The Real Heritage of Thanksgiving
The accompanying picture is of a painting on the wall of the Rotunda room in the United States Capitol. It is a painting of our Puritan forefathers, the “Pilgrims,” praying and fasting with a Geneva Bible, just prior to their departure for America. (The Geneva Bible was the standard English Bible used by the English Puritans in the 16th and 17th centuries and remained dominant for many years even after King James’s “Authorized” version was published.) The painting is so large in the United States Capitol building that the verses on the pages of the Bible can be easily read.
The “Pilgrims” were Puritan Christians, who separated from the Church of England, which was controlled by the King of England, for his own pride, greed and political power, rather than for the love of God and the love of people.
William Bradford (page 7):
“Those reformers who saw the evil of these things, and whose hearts the LORD had touched with heavenly zeal for his truth, shook off this yoke of anti-Christian bondage and as the LORD’s free people joined themselves together by covenant as a church, in the fellowship of the gospel to walk in all his ways, made known, or to be made known to them, according to their best endeavors, whatever it should cost them, the LORD assisting them.”
The King of England didn’t like that very much.
William Bradford (page 8):
“They were hunted and persecuted on every side, until their former afflictions were but as fleabitings in comparison. Some were clapped into prison; others had their houses watched night and day, and escaped with difficulty; and most were obliged to fly, and leave their homes and means of livelihood.”
During the years 1607 and 1608, the Pilgrims fled to Holland, where they worked as the lowest level workers in society (bakers, cleaners, etc.) and found a way to survive and flourish for twelve years. They desired to set sail to America, to form a new Christian society, and make a better life for their children. In the face of fears of great risks and unknown dangers…
William Bradford (page 22):
“It was replied that all great and honourable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and must be both met and overcome with answerable courage.”
William Bradford (page 49):
“When they were ready to depart, they had a day of solemn humiliation (fasting and praying), their pastor taking his text from Ezra, viii, 21: ‘And there at the river, by Ahava, I proclaimed a fast that we might humble ourselves before our God, and seek of Him a right way for us and for our children, and for all our substance.’ Upon this discourse he spent a good part of the day very profitably. The rest of the time was spent in pouring out prayers to the LORD with great fervency and abundance of tears.”
This was their custom. When faced with dangers or challenges, they proclaimed a day of fasting and prayer to seek God’s will and request His favor and blessing. Upon receiving great blessings, they proclaimed days of thanksgiving and feasting to thank God for his blessing and to celebrate. This was the custom of the Puritan Christians from which our tradition of Thanksgiving was born.
The Pilgrims get a bad rap in today’s secular, atheistic culture. They are blamed for mistreating the Native Americans (or American “Indians” as they were called by Europeans) and stealing their land. But that is not true. The Pilgrims always treated the natives with the utmost respect and fairness. When they first landed at what would become the New Plymouth Colony, they found some corn buried in the ground. It had been left by a tribe that had been decimated by a plague. Low on food and supplies and hungry, the Pilgrims took the corn. But they left money for it, so as to be sure not to steal it. Later, they formed alliances with as many of the native tribes as were willing. But some tribes hated the Europeans. The tribes themselves were constantly warring against each other. When one Englishman murdered a native, the Pilgrims held a trial, found him guilty and executed him. The natives were astounded that the English would execute one of their own because he had wronged a native. Blame the U.S. government for mistreating the Native Americans (and the African Americans, and the Chinese Americans, and the Mexican Americans, and many others) — there is plenty of blame to assign to the U.S. government — but not the Puritan Christian Pilgrims.
The first American Thanksgiving was the result of the Puritan Pilgrims declaring a feast day to thank God for his blessings to them and to celebrate. After spending the first half of the day at their small country church, listening to preaching, they held a feast and celebration. And they invited their new friends among the Native Americans to join them.
After the United States government was established, President George Washington proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving in 1789. Later, President Abraham Lincoln also proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving in 1863. Thanksgiving has been a national holiday in the United States every year since 1863.
The references to William Bradford are from Of Plymouth Plantation — Bradford’s History of the Plymouth Settlement — 1608–1650, Original Manuscript Rendered into Modern English by Harold Paget, 1909, published by the Vision Forum, Inc. (2001).