The True Origins of Thanksgiving

"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth", by Jennie Brownscombe offers an early 20th century perspective on the 1621 event. Courtesy Pilgrim Hall Museum. |

Tomorrow we celebrate what I sincerely regard as one of our most Christian holidays: Thanksgiving. The Puritans were a group of zealous, committed Christians who sought to make the church what the Bible said it should be; and they gave us Thanksgiving.

The first group of Puritans, a group of non-conformist we now call the Pilgrims, landed on Cape Cod in the late Fall in the year 1620. They came ashore in an area of native Americans that had just recently been nearly wiped out by disease, which meant for these newly arrived pioneers that there were cultivated fields and cleared land just sitting there ready for them to move into. They, of course, saw the hand of God in that.

Of the few remaining natives was a man named Squanto. Squanto had earlier been picked up by English explorers and taken to England. He finally made it back to Plymouth, just before the Pilgrims arrived so he helped them learn how to grow native crops and better survive in the harsh North American environment. They would see the provision of God in that, too. Despite all of Squanto's help, the first year was very difficult with many of them dying of diseases. But when they had survived, they felt they were established; they thought that was an occasion to thank God for sustaining them. That was their great celebration, their holiday – and holy day. And it wasn't, as many people today imagine, that after a great feast, they said, "This was fun, let's do it again next year," and so a tradition was born. No. They had Thanksgivings as an expression of what they believed.

They believed that there were basically three special days during the year, it may seem odd to us but they didn't celebrate Christmas or Easter but they kept the weekly Sabbath, meeting for worship on the first day of the week, and then Fast Days and Thanksgiving days. But neither were on set dates in the calendar. They were dynamic and spontaneous.

If events showed that God was displeased with them, they would call a day of fasting and humiliation. If there were droughts, or ship-wrecks, or severe Indian attacks, they saw those events as whips in God's hands to discipline them. They believed all those things were under the control of God, that nothing was outside of His control. So they would call a day for repentance. They also would call a fast day over trouble in the church or society: if heresies arose, or contention and divisions in the church, or there was a neglect of family order and worship, or immorality broke out among the youth. They knew that God was afflicting them by allowing these things and would afflict them more if they didn't turn from them. So they would call a special day, a day of humiliation. Each family was supposed to prepare their hearts, to arrive early at church, to dress simply. Then they would spend the day listening to preaching, singing psalms, and particularly in prayer. The purpose was to afflict the soul, say "woe is me," and seek God's mercy. A Puritan pastor in New England defined the day of fasting like this:

An extraordinary part or act of Gospel worship wherein for a convenient season we abstain from the comforts of this life, and upon due examination of our ways towards God, and consideration of God's ways toward us, we make a solemn and real profession that we justify God and judge ourselves.

To be truly thankful, to be able to have true days of Thanksgiving, we need days of repentance and self-affliction. We need some "dark nights of the soul", to taste the bitter before we can appreciate the sweet, desperately seeking the God we know we have offended and who we know is in control of all the adversities that have come upon us.

The Puritans called about three times as many fasting days as they did Thanksgiving days. Three times. Because they were aware of their sinfulness, they took God's judgment seriously. It says a lot about us and our culture, doesn't it? That we have neglected this fasting day and only kept the feasting day. But I'm glad that, at least, we've kept that one holiday.

Thanksgiving is such a genuinely Christian holiday because it recognizes that God is indeed in control of all. And that too is something we need in order to be truly thankful. After all, if the good things we've received depends upon luck, happenstance, good fortune randomly striking us, if the forces that have brought us all the things we need and enjoy are just impersonal and out of control – oh we might be overflowing with good things, all that we could wish for, but there is no One behind them providing them for us – then there's no one to be thankful to. We can be happy we got lucky. But it would no more make sense being thankful, if that's the way the universe is, than it would be to sincerely thank the state government if you happen to win the lottery. The government didn't intend on bestowing the lottery winnings on you. You just got "lucky" and the government signs the check that luck says you should have.

Or, as many people believe, their good things came about because they were hardworking and smart, they studied in school, they made the breaks happen, maybe they were even insightful enough to pick the right lottery numbers (although if they were really smart they'd know better than to waste their money on the lottery!). Every good thing they have, they believe, is a result simply of their working hard and working smart. So there's no need to be thankful – or humble. I wonder if such people visited a place like Ethiopia and got to know the people and realized that in so many places you could be as hardworking or smart as the best American entrepreneur but still, there, you just will have so few opportunities to do well. People who think they're "self-made", really just don't see how much went into making them. But thankfulness comes when we really believe that there is a God who is at work.

Yes, so when bad things strike, we accept the discipline from His hand, like Job began to do – "Shall I accept good from the Lord and not adversity" (Job 2) – and use the occasion to search our hearts. And when we look at all the good we've received, perhaps a loving spouse, good children, a home, rewarding work, food and drink, churches where others too are thankful, a country where we're free to attend and support those churches, then it wasn't just luck, it wasn't because we worked hard and smart, it was because a gracious God placed us where we are, for such a time as this.

You see, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to be thankful to the little god some people today call God. Today well-meaning but badly taught Christians see the world as largely out of God's control; that God loves us – which means He feels sympathetic about us. He's cheering for us, hoping we make the right decisions and that things turn out ok for us. God is a supplier of good feelings. He might be able to do things for us in the next life but, it seems, there's not much God can do about life in this world. Nature – both human nature and the forces of nature – are out of His control. There is very little understanding of the doctrine that made the Puritans so thankful, that made them so thankful they founded a holiday all about expressing that thankfulness. That doctrine, in distinction to the ignorance of "luck" and the arrogance of the "self-made", is called "providence."

Providence means that a holy God perfectly rules all our affairs. And if He has seen fit to give us life and food and clothing, it not because we deserve it but because He's chosen to be good to us. As a "Red Puritan", Pium, an Indian convert to Puritan Christianity, said in 1671: "Now we have food and clothes more than we were wont to have before we prayed to God, and we have contented ourselves therewith, and have bent our minds more to look after heavenly riches. . . ." On one of those early pure, Puritan Thanksgiving, he prayed,

We do give humble thanks unto thy holy name, O Lord our God, for our life, health, food, raiments, and for the present food whereby we are refreshed. We thank thee, O Lord, for the love we find among our friends, and of our freedom in good discourse for the good of our souls. We do pray for a blessing upon both, that our food may strengthen our bodies, and our discourse may do good to our souls. Help me so to declare thy word and thy works, that I may win their souls to love thee, and to forsake their sins, and turn unto the Lord by true repentance. These and all other mercies we pray for, in the name, and for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

John B. Carpenter (M.Div. Fuller Theological Seminary; Ph.D. Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago) studied the Puritans and now pastors Covenant Reformed Baptist Church near Danville, Virginia.

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