Thanksgiving Day in America has a noble history of national pausing to give thanks to the Creator for His benefits. But the reverence and humility once associated with the custom has been considerably displaced by what is now truly important to our culture: pleasure (long weekend, football, feasting, shopping). Pleasure in and of itself is not evil, but when it becomes the summum bonum of a nation, watch out! The Governor of nations (PSA 22:28) still reigns on high. When warning imperial Babylon of its imminent demise, God said, “Therefore hear now this, thou that art GIVEN TO PLEASURES, that dwellest carelessly...” (ISA 47:8). It was during a careless, lavish, indulgent feast that Babylon was overthrown (DAN 5:1-31). Bible-readers are generally aware of the fiery judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah which ended their sexual filthiness (2PE 2:6-7; JUDE 1:7) but at the root of the debauchery of Sodom was “...pride, fulness of bread, and abundance of idleness...” (EZE 16:49). It was proud, affluent and had too much free time on its hands. Jesus in a parable said, “...Why stand ye here all the day idle?” (MAT 20:6). Scripture describes perilous times as being characterized (among other things) by the attitude, “...lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God” (2TI 3:4).
What seems to be now the most important aspect of Thanksgiving Day is that it marks the traditional beginning of the most critical time of year for frenzied consumerism climaxing in that most ignoble of “holy” days, Christmas. Considering how averse to God our country has become, it is clear that the primary reason such holidays have almost universal support is (as the idol-making silversmiths at Ephesus aptly put it) “...ye know that by this craft we have our wealth” (ACT 19:25). It has been wryly suggested that the retailers' favorite hymn between November and January is “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” The love of money remains the root of all evil (1TI 6:10), including hypocrisy.
But for many, Thanksgiving Day has rich roots in American tradition which hearken back to a simpler and more reverent era. Thankfully, the significance of that day is not entirely lost on all Americans but perhaps some historical review, and some practical and Scriptural exhortations are in order.
Since the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, men are no longer (and never again shall be) under the Old Testament dispensation of shadows and types with its many obligatory holy-days (holidays). These things were only temporary shadows of the reality of Jesus Christ and His work of salvation: they expired with the making of a New Testament (GAL 3:19-25; GAL 4:9-10; COL 2:14-17; HEB 9:9-12). For a Christian to set aside a personal time of thanksgiving is not wrong (ROM 14:5-6), nor would it be wrong to do so with countrymen as a matter of civic celebration. The Lord Jesus Christ visited a national celebration (Feast of Dedication, JOH 10:22-23) which was not ordained as a holy-day by Moses' Law but was a civic commemoration of the cleansing of the temple in the Second Century B.C.
A civil government which encourages its people in earnest thanksgiving to the true and only LORD God through the Lord Jesus Christ (by Whom ONLY supplications are acceptable, JOH 14:6; 1JO 2:23; ROM 7:25) does well. Its secular power is ordained of God (JOH 19:11) and it should acknowledge Him as the Source of all blessing, including the blessing of just, God-fearing government (the kind which it ought to be, 2SAM 23:3). When civil government is doing its God-given work of punishing evil-doers and praising them that do well (1PE 2:13-14), it thereby promotes righteousness, which exalts a nation (PRO 14:34). By contrast, “The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God” (PSA 9:17). How important is thankfulness to righteousness? Consider the wretched excesses, sexual immorality, carnality and violence to which the nations were turned over, as described in ROM 1:22-32. That slippery slope began with “...when they knew God, they glorified Him not as God, NEITHER WERE THANKFUL...” (ROM 1:21).
Throughout U.S. history, Congress has made various resolutions for a Day of Thanksgiving. Various presidents have issued Thanksgiving Day proclamations: Washington, Madison and Lincoln for example. Even though the vaunted “wall of separation between church and state” is now commonly invoked to inhibit religion in the public arena, federal authority continues to sanction Thanksgiving Day. Somehow, official encouragement to Americans to pause and thank God is not deemed a violation of the “separation” argument but permitting a prayer at a high-school graduation is deemed a gross breach. One could legitimately wonder whether this toleration of Thanksgiving Day is because the atheists, humanists and other antiChrist forces have not yet devised a way of purging Thanksgiving Day without undermining the sentimental and commercial value such a tradition represents. To vain men, God is useful only to the degree that He does not interfere with their carnality and is exploitable for political, commercial or entertainment purposes.
The recognition of a Day of Thanksgiving precedes the founding of our present form of government, as witness the proclamations made by the Continental Congress (1777), or the colonies in New Netherlands (1644), Connecticut (1639) and Massachusetts Bay (1630). Though there were other Thanksgiving celebrations that preceded it in the New World, it seems clear that the rootstock and model of the modern celebration is that of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Plantation immediately after their first harvest in 1621. To these humble (yea, humbled people, as their experience testifies) we owe much, not the least of which are models of a constitutional republic and a free-enterprise system (they tried a form of communism and it failed miserably) and Thanksgiving Day.
