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Thanksgiving: A Uniquely American Tradition

The uniquely American tradition of observing a special day of Thanksgiving to God dates to long before the colonies became a nation. Though it did not become an official holiday until 1863 at the proclamation of Abraham Lincoln, Thanksgiving existed in some form at least 400 years ago. French Huguenot colonists celebrated such a day in 1564 in St. Augustine, Florida, as did the Jamestown settlers at Cape Henry, Virginia, in 1607. But the arrival of the Pilgrims in 1620 stands as the bell weather date for the observation of this singular day.

The Pilgrims – Why They Came to America

Separatists fleeing persecution in Europe, the Pilgrims had a long history of having no one to look to but God for their provision. Unlike their Christian brothers, the Puritans, the Separatists of England believed the newly founded Church of England was beyond reform. As a result they called for new church congregations free from the state-imposed religion of the Church of England.

William Bradford, William Brewster, and other Separatists first assembled in the small town of Scrooby in Nottinghamshire, England. In spite of their desire to be left alone, many were harassed and imprisoned. Soon, they felt compelled to move in masse to the Netherlands, where they would be free to practice their own religion without interference or persecution from the English government and its state supported church.

Things weren’t much easier in the Netherlands. Though they were now free to worship as they saw fit, the Pilgrims had left everything they owned with no means of support in their temporary new home. For about twelve years, the little band lived in the city of Leiden, where they found work as tailors, carpenters, and printers. Everyone had to work, including young children. Parents became fearful their children were losing their English identity, and worse yet, they all were about to be caught up in impending war between the Dutch and Spanish.

Coming to America

A plan was devised to move the congregation as a body from Europe to the northern part of the Virginia Colony, which at that time extended as far north as the Hudson River. They hoped to settle under English authority near present-day New York City. Because they had limited resources, the Pilgrims contracted with a company of investors who would provide passage for the colonists and supply them with clothing, tools, and other essential supplies. The colonists were to repay the investors through resources sent back to England such as timber, furs, and fish.

In essence, those early colonists were a community of indentured servants. All assets, including the land and houses, would belong to the company until the end of seven years, when all of it would be divided among each of the investors and colonists.

A small ship, the Speedwell, was purchased to carry them across the sea and to utilize for trading and fishing in America. At Southampton, a port in England, they were joined by a group of English colonists in the Mayflower and departed for America together. After two aborted trips, the Speedwell was abandoned. After twice turning back to England because Speedwell leaked, they were forced to leave the ship. One month after first leaving England, the Mayflower set out alone with 102 passengers.

Due to all the delays, the Mayflower did not set sail until September 6, 1620, and arrived at Plymouth Rock on November 11, 1620, after a voyage of 66 days. Because it was too late in the year to travel around Cape Cod, the settlers decided not to sail farther and remained in New England. There at Cape Cod Bay, most of the adult men on the ship signed the document that became the foundation for the community’s government – the Mayflower Compact.

In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God of Great Britain, France, and Ireland King, Defender of the Faith, etc.

Having undertaken for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith and Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the First Colony in the Northern Parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, Covenant and Combine ourselves together in a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape Cod, the 11th of November, in the year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France and Ireland the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini 1620.

A Time of Testing

A scouting party soon found an abandoned Wampanoag community that provided an abundant water supply, safe harbor, and already cleared fields. The Mayflower arrived in Plymouth Harbor on December 16, 1620, and the colonists began building their town. With winter setting many of the Pilgrims suffered from scurvy and pneumonia. Two out of three died during those first two trying months, and only fifty-two survived the first year.

As winter finally began to abate, the Pilgrims were surprise by a special visitor. Samoset, a Native American, appeared and greeted them in their own language. Due to Samoset’s influence, the settlers were able to fashion a long-lasting peace treaty with the Wampanoag Indians. A few days later he returned with a friend by the name of Squanto who later embraced the Christian faith and remained to live with them. Pilgrim Governor William Bradford described Squanto as “a special instrument sent of God for [our] good . . . and never left [us] till he died.”

The First Pilgrim Thanksgiving

Because of prayer and the help of friendly Indians, the Pilgrims reaped an abundant harvest in the summer of 1621. Edward Winslow (later to become the governor) declared, “God be praised, we had a good increase of corn;” “by the goodness of God, we are far from want.”  As a result, the Pilgrims declared a three-day feast the following December.

Fifty Pilgrims and ninety Wampanoag Indians joined together for a feast of lobster, turkey, deer, corn bread, and berries. The celebration also included prayers of thanksgiving and various games engaged by both the Pilgrims and Wampanoag.

Thanksgiving celebrations, common in New England, began to spread southward around the time of the American Revolution, when Congress issued eight separate national Thanksgiving Proclamations. But these did not involve just eating and playing. Congress also made a total of fifteen proclamations for prayer and fasting during the years of the American Revolution. These declarations of thanksgiving and prayer culminated with a national day of Thanksgiving in 1789 at the signing of the Bill of Rights. The Congressional Record of September 25, 1789, includes these words:

Mr. [Elias] Boudinot said he could not think of letting the session pass 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. . . . Mr. Roger Sherman justified the practice of thanksgiving on any single event not only as a laudable one in itself but also as warranted by a number of precedents in Holy Writ. . . . This example he thought worthy of a Christian imitation on the present occasion.

After that first national day of Thanksgiving approved by George Washington, the day was observed sporadically over the next few years.  More often than not, the day was matter of states making resolutions. In fact, by 1815, the various state governments had issued at least 1,400 official prayer proclamations concerning thanksgiving, prayer, and times of fasting.

A True National Holiday

Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, promoted the idea of a national Thanksgiving Day for almost thirty years. She called on one president after another until Abraham Lincoln set aside the last Thursday of November as an annual day of Thanksgiving in 1863. With the Union having lost battle after battle throughout the first three years of that conflict, in its darkest hour, Lincoln called Americans to prayer, noting that:

The year that is drawing toward 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 can not fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God. . . . 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.

Many may not know that Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation came at a pivotal moment in his spiritual journey. Just three months earlier, the Battle of Gettysburg had resulted in the loss of over 60,000 American lives. As Lincoln walked along the graves of the fallen dead at Gettysburg, he devoted his life to Christ. He later explained:

When I left Springfield [Illinois, to assume the Presidency], 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.

Over the seventy-five years following Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation, presidents faithfully followed Lincoln’s precedent, annually declared a national Thanksgiving Day (but the date of the celebrations varied widely from proclamation to proclamation). In 1941, Congress permanently established that day as the national Thanksgiving holiday.

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