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The Pilgrims & the First Thanksgiving

by Kim Harrington 


     Celebrate the Feast of Harvest with the firstfruits of the crops you sow in your field. Celebrate the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in your crops from the field.

Exodus 23:16

   Over the years, I’ve done a little research on our national holidays, and you might be surprised, even shocked, at what I’ve learned.  The majority of our “holy days” can be traced to ancient Celtic rituals and observances, and even further back than that... to the biblical idols Baal and Ashtoreth, the ancient Romans and Egyptians, and the Babylonian mystery religions.

     But Thanksgiving is a little different.  It’s a harvest celebration to the Living God, the God of the Pilgrims and Puritans of American history, and the God of Abraham, Isaac, Moses, and Jesus.

     I suppose every culture and people in the world has had a harvest festival to rejoice in the fruit of the earth, and give thanks to their gods for the crops of the year. In that sense, harvest celebrations could come from anywhere. But the early Pilgrims used the biblical harvest festivals as the pattern for the first American Thanksgiving Day in 1621.

     Actually, the three major festivals of Israel all had to do with various harvests. The feasts of Passover and Firstfruits took place on the same weekend, at the time of the barley harvest, the beginning of the harvesting season in Israel. This was the time that the firstfruits matured; the rest of the crops matured a little later.

     Seven weeks later, to be exact—at least that’s when the Israelites celebrated the Day of Pentecost. This was a full blown holiday, including a two-week break from normal work activities. The crops were in, so they could afford to sit back and rest after a laborious growing season.

     The final harvest celebration in Israel was several months later, after the summer harvest. This was called the Feast of Tabernacles, and the faithful Israelites celebrated by taking up residence in little tents or “tabernacles” for seven days, and offering special thanksgiving sacrifices for the grape harvest, as well as other crops.

     Three thanksgiving feasts in Israel—that’s not a bad biblical precedent. We’d do well to emulate them and be more thankful ourselves. Let’s look now at roots of the modern American holiday.

The Pilgrims and Plymouth Colony

     In November of 1620, one hundred and one religious dissenters landed in what is today the state of Massachusetts in a feeble attempt to start a new civilization centered around the God of the Bible. They wanted to build “a city on a hill” that would shine forth the Lord’s mercy and grace to anyone who cared to look. We know them as the Pilgrims, which means wandering wayfarers—they wandered all the way across the Atlantic Ocean to brave a brand new continent.

     In their own day they were called the Separatists—they had decided to “separate” themselves from the church of England, which they felt was corrupted beyond any hope of rescue. They had removed themselves from that church with its dead rituals and political power-struggles, and returned to a more simple New Testament style of worship—extemporaneous prayer, congregational singing, and the preaching of God’s Word. (The Puritans, who followed the Pilgrims to America a few years later, tried to “purify” the Church of England, rather than separate from it completely.) The Separatists were strenuously resisted for their efforts, by both church and state; conditions became so intolerable that they fled to Holland. Unfortunately, things were little better there, so they decided, after much prayer and deliberation, to go to go to the New World and start a new life for themselves, and eventually, a new nation.

     So, they boarded the Mayflower, endured a rough voyage, but finally made it to the New World. I used the phrase “feeble attempt” a little earlier because they had either underestimated the dangers and struggles they would face, or suspecting them, had decided to go in simple faith in God, without a lot of the earthly backing that would have helped their venture to succeed. They knew nothing of the climate, the condition of the land, what crops might be grown, or how to hunt and fish and get sustenance for themselves. They did know about the dread diseases of the continent, and how some ninety percent of the original Jamestown settlers had died of disease within a short time of landing, but they decided to trust the Almighty and go anyway.

     The first winter the Pilgrims spent in the New World was a nightmare. They called it the “General Sickness.” Six died in December, and eight in January. February claimed seventeen lives, March fourteen. By the time the worst was over, forty-seven, or almost half of the total number of settlers, had died. Thirteen of eighteen wives died; only three families remained unbroken.

     Nevertheless, they persevered. They comforted themselves from God’s Word, and they gave thanks. They had tasted greater trials and testings than most people will ever have to face, yet they were convinced that their God would not forsake them.

     He didn’t. One day that Spring, two Indians walked into their camp, and in flawless English, asked for a beer! One of them, named Squanto, had recently lost his entire tribe to a plague. He had been kidnapped by a British slaver, but, with the assistance of some Spanish monks, had finally found his way back to North America, only to learn that all of his loved ones had perished. His heart went out to the helpless Pilgrims and he adopted them. He taught them to plant corn, using a fish for fertilizer... they hadn’t even been able to catch any fish up to that point, but he showed them when the fish spawned and the creeks were full for the harvesting. He taught them to hunt, which berries were edible, and how to guard against wolves—how to get by in this land as a whole.

The First Thanksgiving

     Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”

Nehemiah 8:10

     In the fall of 1621, the pioneers harvested their first crops in the New World, twenty acres of corn, which was more than enough to last the winter by their reckoning. Governor William Bradford, elected upon the death of John Carver, their first leader, declared a day of public thanksgiving, a festival and feast to God for His graciousness to them during their first year in the American continent.

     They invited Chief Massasoit of the nearby Indian encampment, and he obliged by arriving a day early—with ninety members of his tribe in tow! The Pilgrims almost despaired—to feed that many would cut deeply into their winter food supply—but they decided to smile and trust God. If they had learned anything in the past years of trouble, persecution, and death, it was to lean upon the Lord. The Indians had brought food, too: five dressed deer, popcorn, maple syrup, and of course, the most famous of thanksgiving dishes—a dozen fat wild turkeys!

