The celebration we now popularly regard in the USA as the “First Thanksgiving” was the Pilgrims’ three-day feast celebrated in early November of 1621 (although a day of thanks in America was observed in Virginia at Cape Henry in 1607). The first Thanksgiving to God in the Calvinist tradition in Plymouth Colony was actually celebrated during the summer of 1623, when the colonists declared a Thanksgiving holiday after their crops were saved by much-needed rainfall.
The Pilgrims left Plymouth, England, on September 6, 1620, sailing for a new world that offered the promise of both civil and religious liberty. For almost three months, 102 seafarers braved harsh elements to arrive off the coast of what is now Massachusetts, in late November of 1620. On December 11, prior to disembarking at Plymouth Rock, they signed the “Mayflower Compact,” America’s original document of civil government and the first to introduce self-government.
The Pilgrims were Separatists, America’s Calvinist Protestants, who rejected the institutional Church of England. They believed that the worship of God must originate in the inner man, and that corporate forms of worship prescribed by man interfered with the establishment of a true relationship with God. The Separatists used the term “church” to refer to the people, the Body of Christ, not to a building or institution.
Upon landing in America, the Pilgrims conducted a prayer service and then quickly turned to building shelters. Starvation and sickness during the ensuing New England winter killed almost half their population, but through prayer and hard work, with the assistance of their Indian friends, the Pilgrims reaped a rich harvest in the summer of 1621. Most of what we know about the Pilgrim Thanksgiving of 1621 comes from original accounts of the young colony’s leaders, Governor William Bradford and Master Edward Winslow.
The feast included foods suitable for a head table of honored guests, such as the chief men of the colony and Native leaders. Venison, wild fowl, turkeys and Indian corn were the staples of the meal, which likely also included other food items known to have been aboard the Mayflower or available in Plymouth, such as spices, Dutch cheese, wild grapes, lobster, cod, native melons, pumpkin (pompion) and rabbit.
By the mid-17th century, the custom of autumnal Thanksgivings was established throughout New England. Observance of Thanksgiving Festivals began to spread southward during the American Revolution, as the newly established Congress officially recognized the need to celebrate this holy day.
The first Thanksgiving Proclamation was issued by the revolutionary Continental Congress on November 1, 1777. Authored by Samuel Adams, it was one sentence of 360 words which read in part:
“Forasmuch as it is the indispensable duty of all men to adore the superintending providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with gratitude their obligation to him for benefits received….together with penitent confession of their sins, whereby they had forfeited every favor; and their humble and earnest supplications that it may please God through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of remembrance…..it is therefore recommended…to set apart Thursday the eighteenth day of December next, for solemn thanksgiving and praise, that with one heart and one voice the good people may express the grateful feeling of their hearts and consecrate themselves to the service of their Divine Benefactor…acknowledging with gratitude their obligations to Him for benefits received….To prosper the means of religion, for the promotion and enlargement of that kingdom which consisteth ‘in righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost’.”
It was one-hundred and eighty years after the first day of Thanksgiving in America, that our Founding Fathers officially recognized the day by proclamation of the Constitutional government. Soon after adopting the Bill of Rights, a motion in Congress to initiate the proclamation of a national day of thanksgiving was approved.
Congressional Record, September 25, 1789
“Mr. Boudinot (who was the President of Congress during the American Revolution) said he could not think of letting the congressional session pass over without offering an opportunity to all the citizens of the United States of joining with one voice in returning to Almighty God their sincere thanks for the many blessings He had poured down upon them. With this view, therefore, he would move the following resolution:
Resolved, That a joint committee of both Houses be directed to wait upon the President of the United States to request that he would recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God….
“Mr. [Roger] Sherman (a signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution) justified the practice of thanksgiving on any signal event not only as a laudable one in itself, but as warranted by a number of precedents in Holy Writ….This example he thought worthy of a Christian imitation on the present occasion; and he would agree with the gentleman who moved the resolution….The question was put on the resolution and it was carried in the affirmative.”
This resolution was delivered to President George Washington, who readily agreed with its suggestion and put forth the following proclamation by his signature:
A NATIONAL THANKSGIVING
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 and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness”:
Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the Beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.
And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplication to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our national government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a government of wise, just and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally, to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.
Given under my hand, at the city of New York, the 3d day of October, AD 1789 ~ George Washington
After 1815 there were no further annual proclamations of Thanksgiving until the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln declared November 26, 1863, the last Thursday in November, a Day of Thanksgiving. In early July of 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg had occurred, taking some 60,000 American lives, and President Lincoln traveled to the battlefield four months afterward, in November, to deliver the “Gettysburg Address.” Deeply moved by the sacrifice of these soldiers, Lincoln first committed his life to Christ while walking among the graves there. He later explained:
“When I left Springfield [to become President] I asked the people to pray for me. I was not a Christian. When I buried my son, the severest trial of my life, I was not a Christian. But when I went to Gettysburg and saw the graves of thousands of our soldiers, I then and there consecrated myself to Christ.”
During this time of internal strife in the United States, and at this turning point in his own spiritual life, President Lincoln issued the following proclamation.
PROCLAMATION OF THANKSGIVING BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful years 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….
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, while that theater 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 defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax 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 theretofore.
Population has steadily increased notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness 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, tranquility, and union.
In testimony whereof I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.
~ Abraham Lincoln (October 3, 1863, passed by an Act of Congress)
Since 1863, Thanksgiving has been observed annually in the United States.
See also by this author: Four Keys to Developing a Thankful Heart