Thanksgiving: 400 Years Later

Americans today are used to thinking of Thanksgiving as a national holiday, but it was not always that way. During the years following the Pilgrims’ feast in 1621, the holiday was celebrated primarily in New England, with other regions exhibiting limited or no interest. In 1789, the houses of Congress met in joint committee and asked President George Washington to set aside a day of thanksgiving…

“…to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful heart the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of Government for their safety and happiness.”

General Washington quickly agreed and selected Thursday, November 26, 1789, a day of public thanksgiving. This was the first national Thanksgiving Day proclamation under the Constitution. Washington’s declaration eloquently recommended to the people that they thank “that great and glorious Being,” “the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be,” and “the great Lord and Ruler of Nations” whose “favorable interpositions of his Providence” brought victory, independence, freedom of religion, and national unity.

Washington did not mention the Pilgrims. Also, it is important to see that the word recommend was used by Congress. There had been previous attempts to have a national day of thanks, but the issue was divisive. Some people thought that the president’s recommendation was an intrusion by the state into the ministry of the church, and in some cases, opponents contended that the government was ordaining a day of worship not commanded by God’s Word.

A Regional Day

Within a few years, the Federal Government referred Thanksgiving celebration to the discretion of the states. The succession of presidents after Washington made their own proclamations for days of thanks, as did the state governors. Dates for celebration varied as the holiday worked its way into other areas of the country. For example, a man writing from New Jersey, Thursday, December 3, 1840, told a friend back home his experience.

“This is thanksgiving day in New Jersey, a thing with which (& I think unfortunately) we are unacquainted with in Pennsylvania. It is observed all over New England and has been from time immemorial. Turkeys and pumpkin pies are consumed by any quantity. Every family must have at least one turkey and as much pumpkin pie as would give forty men the dyspepsia [indigestion], and when at last the joyful day arrives, all the shops are abandoned, the stores and places of business shut up, and then the whole people give themselves up to unrestrained joyousness and festivity. It is a custom handed down from former times and a beautiful one I think that on this day, all the members of a family who are scattered about, if possible, will meet at the paternal fireside, and once more summon a father’s board [food], and remember the sweet and beautiful days of youthful union and joy, when the fireside circle was unbroken, and the family board [table] full. The old patriarch can then on this day take his seat once more at the head of his table and look at the full circle of his descendants before him fattened to its fatness. I think the custom a beautiful one. A sermon is always preached at the usual hour for public worship, and after preaching all hurry home and sit down to a table groaning under all the delicacies of the country that can be procured, and the remainder of the day is spent in joyous relaxation and social intercourse [conversation]. So much for thanksgiving—”

With the archaisms updated—and the addition of travel congestion and football—this paragraph could describe Thanksgiving today. Why the celebration was on the first Thursday of December, instead of the last in November, is not noted, but it shows variation in practice from one place to another. We also see that there was a religious aspect to the day, because it began with worship. Interestingly, the writer (a resident of western Pennsylvania) shares that this celebration is unknown and unobserved back home. Note there is no mention of Pilgrims, nor of President Washington and his declaration; the writer emphasized worshipping God, food, and family aspects of the day.

A National Day

As the day of thanks spread from New England, people increasingly promoted a day of national thanksgiving. Wars tend to turn people’s thoughts to life, death, and God—and the Civil War was no exception. After key victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, President Lincoln declared on October 3, 1863, that “the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.” The emphasis of his proclamation was to remember “the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God” and Union victories, with the hope that North and South would be reunited. Lincoln, as Washington, made no mention of the Pilgrims.

After the war, celebration of Thanksgiving continued to prove controversial. President Lincoln’s enactment had little influence in the former Confederacy or the West. The holiday became more common in the years leading up to Franklin D. Roosevelt, with increasing emphasis on family gatherings and the celebration of prosperous harvests in a time of American history when the land was the breadbasket of the world. When Roosevelt was inaugurated for his first term in 1933, Thanksgiving was on November 30 per Lincoln’s stipulation of the last Thursday of the month. However, that year there were five Thursdays resulting in the late Thanksgiving shortening the Christmas buying season. Despite requests from retailers to move the celebration to the fourth Thursday, the change was not made. When 1939 rolled around during Roosevelt’s second term, the day again fell on November 30, but this time the president gave in and moved Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday of November, which continues the current practice.

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The point of this brief historical survey is there has not been a continuous, annually celebrated feast of harvest and prosperity extending from 1621 to 2021. As the Pilgrims continued to thank God for blessings after 1621, Thanksgiving was woven into New England life and grew to become a national practice.

How does Thanksgiving today relate to the one celebrated by the Pilgrims in 1621?

