The First Thanksgiving
The first thanksgiving was celebrated 383 years ago this Thanksgiving in 1623. The people who celebrated this first thanksgiving were called Pilgrims. These brave men and women had traveled across a dangerous Atlantic ocean in search of religious freedom and the opportunity for a fresh start in a ‘new world.’ The 103 Pilgrim’s who survived their hazardous journey arrived near Cape Cod, Massachusetts on November 12, 1620. They had been aiming for Virginia, but strong winds had blown their ship, the Mayflower, off course by 500 miles. We now know ‘Plymouth Rock’ as the place where these settlers landed. Before disembarking from their ship, each Pilgrim signed the “Mayflower Compact” (a covenant made with God describing how they would conduct themselves in this new land). It said in part:
Having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honor of our king and country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the Northern Parts of Virginia, do by these present solemnly and mutually in the presence of God, and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together in a civil Body Politick….
The Mayflower Compact can be read in its entirety by clicking here.
The Pilgrims were now ready to step upon land for the first time in over two months. Governor William Bradford records their reaction as follows:
Being thus arrived . . . they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all the perils . . . again to set their feet on the firm and stable earth.
Shortly after arriving upon shore, the Pilgrims began constructing houses for the approaching winter. The winter proved to be a costly one in terms of human life. 51 of the 103 pilgrims died that first winter. Unfortunately, spring and summer a couple of years later did not prove much better for the struggling Pilgrims. Governor Bradford, who also became the Pilgrim’s historian in his classic Of Plymouth Plantation (still in print), described a three month drought during which the corn withered and ground cracked open. According to Bradford, the Pilgrims then set aside “a solemn day of humiliation, to seek ye Lord by humble and fervent prayer, in this great distress.” When they begun praying, it was a hot, clear day with no cloud in sight. As evening approached, however, it became overcast and began to rain. Bradford writes that the rains:
which did so apparently revive and quicken ye decayed corn and other fruits, as was wonderful to see, and made ye Indians astonished to behold; and afterwards the Lord sent them such seasonable showers, with interchange of fair warm weather, as through his blessing caused a fruitful and liberal harvest, to their no small comfort and rejoicing.
As a result of God’s gracious intervention, a bountiful harvest was brought in and Gov. Bradford proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving and prayer for God’s provision. The official proclamation for the first Thanksgiving was issued in 1623 and said:
Inasmuch as the great Father has given us this year an abundant harvest of Indian corn, wheat, peas, beans, squashes, and garden vegetables, and has made the forest to abound with game and the sea with fish and clams, and inasmuch as he has protected us from the ravages of the savages, has spared us from pestilence and disease, has granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience; now I, your magistrate, do proclaim that all Pilgrims, with your wives and little ones, do gather at the meeting house, on the hill, between the hours of 9 and 12 in the day time, on Thursday, November the 29th, of the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred and twenty-three, and the third year since Pilgrims landed on ye Pilgrim Rock, there to listen to the pastor and render thanksgiving to Almighty God for all His blessings.
It is interesting to note that the famous Thanksgiving feast only comes after the Pilgrims had gathered for three hours of prayer and listening to the pastor preach at their church house. We’ve kept the turkey-eating, but neglect the thanks-giving. We can’t even get people to come to Wednesday night prayer meeting the day before Thanksgiving!
Thanksgiving in United States History
Of course the first celebration of Thanksgiving by citizens of the United States could not happen for another 166 years. This is because the United States did not exist until then. However, our first president, George Washington, issued the first proclamation for a National Day of Thanksgiving. He wrote:
Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the Providence of Almighty God, to obey His will . . . I do recommend . . . Thursday, the twenty-sixth day of November . . . to be devoted by the People of these United States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficient Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be. . . . that we may . . . humbly offer our prayers . . . to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national . . . transgressions.
Complete text of Washington’s proclamation can be accessed by clicking here.
In 1817, New York became the first state to adopt Thanksgiving Day as a holiday. In 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday. Each year since, presidents have issued proclamations for the fourth Thursday in November. Lincoln’s first Thanksgiving proclamation said in part:
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…I do, therefore, invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens…[It is] announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations are blessed whose God is the Lord…It has seemed to me fit and proper that God should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people.
Complete text forLincoln’s Proclamation is available online by clicking here.
Our current president, George W. Bush, has issued a proclamation that tomorrow, November 23rd, 2006, be a National Day of Thanksgiving. His proclamation reads as follows:
As Americans gather with family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving Day, we give thanks for the many ways that our Nation and our people have been blessed.
The Thanksgiving tradition dates back to the earliest days of our society, celebrated in decisive moments in our history and in quiet times around family tables. Nearly four centuries have passed since early settlers gave thanks for their safe arrival and pilgrims enjoyed a harvest feast to thank God for allowing them to survive a harsh winter in the New World. General George Washington observed Thanksgiving during the Revolutionary War, and in his first proclamation after becoming President, he declared November 26, 1789, a national day of “thanksgiving and prayer.” During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln revived the tradition of proclaiming a day of thanksgiving, reminding a divided Nation of its founding ideals.
At this time of great promise for America, we are grateful for the freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution and defended by our Armed Forces throughout the generations. Today, many of these courageous men and women are securing our peace in places far from home, and we pay tribute to them and to their families for their service, sacrifice, and strength. We also honor the families of the fallen and lift them up in our prayers.
Our citizens are privileged to live in the world’s freest country, where the hope of the American dream is within the reach of every person. Americans share a desire to answer the universal call to serve something greater than ourselves, and we see this spirit every day in the millions of volunteers throughout our country who bring hope and healing to those in need. On this Thanksgiving Day, and throughout the year, let us show our gratitude for the blessings of freedom, family, and faith, and may God continue to bless America.
NOW, THEREFORE, I, GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim Thursday, November 23, 2006, as a National Day of Thanksgiving. I encourage all Americans to gather together in their homes and places of worship with family, friends, and loved ones to reinforce the ties that bind us and give thanks for the freedoms and many blessings we enjoy.
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this sixteenth day of November, in the year of our Lord two thousand six, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-first.
GEORGE W. BUSH
This year, and each year that follows, please take the opportunity to think about God’s blessings upon you and your family. Consider the fact that you owe everything to the Giver of “every good gift and every perfect gift” (James 1:17). Think of how you can help teach the ones who are entrusted to you the “true meaning” of Thanksgiving. Our nation’s secularists will continue to attempt to erase all evidence of a belief in God from our history. Given the amount of evidence listed above, they are going to need a big eraser!