The History of American Thanksgiving

In Exodus 23:16 are instructions that God gave to His people:
16 Celebrate the Festival of Harvest
with the firstfruits of the crops you sow in your field.

The year was 1621 and the place was Plymouth—a coastal area that is located today in southeastern Massachusetts. The event that occurred in that time and place is now known by many Americans, as well as people of other nationalities, as “The First Thanksgiving.” Though the original holiday is typically thought of these days as having been a special time of great celebratory feasting, the people who attended “The First Thanksgiving” spent far more time worshipping and praying than they would have ever considered giving to eating and drinking alone. In fact, a number of other discrepancies exist between the actual events that had led to that first celebration and the celebration itself.

One of those involves the actual naming of Plymouth itself, which is credited to Captain John Smith, of earlier Jamestown Colony fame, and not to the Pilgrims. In 1607, Captain Smith was one of the leaders who had helped to have founded the Jamestown colony in Virginia. But after some serious disagreements erupted between Smith and the other founders of Jamestown, Captain Smith separated himself from the rest of the group and headed back to his home country of England. Then, seven years later, in 1614, Captain Smith was again, after a lot of discussion, given a leadership role in what would amount to his return voyage to the Americas. The journey was rough, but the expedition made it to the area of what is known today as the New England coastline. There, seven years before the first Pilgrim ever stepped ashore at Plymouth Rock, Captain Smith is credited with having been the first to have surveyed the upper New England coastline, as well as to have named the Plymouth area.   

Not until 1620 did 44 English Pilgrims and 65 other individuals disembark from the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock. This ship had been a last minute substitute for the vessel that had been originally scheduled to have taken the Pilgrim group to America. But when that first ship took on water in two separate test runs just prior to their scheduled day of departure for the New World, a quick change in ships was made. Though the Mayflower was successful in completing the ocean crossing, its main sail beam was broken in a severe storm during the second half of the trip and required some serious jerry-rigging in order for the ship to keep going. So for 65 days, the passengers remained crowded together in unsanitary conditions in the ship’s hull, without benefit of fire for either heat or cooking, while they lasted out the repairs.

The Pilgrims onboard had been hand-selected by their church leaders for the honor and responsibility of going ahead of the rest of their congregants to start a settlement that would allow for both older and younger members to join them at a later time, after the initial settlement would be built up by their more fit members. These 44 individuals were the younger, stronger and healthier members of their Puritan sect known as Pilgrims, who had first left their homes in England because of increasing political and religious persecution. But after they attempted to relocate in Holland, where religious tolerance was greater, did they then realize the seriousness of economic conditions and the fear of cultural loss of their Pilgrim identity that could later prove to be disastrous to the sect as a whole.

As is true of all Puritans, the Pilgrims believe that our Lord Jesus Christ Is the world’s only Savior, that salvation is by grace alone and that Scripture is the ultimate authority. But the Pilgrims differed from other Puritans on one important point. While the Puritans believed that they could best “purify” the State led Church of England by working from within the Church to promote right believing, the Pilgrims did not. Not only did they believe that the Puritans’ strategy would not be successful, but they also believed that it would lead to a weakening of faith within their own sect to the point where Pilgrims, in general, would no longer exist in this world.

At that time, then, in the Pilgrims’ history is when they reached a decision to head to the New World to get a fresh start. There they would have no barriers to worshipping God according to their faith. There the Pilgrims would gain the freedom of religion to worship God in the way of the Bible, as they had desired to do for a very long time. So be assured that the Pilgrims, in general, took their faith quite seriously. So seriously that when they decided to take their faith to the New World, they realized that doing so would undoubtedly cost them the lives of some of their own; and it did.

In 1621 then, as preparations were being made for the three-day first Thanksgiving Day feast to get underway, realize that it wasn’t just the fact that the Pilgrims who were participating in the “holiday” (Holy Day) that first year did so most gratefully, but that their prayers of gratitude were so great that they sometimes went on for hours at a time. Their prayers were indeed the highlight of the feast that was dedicated to the goodness of God and His provision that, in one way or another, is always more than ample for all.

Note, though, that it wasn’t only the Pilgrims who were so grateful to God for providing and caring for them in the New World setting. Before the colonies were even founded, some of the new world’s earliest explorers of faith felt the need at times to thank God in unison with other Christians aboard their ships. These ship captains were known to have dropped anchor for days after they had arrived safely at a given destination to give thanks for the merciful goodness of God that had simply enabled them to have survived the journey.

The importance of presenting a united front before God has been both recognized and acted upon since before the U.S.A. was even yet fully established. During the tumultuous Revolutionary War years of our nation’s birth, both military and political leaders regularly called for all people—both those who were doing their best to keep the home fires burning and those who were out on the battlefronts fighting—to pray in agreement with each other to God. Wherever they were, they took time and prayed. The Revolutionary War was fought by men and women who gave their lives for the mere possibility of living in a land where they would be free from oppression.

It wasn’t until the third presidential term of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who then signed a federal law that made the fourth Thursday of November each year a national holiday. Citizens were asked to spend the day in prayer, thanking God for our nation and families. Before then, numerous earlier Presidents of the U.S.A. had each selected their own preferred days to do the same. President Abraham Lincoln was one of those Presidents.  In the horrendous backdrop of a brutally fought Civil War that threatened to end our nation’s unified statehood, President Lincoln proclaimed that the first national Thanksgiving Day was to be celebrated across all lines of segmentation on Thursday, November 26, 1863 that year.

Wikipedia and a number of other sights, as those that are listed at the bottom of this page, contain most of the information that has been shared here concerning some of the historical aspects behind Thanksgiving Day.  A marvelous book that contais many of the specific prayers that have helped to hold our nation together with miraculous results is Miracles in American History by Susie Federer. My hope is that this article may help to provide greater understanding and appreciation for the intent of our national holiday of Thanksgiving.

At the top of the page is a verse of Scripture that indicates to us that provision from God has always been linked by Him to our prayers of thanksgiving.

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