A Heavy Day

The winter of 1621 was horrendous for the passengers and crew of the Mayflower. William Bradford’s manuscript history of Plymouth was written several years after the early events at the plantation, but it provides a first-hand account. In addition to the Pilgrims, the ship carried a large group of “Strangers,” colonists who did not share the Pilgrims’ religious convictions. The term “Stranger” was taken from Scripture, describing those who live temporarily or permanently among God’s people (cf. Exodus 12). One aspect of God’s Covenant is that Strangers were to be treated justly and fairly. Strangers benefitted from some aspects of the Covenant, even if they never joined with Ruth the Moabitess and declared Israel’s God to be their own. The Strangers at Plymouth not only benefitted from blessings to the Pilgrims, but also were bound with them by the Mayflower Compact in “a Civil Body Politic” for “the general good of the Colony.”

The winter of 1621 put the Compact to the test. Close-quarter living, combined with diseases and a limited food supply, caused division among the settlers, and claimed many lives. Bradford wrote

“But that which was most sad and lamentable was, that in two or three-months’ time half of their company died, especially in January and February, being the depth of winter, and wanting houses and other comforts; being infected  with the scurvy and other diseases, which this long voyage and their inacomodate condition had brought upon them; so as there died sometimes two or three a day, in the aforesaid time; that of 100 and odd persons, scarce 50 remained. And of these in the time of most distress, there was but six or seven sound persons, who, to their great commendations be it spoken, spared no pains, night nor day, but with abundance of toil and hazard of their own health, fetched them wood, made them fires, dressed them meat, made their beds, washed their loathsome clothes, clothed and unclothed them; in a word, did all the homely and necessary offices for them which dainty and queasy stomachs cannot endure to hear named; and all this willingly and cheerfully, without any grudging in the least, shewing herein their true love unto their friends and brethren. A rare example and worthy to be remembered. Two of these seven were Mr. William Brewster, their reverend Elder, and Myles Standish, their Captain and military commander, unto whom myself, and many others, were much beholden in our low and sick condition. And yet the Lord so upheld these persons, as in this general calamity they were not at all infected either with sickness, or lameness. And what I have said of these, I may say of many others who died in this general visitation, and others yet living, that whilst they had health, yea, or any strength continuing, they were not wanting to any that had need of them. And I doubt not but their recompence is with the Lord.

But I may not here pass by another remarkable passage not to be forgotten. As this calamity fell among the passengers that were to be left here to plant, and were hasted ashore and made to drink water, that the seamen might have the more beer, and one [William Bradford] in his sickness desiring but a small can [vessel] of beer, it was answered, that if he were their own father he should have none; the disease began to fall amongst them also, so as almost half of their company died before they went away, and many of their officers and lustiest men, as the boatswain, gunner, three quartermasters, the cook, and others. At which the Master was something stricken and sent to the sick ashore and told the Governor he should send for beer for them that had need of it, though he drunk water homeward bound. But now amongst his company there was far another kind of carriage [conduct] in this misery then amongst the passengers; for they that before had been boon companions in drinking and jollity in the time of their health and welfare, began now to desert one another in this calamity saying, they would not hazard their lives for them, they should be infected by coming to help them in their cabins, and so, after they came to lie by it, would do little or nothing for them, but if they died let them die. But such of the passengers as were yet abord shewed them what mercy they could, which made some of their hearts relent, as the boatswain (and some others), who was a proud young man, and would often curse and scoff at the passengers; but when he grew weak, they had compassion on him, and helped him; then he confessed he did not deserve it at their hands, he had abused them in word and deed. 'Oh,' (saith he), 'you, I now see, show your love like Christians indeed one to another, but we let one another lay and die like dogs.' Another lay cursing his wife, saying if it had not been for her, he had never come this unlucky voyage, and anon cursing his fellows, saying he had done this and that, for some of them; he had spent so much and so much amongst them, and they were now weary of him, and did not help him, having need. Another gave his companion all he had, if he died, to help him in his weakness; he went and got a little spice and made him a mess of meat once or twice, and because he died not so soon as he expected, he went amongst his fellows, and swore the rogue would cozen [cheat] him, he would see him choked before he made him any more meat; and yet the pore fellow died before morning.”

It is a hard heart that is not saddened by this tragic account of Plymouth’s first winter. Among the Pilgrims and Strangers, there was 50% mortality within about three months, and the crew suffered similar mortality sufficient to make Mayflower’s return voyage to England difficult due to a shortage of hands on deck when it sailed in April. Morrison notes that of the deceased colonists, only 12 of the original 26 heads of family and 4 of the original 12 single males were left. The women suffered the most; nearly all died.

Bradford’s account is sobering. Brewster, Standish, and others manifested concern for those suffering, whether Pilgrims, crew, or Strangers. Yet while some labored to help the sick, others sought to save themselves. Beer was not a luxury, but a necessity due to the antiseptic quality of its alcohol—and the crew of the Mayflower hoarded it for themselves, hurrying the Pilgrims and Strangers off the ship to their new inhospitable home. The problems of winter would only become further complicated when the common house burned down, forcing the colonists to seek other shelter. The situation is dismal as the winter of 1620-21 turns to spring. Is there any hope?

