and that, together with their sincere acknowledgements and offerings they may join the penitent confession of their sins; and supplications for such further blessings as they stand in need of."
President George Washington proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving for November 26, 1789 to honor the formation of the United States government. His proclamation called for a day of prayer and giving thanks to God. It was to be celebrated by all religious denominations, but discord among the colonies prevented it from being practiced by all the states. Washington wrote in his November 26th diary entry: "Being the day appointed for a thanksgiving I went to St. Paul's Chapel though it was most inclement and stormy--but few people at Church." President Washington later provided money, food, and beer to debtors spending the holiday in a New York City jail.
Thanksgiving failed to become an annual tradition at this time. Only Presidents Washington, Adams, and Madison declared national days of thanks in their terms. Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams considered the practice to infringe upon the separation of church and state. During the War of 1812, President Madison proclaimed three days of fasting and prayer in response to Congressional requests (August 20, 1812, September 9, 1813, and January 12, 1815). He was the last president to call for a national thanksgiving until Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Governors, on the other hand--particularly in the New England states, regularly issued proclamations of thanksgiving.
How did Thanksgiving become a yearly national practice?
It was Sarah Josepha Hale, a magazine editor, whose efforts eventually led to what we recognize as Thanksgiving. Hale wrote many editorials championing her cause in her Boston Ladies' Magazine, and later, in Godey's Lady's Book. She was fired with the determination of having the whole nation join together in setting apart a national day for giving thanks "unto Him from who all blessings flow."
In 1830, New York proclaimed an official state "Thanksgiving Day." Other states soon followed its example. The Territory of Minnesota celebrated its first Thanksgiving Day on December 26, 1850. The whole territory, including all of what is now the State of Minnesota plus the Dakotas as far west as the Missouri River, contained approximately 6,000 settlers but the book, The Frontier Holiday, describes a spirited celebration. Territory Governor, Alexander Ramsey, proclaimed the day of thanks:
"Young in years as a community, we have come into the wilderness, in the midst of savage men and uncultivated nature to found a new empire in aid of our pursuit of happiness, and to extend the area of enlightened republican Liberty . . . . Let us in the public temple of religion, by the fireside and family altar, on the prairie and in the forest, join in the expression of our gratitude, of our devotion to the God who brought our fathers safely through the perils of an early revolution, and who thus continues his favors to the remotest colonies of his sons."
By 1852, Hale's campaign succeeded in uniting 29 states in marking the last Thursday of November as "Thanksgiving Day."
Finally, after a 40-year campaign of writing editorials and letters to governors and presidents, Hale's passion became a reality. On September 28, 1863, Sarah Josepha Hale wrote a letter to President Lincoln and urged him to have the "day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival." On October 3, 1863, President Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a national day "of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father." Here is the text of Lincoln's proclamation:
By the President of the United States of America.
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 unequaled 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 has 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 consiousness 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 one 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.8
Lincoln issued a similar proclamation in 1864. U.S. presidents maintained the holiday on the last Thursday of November for 75 years (with the exception of Andrew Johnson designating the first Thursday in December as Thanksgiving Day 1865 and Ulysses Grant choosing the third Thursday for Thanksgiving Day 1869).
In 1939, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declare the next-to-last Thursday of the month (November 23rd) to be Thanksgiving Day. This break with tradition was prompted by requests from the National Retail Dry Goods Association. Since 1939 had five Thursdays in November, this would create a longer Christmas shopping season. While governors usually followed the president's lead with state proclamations for the same day, on this year, twenty-three states observed Thanksgiving Day on November 23rd, the "Democratic" Thanksgiving. Twenty-three states celebrated on November 30th, Lincoln's "Republican" Thanksgiving. Texas and Colorado declared both Thursdays to be holidays.After two years of public outcry and confusion, Congress introduced the legislation to ensure that future presidential proclamations could not impact the scheduling of the holiday.. They established Thanksgiving Day as the fourth Thursday in November. The legislation took effect in 1942. Their plan to designate the fourth Thursday of the month allowed Thanksgiving Day to fall on the last Thursday five out of seven years.
Thanksgiving and Christians
There are those who want to remove any thought of God from our Thanksgiving celebrations. They wish to secularize the holiday and they reinvent history to attempt to prove their point. But it is evident from reading primary sources that Thanksgiving in America was always about giving thanks to God.
It is a Christian command and privilege to be grateful for the blessings of God (Deuteronomy 8:10; Psalm 107:19,21; Colossians 1:12-14; Philippians 1:3). Our Thanksgiving celebration is a wonderful reminder to "give thanks to the Lord, for He is good. His love endures forever" (1 Chronicles 16:34).
The Rev. Benjamin Arnett was a prominent African American cleric in the Ohio AME Church. He preached a Thanksgiving sermon during the centennial of our nation on November 30, 1876. His sermon is a beautiful expression of gratitude to God for national blessings and a call to continue to pursue righteousness for ourselves and our nation (Proverbs 14:34):
Following the tracks of righteousness throughout the centuries and along the way of nations, we are prepared to recommend it to all and assert without a shadow of doubt, that 'Righteousness exalted a nation'; but on the other hand following the foot-prints of sin amid the ruins of Empires and remains of cities, we will say that 'sin is a reproach to any people.' But we call on all American citizens to love their country, and look not on the sins of the past, but arming ourselves for the conflict of the future, girding ourselves in the habiliments of Righteousness, march forth with the courage of a Numidian lion and with the confidence of a Roman Gladiator, and meet the demands of the age, and satisfy the duties of the hour.
Let us be encouraged in our work, for we have found the moccasin track of Righteousness all along the shore of the stream of life, constantly advancing holding humanity with a firm hand. We have seen it 'through' all the confusion of rising and falling States, of battle, siege and slaughter, of victory and defeat; through the varying fortunes and ultimate extinctions of Monarchies, Republics and Empires; through barbaric irruption and desolation, feudal isolation, spiritual supremacy, the heroic rush and conflict of the Cross and Crescent; amid the busy hum of industry, through the marts of trade and behind the gliding keels of commerce.
And in America, the battle-field of modern thought, we can trace the foot-prints of the one and the tracks of the other. So let us use all of our available forces, and especially our young men, and throw them into the conflict of the Right against the Wrong.
Then let the grand Centennial Thanksgiving song be heard and sung in every house of God; and in every home may thanksgiving sounds be heard, for our race has been emancipated, enfranchised and are now educating, and have the gospel preached to them!