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On Friday, Sept. 25,1789, one day after the House of Representatives voted to recommend the First Amendment of the newly drafted Constitution to the states for ratification, Congressman Elias Boudinot of New Jersey made a proposal.

The House and Senate, he said, should jointly request that President Washington proclaim a day of thanksgiving for “the many signal favors of Almighty God.” According to The Annals of the Congress by Joseph Gales, Boudinot said he “could not think of letting the session pass over without offering an opportunity to all the citizens of the United States of joining, with one voice, in returning to Almighty God their sincere thanks for the many blessings He had poured down upon them.”

Connecticut Congressman Roger Sherman spoke in favor of the proposal by reminding his colleagues that the practice of thanksgiving was “warranted by a number of precedents in holy writ: for instance, the solemn thanksgivings and rejoicings which took place in the time of Solomon, after the building of the temple.… This example, he thought, worthy of Christian imitation on the present occasion.”

And so it was that Washington proclaimed Thursday, Nov. 26, 1789, the United States’ first national day of thanksgiving.

Like Sherman, the colonists who came to the New World were aware of the many examples of thanksgiving found in “Holy Writ,” and they were quick to imitate those Biblical celebrations. Thanksgiving, as it was practiced by the colonists, was a religious celebration that shared the sentiments of their Biblical forerunners, giving thanks to God for His faithful provision even in times of want.

For these devoutly religious people, thanksgiving came naturally. In his book Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment, David D. Hall tells of the Pilgrims’ practice even before reaching the New World. “Twice en route the passengers [aboard the Mayflower] participated in a fast, and once (two days after sounding ground beneath the Arbella) a ‘thanksgiving.’ When the sailing season ended with all ships accounted for, ‘we had a day of thanksgiving in all the plantations.’ ”

There are numerous claims to the first official thanksgiving celebration in the New World. One of the earliest recorded festivals occurred a half-century before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. “A small colony of French Huguenots established a settlement near present-day Jacksonville, Florida,” Diana Karter Appelbaum writes in Thanksgiving: An American Holiday, An American History. “On June 30,1564, their leader, René de Laudonniére, recorded that ‘We sang a psalm of Thanksgiving unto God, beseeching Him that it would please Him to continue His accustomed goodness towards us.’ ”

In 1610, after a hard winter called “the starving time,” the colonists at Jamestown called for a time of thanksgiving. This was after the original company of 409 colonists had been reduced to 60 survivors. But extreme hardship did not deter the colonists from turning to God in gratitude. They prayed for help that finally arrived in the form of a ship filled with food and supplies from England. They then held a prayer service to give thanks.

While this thanksgiving celebration was not commemorated formally on a yearly basis, an annual commemoration was begun nine years later in another part of Virginia, according to Jim Dwyer in Strange Stories, Amazing Facts of America’s Past. “On December 4,1619, 38 colonists landed at a place they called Berkeley Hundred [in Virginia]. ‘We ordain,’ read an instruction in their charter, ‘that the day of our ship’s arrival … in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.’ ”

The best-known of the early thanksgiving celebrations took place in Plymouth following the harvest of 1621. Edward Winslow, in his important chronicle of the history of the Plymouth colony, How the Pilgrim Fathers Lived, reports the following eyewitness account of the colony’s thanksgiving celebration:

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so 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, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, among other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming among us, and among the rest 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 to the plantation, and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty” (emphasis added).

While none of these thanksgiving celebrations was the result of an official national pronouncement (no nation existed at the time), they were clearly religious and specifically Christian in their origin and purpose. Appelbaum writes: “Thanksgiving began as a holy day, created by a community of God-fearing Puritans sincere in their desire to set aside one day each year especially to thank the Lord for His many blessings. The day they chose, coming after the harvest at a time of year when farm work was light, fit the natural rhythm of rural life.”

The tradition of setting aside a time for thanksgiving was not broken even during the Civil War. At that time, thanksgiving was joined with a spirit of repentance. On Oct. 3,1863, President Lincoln declared that the last Thursday of November would be set aside as a nationwide celebration of thanksgiving. His proclamation stated:

“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, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.… 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 in November next as a day of Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in heaven.”

Following Lincoln, every U.S. president proclaimed that the last Thursday in November would be set aside for a national day of thanksgiving. However, Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 changed the celebration to the third Thursday in November to provide more shopping time between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Although Congress passed a resolution that the observance should fall on the fourth Thursday after 1941, the original meaning and intent of the Thanksgiving holiday has steadily been lost because of this pragmatic and commercial treatment.

The erosion of the original intent of Thanksgiving as it was practiced by the colonists and sanctioned by presidents and Congress can best be illustrated by the way some textbooks handle the subject. One elementary school social studies book has 30 pages of material on the Pilgrims, including the first celebration of thanksgiving. But there is not one word (or image) that refers to religion as even a part of the Pilgrims’ life. One mother whose son is in a class using this book wrote that he came home and told her that “Thanksgiving was when the Pilgrims gave thanks to the Indians.” The mother called the principal of his suburban New York City school to point out that Thanksgiving was when the Pilgrims thanked God. The principal responded by saying that was “her opinion” and that the schools could teach only what was found in the textbooks.

There is no doubt that these early Christian settlers thanked the Indians for their generosity in supplying venison to supplement the Pilgrims’ meager rations of parsnips, carrots, turnips, onions, radishes, and beets from their household gardens. But it is a matter of historical record, not just “opinion,” that thanksgiving ultimately was made to God. “Governor Bradford, with one eye on divine Providence, proclaimed a day of thanksgiving to God, and with the other eye on the local political situation, extended an invitation to neighboring Indians to share in the harvest feast.… This ‘first Thanksgiving’ was a feast called to suit the needs of the hour, which were to celebrate the harvest, thank the Lord for His goodness, and regale and impress the Indians,” Appelbaum notes.

Early celebrations of thanksgiving were expressions of deep gratitude to God for life itself. Many who partook of the bounty from God’s creation set before them were thankful just to be alive. How times have” changed in America.

Biting the Hand that Feeds Us

From Whom All Blessings Flow

Keep Reading Returning Thanks

From the November 2001 Issue
Nov 2001 Issue