A Happy Day

Their hope was in the Sovereign King of creation, the God who would not give a stone when bread is requested, nor a snake when fish is desired (Matthew 7:9, 10). A portion of God’s answer came from a source not likely anticipated by the settlers. The colonists became acquainted with Massasoit, the great sachem (leader) of the Wampanoag federation, along with Samoset and Squanto, and dearly valued their aid. For some time the settlers’ relationship with the Native Americans had been at a distance; both groups were curious, but reluctant to make contact. Once contact was made and trust developed, the Natives were a help to the settlers, and they enjoyed good relations. The Lord answered their prayers and gave them good weather for an abundant harvest. From the darkest days of winter to the blessings given by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Lord fulfilled his Covenant promise: “them that bless you, I will bless, and curses him that curses you” (Genesis 12:3).

William Bradford’s account of the bounty is brief.

“They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides they had about a peck of meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.”

One of those who wrote “so largely of their plenty” was Edward Winslow, who would eventually succeed Bradford as governor of Plymouth.

“You shall understand that in this little time that a few of us have been here, we have built seven dwelling-houses and four for the use of the plantation, and have made preparation for divers others. We set the last spring some twenty acres of Indian corn, and sowed some six acres of barley and peas; and according to the manner of the Indians, we manured [fertilized] our ground with herrings, or rather shads, which we have in great abundance, and take with great ease at our doors. Our corn did prove well; and, God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown. They came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom.

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 besides, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms [shooting practice], many of the Indians coming amongst 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.”

The precise date of this three-day feast is not known, but if it happened to begin on a Thursday, and that knowledge was passed down to Washington’s day, then the three-day feast would have transitioned into a Sabbath for worship. The Sabbath was the day the Covenant Pilgrims gratefully worshiped God. Strangers and Natives were welcome, gathering as co-residents of the Pilgrims.

A Thankful Day

We all know it is good to be thankful—but we do not always remember to thank God for his blessings. The Pilgrims went through several hard months at Plymouth, but when autumn arrived they could look back at what transpired and be thankful in godliness and contentment. Instead of thanking God for what he has graciously done (1 Timothy 6:8), the tendency might be to ask for more. God enjoys hearing our requests, but they need to be appropriate and commensurate with the teaching of Scripture. We must not pray amiss (James 4:3). A word that occurs often in Scripture is remember. We need to remember the Lord’s grace not only during the good times, but the bad as well. And so, as we approach Thanksgiving this year, consider counting your blessings, writing them out or typing them up on your phone as they come to mind each day.

The last few years have been dominated by the pandemic, volcanoes, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, and raging fires, with many households suffering the loss of family members and property. Yet even in the difficulties of life, the Christian enjoys blessings from God. Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; His loving kindness endures forever (1 Chronicles 16:34).

Barry Waugh (PhD, WTS) is the editor of Presbyterians of the Past. He has written for various periodicals, such as the Westminster Theological Journal and The Confessional Presbyterian. He has also contributed to Gary L. W. Johnson’s, B. B. Warfield: Essays on His Life and Thought (2007) and edited Letters from the Front: J. Gresham Machen’s Correspondence from World War I (2012). 

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"Pilgrims and Plymouth: 400 Years Later" by Barry Waugh

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Persistent Prayer by Guy Richard


George Washington’s declaration is transcribed alongside an image of his original manuscript on the Library of Congress website under the title, “George Washington, October 3, 1789, Thanksgiving.” Abraham Lincoln’s declaration is available from the National Archives as both a transcription and image under the title, “President Abraham Lincoln's Thanksgiving Day Proclamation of October 3, 1863 (Presidential Proclamation 106).” Regarding President Roosevelt’s adjustment of Thanksgiving see, “Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Thanksgiving Proclamation,” on the site of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum; note the URL may be temporary, so you might have to search. The version of Bradford’s book used for this article was edited by Samuel Eliot Morrison and published in New York by Alfred A. Knopf, 1952 with pressings up to 1993. Morrison’s is the finest popular but scholarly copy of Bradford. Readers with historiographic interests would benefit from reading Morrison’s introduction, pages xxiii-xliii, which explains the complex and time intensive work scholars expend transcribing antiquarian publications accurately for the modern reader while remaining faithful to the author’s intent. If Morrison’s book cannot be accessed, the same events are available in the editions by the Massachusetts Historical Society, 1856, and a two-volume version published in 1912. The letter by Edward Winslow sent from New England, December 11, 1621, to George Morton in England is from pages 230-31 of Alexander Young’s Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers of the Colony of Plymouth, from 1602-1625, Boston: C. C. Little and J. Brown, 1841. There are several websites and pages with information about the Pilgrims and Plymouth, but reliable information is best found on historical society, university, or government sites, as well as some of the many publications available online issued by competent publishers.

Barry Waugh