“Tomorrow being the day set apart by the Honorable Congress for public Thanksgiving and Praise; and duty calling us devoutly to express our grateful acknowledgements to God for the manifold blessings he has granted us, the General … earnestly exhorts, all officers and soldiers, whose absence is not indispensably necessary, to attend with reverence the solemnities of the day.” –George Washington (December 17, 1777)
In this era of overblown political correctness, we often hear tales of Thanksgiving that stray far afield from the truth. Contemporary textbook narratives of the first American harvest celebration portray the Pilgrim colonists as having given thanks to their Indian neighbors for teaching them how to survive in a strange new world. This, of course, is in stark contrast to the historical record, in which the colonists gave thanks to God Almighty, the Provider of their blessings.
The “First Thanksgiving” is usually depicted as the Pilgrims’ three-day feast in early November 1621. The Pilgrims, Calvinist Protestants who rejected the institutional Church of England, believed that the worship of God must originate freely in the individual soul, under no coercion. The Pilgrims left Plymouth, England, on 6 September 1620, sailing to the New World on the promise of opportunity for religious and civil liberty.
For almost three months, 102 seafarers braved the brutal elements, arriving off what is now the Massachusetts coast. On 11 December, before disembarking at Plymouth Rock, the voyagers signed the Mayflower Compact, America’s original document of civil government predicated on principles of self-government. While still anchored at Provincetown harbor, Pastor John Robinson counseled, “You are become a body politic … and are to have only them for your … governors which yourselves shall make choice of.” Governor William Bradford described the Mayflower Compact as “a combination … that when they came a shore they would use their owne libertie; for none had power to command them….”
Upon landing, the Pilgrims conducted a prayer service and quickly turned to building shelters. Malnutrition and illness during the ensuing New England winter killed nearly half their number. Through prayer and hard work, with the assistance of their Wampanoag Indian friends, the Pilgrims reaped a rich harvest in the summer of 1621, the bounty of which they shared with the Wampanoag. The celebration incorporated feasting and games, which remain holiday traditions.
Such ready abundance soon waned, however. Under demands from investors funding their endeavor, the Pilgrims had acquiesced to a disastrous arrangement holding all crops and property in common, in order to return an agreed-to half of their produce to their overseas backers. (These financiers insisted they could not trust faraway freeholders to split the colony’s profits honestly.) Within two years, Plymouth was in danger of foundering under famine, blight and drought. Colonist Edward Winslow wrote, “The most courageous were now discouraged, because God, which hitherto had been our only shield and supporter, now seemed in his anger to arm himself against us.”
Governor Bradford’s record of the history of the colony describes 1623 as a period of arduous work coupled with “a great drought … without any rain and with great heat for the most part,” lasting from spring until midsummer. The Plymouth settlers followed the Wampanoag’s recommended cultivation practices carefully, but their crops withered.
The Pilgrims soon thereafter thought better of relying solely on the physical realm, setting “a solemn day of humiliation, to seek the Lord by humble and fervent prayer, in this great distress.” In affirmation of their faith and providing a great witness to the Indians, by evening of that day the skies became overcast and gentle rains fell, restoring the yield of the fields. Governor Bradford noted, “And afterwards the Lord sent to them such seasonable showers, with interchange of fair warm weather as, through His blessing caused a fruitful and liberal harvest, to their no small comfort and rejoicing. For which mercy, in time convenient, they also set apart a day of thanksgiving.”
Winslow noted the Pilgrims’ reaction as believing “it would be great ingratitude, if secretly we should smother up the same, or content ourselves with private thanksgiving for that, which by private prayer could not be obtained. And therefore another solemn day was set apart and appointed for that end; wherein we returned glory, honor, and praise, with all thankfulness, to our good God, which dealt so graciously with us….” This was the original American Thanksgiving Day, centered not on harvest feasting (as in 1621) but on gathering together to publicly recognize the favor and provision of Almighty God.
Bradford’s diary recounts how the colonists repented of their financial folly under sway of their financiers: “At length, after much debate of things, the Governor (with the advice of the chiefest amongst them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves; in all other things to go in the general way as before. And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number.”
By the mid-17th century, autumnal Thanksgivings were common throughout New England; observance of Thanksgiving Festivals spread to other colonies during the American Revolution. At other junctures of “great distress” or miraculous intervention, colonial leaders called their countrymen to offer prayerful thanks to God. The Continental Congresses, cognizant of the need for a warring country’s continuing grateful entreaties to God, proclaimed yearly Thanksgiving days during the Revolutionary War, from 1777 to 1783.
In 1789, after adopting the Bill of Rights to the Constitution, among the first official acts of Congress was approving a motion for proclamation of a national day of thanksgiving, recommending that citizens gather together and give thanks to God for their new nation’s blessings. Presidents George Washington, John Adams and James Madison followed the custom of declaring national days of thanks, though it was not officially declared again until another moment of national peril, when during the War Between the States Abraham Lincoln invited “the whole American people” to observe “a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father … with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience.” In 1941, Congress set permanently November’s fourth Thursday as our official national Thanksgiving.
The Pilgrims’ temporary folly of sundering and somersaulting the material as transcendent over the spiritual conveys an important lesson that modern histories are reluctant to tell. The Founders, recognizing this, placed first among constitutionally recognized rights the free exercise of religion – faith through action.
If what we seek is a continuance of God’s manifold blessings, then a day of heartfelt thanksgiving is a tiny tribute indeed.