Thanksgiving continues to bring together families around a feast every year. But what’s increasingly missing from the table is what the Pilgrims regularly practiced – praising God.
"The Pilgrims were profoundly Christian," said Dr. Tracy McKenzie, a professor and chair of Wheaton College's history department. "They wanted the notion of thanksgiving to be woven into the fabric of everyday life. That meant celebrating God anytime He answered a prayer."
The Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony planted themselves in America's identity when they celebrated a successful harvest feast in 1621. Known today as Thanksgiving, the colonists' simple celebration of their settlement's good fortune and success has since become a vital part of our national calendar.
Many of the same practices the settlers employed remain present today. Modern Americans may prefer professional football, but Pilgrims at Plymouth in 1621 wrestled, ran races and participated in other athletic competitions. Both contemporary Americans and their New England ancestors enjoyed extravagant feasts, though the actual victuals consumed have varied over time. Last but not least, Thanksgiving throughout U.S. history has traditionally promoted brotherhood between people of different races, religions and creeds.
Many historians and theologians now claim, however, that one key component of that 1621 festival is rarely found in contemporary culture. The Pilgrims placed immense importance on glorifying God for His blessings, an act that's now increasingly absent at American dinner tables during Thanksgiving.
"Americans for the last few centuries or so have remembered Thanksgiving as a foundational chapter in the beginning of the American story," said McKenzie. "Americans largely remember the Pilgrim celebration over those of other European colonist groups. They resemble values we wish to affirm as Americans. They were people of devout faith, largely family-oriented and staunch defenders of liberty."
David Barton, president of the American history organization WallBuilders, said Thanksgiving originally took place only in the New England colonies the Pilgrims called home. Though they certainly feasted and played sports, he said they placed the most emphasis on showing God gratitude through prayer. The Pilgrims' devotion and sincerity soon caught on with the Founding Fathers, he added, and the event was celebrated on and off until its national designation as a holiday in 1863 by President Lincoln during the Civil War.
"The Founding Fathers were firmly convinced the blessings we had were a direct result of God," Barton stressed. "It's valuable now to stop every year and thank God for his bounties and His status as the source of our inalienable rights. We are told to acknowledge God in everything we do and this is the time to enter His gates with thanksgiving."
McKenzie noted that many modern Americans analyze Thanksgiving with an improper understanding of the Pilgrims. Their original feast was meant to signify not a special day of thanks but rather continually showing God gratitude for his generosity. For the Pilgrims, any holiday, Thanksgiving or not, paled in comparison to Jesus' holiness they saw daily.
Linda Hayner, head of Bob Jones University's history and social science departments, said taking the Pilgrims' approach to Thanksgiving could bring the holiday back to its emphasis on faith. Recognizing its religious roots, she said, was valuable for American Christians of all kinds.
"Christians should always be in an attitude of thanksgiving," she said. "It is a time of special remembrance of something those who love the Lord Jesus Christ should be doing all year."