A Church Historian’s Take on Thanksgiving

One of the funny things about history is that plain events, which participants take virtually no notice of, accrue a greater significance in the eyes of later generations. Such is the case with the original Thanksgiving meal held in Plymouth, Massachusetts by the Pilgrims and Native Americans in November 1621.

It is often said that all that America came to be – its ideals of democracy, freedom, and religious tolerance – was somehow “there” in that original feast, as if the Pilgrims were the cause and origination of the American essence. This, of course, is not the case; the Pilgrims had no idea of the America that was to come, and the shaping of our nation entailed a lengthy process of decades involving the work of many different peoples and ideas. Yet the Pilgrims did bring with them a vision for a new life in a new world that was deeply shaped by Scripture and one that evoked an attitude of thanks toward God for the new land they inhabited. Here are some basic facts from a church historian’s perspective related to the history of Thanksgiving in the United States for your pondering.

  • First, did you know that the original Pilgrims were the close cousins of the early English Baptists?

The Pilgrims were virtually all Leiden Separatists, a group of early English congregational separatists living in the Netherlands in the 1610s. In the late 1500s a resistance movement arose in England against Anglicanism because they came to believe that Anglicans had not gone far enough in reforming the church. The problem with this resistance movement (known collectively as “Puritanism”) is that there were many different ideals of what “reforming the church” looked like. The most radical among them, the Separatists, rejected the Anglican system of bishops and dioceses as unbiblical and pioneered the scriptural view that true churches are gathered churches, consisting of Christians who covenant together to be disciplined by and live under the authority of Scripture alone (rather than under the authority of a bishop or priest).

In the 1580s and 90s ministers like Robert Browne and Francis Johnson founded some of the earliest Separatist churches based upon congregational principles, and they were severely persecuted as a result. It was out of this group where we find the first English Baptists. In many ways these Baptists were merely congregational separatists who embraced the additional—and very important—doctrine of believers baptism. Not all Separatists, however, adopted these Baptist views. One group, led by John Robinson, established a church in the English village of Scrooby, Nottinghamshire, which in 1608 relocated to the Dutch city of Leiden after years of persecution. For more than a decade, this group thrived in the tolerant yet foreign climate of Leiden, yet they found it difficult to keep their children from growing up Dutch. In 1620, about one hundred of them opted to relocate again, this time much farther away. After a brief stay in Southampton, England, these “Pilgrims” boarded the Mayflower in August of 1620 bound for a New World over 3,000 miles away.

  • Second, did you know that the original Thanksgiving was probably not even an official Thanksgiving feast?

Thanksgiving celebrations were common among Separatist and Puritan communities who prized biblically based observances (the weekly Lord’s Day, periodic days of thanks) as opposed to the traditional commemoration of saints’ days populating the Catholic calendar. Days of thanksgiving were generally well noted in diaries, official proceedings or memoirs of Separatist leaders. The two sources we have of the harvest festival held in November 1621 make no mention of specific days set apart for giving thanks, which would be an odd event for a Separatist to omit. Also, we know that the festival the Pilgrims held was a three-day event rather than the traditional one-day event that was typical of Separatist days of thanks. Thus, while it was probably not an “official” Thanksgiving feast, we can say that it definitely was a feast, and that there was, no doubt, much thanks given to God during it.

The previous year had taken a great toll on the Pilgrims. Shortly after arriving in Plymouth in late 1620, they had enormous difficulties in establishing houses for themselves, leaving them to live in the drafty Mayflower for months. The winter of early 1621 was extremely harsh. “It was most sad and lamentable,” wrote William Bradford, “that in two or three months time half of [our] company died, especially in January and February, being the depth of winter, and [lacking] houses and other comforts; being infected with scurvy and other diseases.” Only four women survived that first winter. Furthermore, their fear of the region’s Native Americans added another layer of anxiety. Yet by summer their circumstances had dramatically changed. They had made contact with local Native Americans who in turn showed them how to farm in the region. By fall Edward Winslow noted that so much corn, barley, and peas had been harvested, as well as much fish caught, that “our Governor [Bradford] sent four men on fowling (i.e. turkey hunting), so that we might after a more special manner rejoice together.” Later “many of the Indians [came] amongst us … with some ninety 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.” This indeed was a time of special rejoicing.

  • Lastly, did you know that Depression-era politics played a prominent role in determining the date Thanksgiving is celebrated in the United States?

Since colonial times, many Americans typically celebrated Thanksgiving late in November, yet there was no standard day on which all Americans celebrated it. That all changed in 1863 when Abraham Lincoln declared that Thanksgiving is to be celebrated on the last Thursday of November. In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt, wishing to help out the nation’s depression-stricken retailers by giving them an extra week for Christmas shoppers, declared that Thanksgiving should be moved a week back to the second-to-last Thursday in November. This caused a great stir across America whose local community calendars (think college football rivalry games) had grown accustomed to the later date. Many states resisted this change, and for several years Thanksgiving was celebrated on different Thursdays depending on which state you resided in. Opponents lampooned the change as governmental meddling in people’s lives, and they facetiously dubbed the new holiday “Franksgiving.” After two years, a compromise was reached in late 1941 when Congress passed a federal law, signed by Roosevelt, declaring Thanksgiving to be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of every November. Thus every two years out of seven Thanksgiving is celebrated on the second-to-last Thursday of November (most recently in 2007).