     The Pilgrims provided carrots and onions, parsnips, cucumbers, radishes, beets and cabbages. And the ladies prepared a treat for native Americans and settlers alike—hot blueberry, apple, and cherry pies. They washed it down with sweet wine from freshly picked wild grapes.

     They also had games. There were shooting contests with guns and bows, and foot races and wrestling matches. The festival went over so well that they decided to extend it for three days.

     They had much to be thankful for. The settlers in Jamestown to the south had fared much worse. Their death toll had been higher, their harvests more meager, and they had continual struggles with the Indian tribes in Virginia. But there was one big difference between the first two groups of settlers in North America. The Lord. The settlers in Jamestown were nominal Christians at best, they had come to the New World to seek fame and fortune. The settlers at Plymouth were staunch believers who had come to find a place to worship freely and to establish a colony for the glory of the Lord.

An Official Day of Thanksgiving

     Various days of Thanksgiving were declared over the subsequent years in New England, as the Pilgrims and Puritans gave thanks to God for ending a drought, protecting them from hostile Indians, or the safe delivery of more friends and relatives from England. By the 1700s, annual springtime fasts and autumn harvest celebrations were proclaimed throughout the northeastern colonies, recognizing the key role that God played in the settlement and continued prosperity of the region. As New Englanders settled further west, Thanksgiving days were appointed in the new territories, too.

     Now and again in the new republic, the President would declare a special day of Thanksgiving: Washington honored God for the adoption of the American Constitution in 1789; Madison proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving for the end of the War of 1812; and Lincoln issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation after the battle of Gettysburg.

     In the mid 1800s, Sarah Hale, the editor of a fashion magazine called Godey’s Ladies Book, campaigned tirelessly for a national day of Thanksgiving. Most of the states in the union already had one, so why not honor God together, as a nation? She hoped that a unified spiritual action of this sort would preserve the nation, and keep us from a bloody Civil War. The war did occur, of course, but on November 26th, 1863, President Lincoln finally declared that the last Thursday of November would, from henceforth, be a national day of Thanksgiving. Here are the first few lines of that presidential proclamation...

The year that is drawing towards 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 cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.

Thanksgiving Today

     More recently, our leaders have distanced themselves from God, rather than acknowledging our dependence on Him as a nation. Not only prayer, but any sort of real communication about the Lord has been forbidden in schools; manger scenes have been removed from public lands; and one lawsuit after another has been launched by the American Civil Liberties Union to guarantee that no godless American need ever be exposed to the God of Christianity. While the media soft-pedals its way around other minority religions, fearing a backlash, Jesus Christ is daily blasphemed in almost every way possible.

     Certainly, our land is increasingly multi-cultural, but the present hostilities toward Christianity seem to go far beyond political correctness. The government seems to be going out of its way to establish, beyond any shadow of doubt, that our God is not the God of the Bible!

     We are very close to losing the heritage that has been handed down to us from the heroic believers of the past. Even the history books are being rewritten, carefully removing any mention of God. Future generations of Americans may never know the real reason the Pilgrims came to this land.

     Thanksgiving itself is now “Turkey Day,” a day of gluttony rather than rejoicing in the Lord—and, of course, the day before the biggest shopping day of the year.

     The Christian community in the United States of America is faced with a choice much like that of our forefathers in England, though our political climate is not nearly so severe as theirs. We may become Separatists, isolating ourselves from the world around us; or we may take the stance of the Puritans and try to convert our society back to the God of our fathers. I think the latter is the clear choice.

     There is hope for this land, and many reasons to be proud of our citizenship. Our nation is hanging in the balance, however, and serious Christian involvement is needed to tip it towards the Lord. We can, by the power of the Holy Spirit, turn this country around, and save it from divine judgment.

     “The weapons of our warfare,” stated the Apostle Paul, “are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds.” Those weapons are earnest prayer, relentless preaching of the truth to turn the hearts of the masses, and a Christian example that shines like the city on a hill the Pilgrims sought to build. We have tried political means in the past few decades without much success—for the most part the non-Christian community is more alienated than ever. We need to try the methodology of the Bible this time. Otherwise we stand to lose everything the Pilgrims strove so hard to establish nearly three hundred and eighty years ago.

     If you’ve not yet made a serious commitment of your life to the Lord, you can start the revival of our land right in your own heart today! Just believe in Jesus—that He died for your sins and rose again from the dead. (By the way, the facts of Jesus’ death and resurrection are as historical as the landing of the Pilgrims, verified by secular historians of the time, as well as by the eye-witnesses who wrote the Gospels.) Then decide to turn away from your present selfish, sinful life-style, and follow Jesus to the best of your ability. You can have assurance that you are right with God this very moment—He will hear the prayer offered in Jesus’ name, and forgive your sins.

     Then get yourself into a church that really teaches the Bible, a place where you can learn and grow in your spiritual life, and make some Christian friends. The very angels in heaven will rejoice with you, and God Himself will have a day of thanksgiving for the return of another wanderer to the fold.


Abraham Lincoln's Thanksgiving Proclamation

George W. Bush's Thanksgiving Proclamation, 2001

Copyright © 1998 Kim Harrington, Masterbuilder Ministries. All rights reserved.


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