Thankful for what?
Though originally a Christian holiday, Thanksgiving has become a secular institution in America. As with most other Christian holidays; Christmas is more about Santa than Jesus, and Easter is more about the bunny than the resurrection, the reason why most people fail to see Thanksgiving as a Christian holiday is that most people know nothing about its origins.
The first thanksgivers
The beginning of the chain of provision which ends in, “my parents have given me everything that I have to be thankful for (or the government…)” goes all the way back to the founders and settlers of this fine country. Did the early migrants to this country see themselves as the last object of thanksgiving, or did they bestow their thankfulness on yet another?
Who Did the Pilgrims Thank?
The pilgrims who came over from England in 1620 were members of the English Separatist Church (a Puritan sect of Christianity). These Separatists originally fled England and sailed to Holland to escape the religious intolerance and oppression of their homeland. In the early 17th century, the Church and the State of England were one, and independent congregations who desired to explore their own, differing relationship with the Christian God were unable to practice their faith independent of the State Church. Separatists had come to the conclusion that membership in the Church of England violated Biblical teaching. A group of reformers set out to “purify” the church doctrines and fled their homeland so that they would be able to pursue God in a way that they considered to be truer to the teaching of the Bible. This group in Holland successfully escaped religious persecution from the Church of England, but eventually became disenchanted with the Dutch way of life. They observed the lifestyles of those around them and believed that they were in an ungodly land. Hence, these reformers pushed on toward a new place where they could both worship the Biblical God of Christianity and live in a way that honored that same God; the New World.
The Mayflower held more than just the Separatist Puritans. The ship also contained other pilgrims who still remained loyal to the Church of England but came to the new world for economic reasons or because they sympathized with the Puritans in one way or another. The consistent thread that wove its way through all of the travelers on that ship was that they shared a fervent and pervasive Protestant faith that permeated all aspects of their lives. December 11, 1620 not only heralded the grounding of the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock but also the grounding of the Christian faith in the New World.
In less than a year, however, the pilgrims suffered the loss of almost half of their original 102 members from the Mayflower. These Christians remained staunch in their faith and at the end of the harvest of 1621, they decided to celebrate. The pilgrims brought with them both religious and secular customs from their homeland. Among these customs was the tradition of a secular harvest festival and the tradition of a religious holy day of thanksgiving. Both celebrations had strong religious overtones which included a religious component of thanks to the Christian God who had provided the harvest.
The pilgrims, with the assistance of a Patuxet native american named Squanto, also known as Tisquantum, celebrated the harvest and a day of thanksgiving. Both of these days offered thanks to the Christian God.
*An interesting aside; on his deathbed, according to William Bradford, Squanto said, “Pray for me, Governor, that I might go to the Englishmen’s God in heaven.”
Edward Winslow, who described the Pilgrim’s thanksgiving celebrations, wrote extensively on how these early immigrants relied on God and His benevolence.
Nevertheless he left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
Winslow, as he describes the first Thanksgiving setting, evokes what he knew was true from these scriptures:
“Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent four men on fowling [bird hunting] so that we might, after a special manner, rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as… served the company almost a week… Many of the Indians [came] amongst us and… their greatest King, Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted; and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought… And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God we are.. far from want”
The original pilgrims knew who was responsible for all that they had. They understood the nature of the true Provider, the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, and the Host of Hosts. Let us not forget the real meaning of Thanksgiving and who it is we’re thanking.