The History of the Thanksgiving Holiday

One of my favorite times of year is Thanksgiving. What a great tradition—where we gather together to recount the Lord’s blessings. I love the statement from columnist Mark Steyn: “Speaking as a mistfit unassimilated foreigner, I think of Thanksgiving as the most American of holidays.” Consider its history as a holiday.

A year before the Pilgrims even landed, in 1619, Jamestown (the first permanent British settlement in North America) had the first Thanksgiving celebration.

Captain John Woodlief declared on December 4, 1619: “We ordain that the day of our ship’s arrival at the place assigned for plantation in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

That colony, begun in 1607 had “starving times,” so that by 1610, says historian John Eidsmoe, “of the more than 500 colonists who had come to Jamestown, only 60 remained alive.”

But, eventually, providentially, Jamestown survived, and because of its permanency, the Pilgrims, a small group of Christian separatists, decided to settle in what they called “the northern parts of Virginia.” Hence, the voyage of the Mayflower in 1620, which they said was “for the glory of God and the advancement of the Christian faith” (Mayflower Compact).

Providentially, they were blown off course and were hindered from going south of Cape Cod.

Of course, our American tradition of Thanksgiving goes back to these hearty souls, who in 1621 celebrated a time of thanksgiving to God, despite all the problems they had seen. They invited the Indians, with whom they had made a treaty of peace (that lasted 53 years).

The Pilgrim’s long-time leader was William Bradford. He wrote a great book that tells us all the details about the Pilgrim saga, entitled, “Of Plymouth Plantation.”

The late Samuel Eliot Morison of Harvard put together my favorite version of “Of Plymouth Plantation” (1952/2001). In a footnote on p. 90, he says: “Edward Winslow’s letter of 11 Dec. 1621 to a friend in England described this “First Thanksgiving” is printed in “Mourt’s Relation,” pp. 60-5: “Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst the rest their greatest king, Massasoit with some 90 men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted. And they went out and killed five deer which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our Governor and upon the Captain and others.”

Pilgrim expert, Paul Jehle, notes the second Thanksgiving was in July, 1623, and it “was not a harvest festival, but a day of thanksgiving for answered prayer for rain.”

Some people today don’t like the idea of Thanksgiving as a national holiday because it is inherently religious. (Thanksgiving was indeed when the Pilgrims gave thanks to God.)

But consider this fact: The same Congress that gave us the first amendment (which is often twisted today to drive out any religious expression in public) suggested that the new president declare a national day of thanksgiving to celebrate the peaceful establishment of our government.

The president agreed, so on October 3, 1789, from the city of New York, George Washington issued a Proclamation of a National Day of Thanksgiving.

In which he said, “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 favor; 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 public thanksgiving’…”

Dr. Peter Lillback, with whom I had the privilege to co-write, “George Washington’s Sacred Fire,” noted that to his hearers, our first president mentioned Jesus in this line from that proclamation: “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…transgressions…”

Jesus is the Lord and Ruler of the Nations, as seen in Revelation 12 (based on Psalm 2).

While Washington was the first president to declare a national day of Thanksgiving, President Lincoln was the first one to make Thanksgiving an annual holiday. (And during FDR’s days, Congress fixed the date as the 4th Thursday of each November.)

At one of the darkest periods in American history, on October 3, 1863, President Lincoln (in conjunction with Congress) looked for the good things to thank the Lord for: “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 theater of military conflict…”

And he added, “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 of November next as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.” As Americans, we have much to be thankful for.

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