The Pilgrims were religious dissenters known first as “Old Comers.” They were later called “Pilgrims” after a manuscript was discovered wherein their leader, William Bradford, had so termed them. They were separatists who, like the Puritans in England, did not feel that the reforms of the Anglican Church had gone far enough. The Pilgrims deemed that the King of England had merely been substituted for the Pope as the head of the church, leaving in place a church-state hybrid. This meant oppression at the hands of the secular power for religious opinion that differed from the Anglican dogma, and this persecution over religious matters was the basis of their separation and seeking a fresh start. In these people breathed the sweet air of liberty, not just liberty from political tyranny, but liberty of soul and conscience.
One of the Pilgrims, Edward Winslow, later fell prey to church-state tyranny when he returned to England from the Plymouth Colony. It had been discovered that he had performed marriages in the Colony without being ordained and was imprisoned by William Laud, archbishop of Canterbury. Laud was notorious for using the Court of Star Chamber to try and to punish dissidents. He arrested and secretly imprisoned opponents of the King's policies without public trial and subjected them to such things as secretive hostile proceedings without witnesses, compelled testimonies, whippings, cutting off of ears and branding on the cheek. Such abuses of an individual's rights before the law were in mind when the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was written about 150 years later.
Whether the Pilgrims fully identified with the political objectives of Oliver Cromwell or other Puritans is a matter of conjecture. The Puritans seemed bent on purifying the Anglican Church; the Pilgrims wanted out of it. It seems that their primary reason for seeking a new country was to escape religious bigotry, assuming great risk for the opportunity to worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences. Unlike the many envoys and adventurers which preceded them under the banner of the Roman Church, they did not come to exploit the New World's natives or resources, but to (as they prayed), “...afflict ourselves before our God, to seek of Him a right way for us, and for our little ones, and for all our substance” (EZRA 8:21). An example of the Pilgrims' treatment of the Natives in the New World is seen from their execution of three Englishmen of their own colony who had murdered an Indian in 1638. The Natives were not only to be traded with; they had rights.
Dr. Paul Tan noted that the President of Argentina once said to the statistician, Roger Babson, “I have been wondering why it is that South America with all its natural advantages, its mines of iron, copper, coal, silver and gold; its rivers and great waterfalls which rival Niagara, is so far behind North America.” After short contemplation, he answered his own question, “I have come to this conclusion. South America was settled by the Spanish, who came to South America in search of gold; but North America was settled by the Pilgrim Fathers, who went there in search of God” (Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations, pp. 289-90). A fair summary, indeed. Some have postulated that the Pilgrims had aspirations of establishing a theocratic kingdom of God on earth in the New World, as did the later Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony which eventually swallowed up the Pilgrims' Plymouth Plantation in 1691. Equating the early Pilgrims' motivations with that of the Puritans, though, is an assumption which probably goes too far. It is virtually above suspicion that spiritual things, not carnal, were the Pilgrims' primary incentives for leaving Europe. An example of their motivations to forge an existence in the New World is recorded in Bradford's History of The Plymouth Settlement (p. 21), “...and of all sorrows most heavy to be borne, was that many of the children, influenced by these conditions, and the great licentiousness of the young people of the country, and the many temptations of the city, were led by example into dangerous courses...So they saw their posterity would be in danger to degenerate and become corrupt.” This referred to their twelve-year sojourn in the Netherlands (more on this below).
The Pilgrims were not even the first Europeans who came to America in search of religious freedom. In 1564, a colony of Huguenots (French Protestants) was established near what is now Jacksonville, Florida. But Catholic Spaniards established a base in 1565 (St. Augustine, Florida) and proceeded to wipe out the Huguenots because (in the words of their commander), “...they were scattering the odious Lutheran doctrine in these Provinces...” Historically, religious tolerance has not been Catholicism's strong suit. Nor, for that matter, were the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay exactly champions of religious liberty: they banished dissidents and hanged four Quakers between 1659-1661 who insisted on standing up for their beliefs.
When it comes to religious liberty and tolerance, voices other than either the Pilgrims or the Puritans spoke bravely and clearly. Roger Williams was one dissident within the Puritan community who disagreed with their Pedobaptist theology and he denied the right of magistrates to punish offenses of a purely religious character. He held that civil power should only concern itself with the second part of Moses' Law which addressed man's relationship to his fellows, not the first part which addressed man's relationship to God. For this he was banished to Rhode Island where he miraculously survived fourteen weeks of bitter wilderness wandering, eventually establishing a colony and a Baptist church (circa 1639), at the place he appropriately named Providence. “Bancroft, the historian of the United States, declares that the first instance, in the history of the world, of the establishment of a civil government whose corner-stone was absolute soul-liberty was the little Baptist colony of Rhode Island...” (Church History, C.B. & S. Hassell, p. 296). Williams also learned the Narraganset Indian language and established fair and favorable trade relations with the natives.
Other Baptists also stood strongly for soul-liberty and against state-established religion which breeds tyranny and denies basic human rights to those outside of its system. Isaac Backus, a Baptist preacher of the American Revolution era, argued against, “A conceit that religion gives the subjects of it, a right of dominion over the persons and properties of others. Which is as contrary to the laws of Christ, as darkness is to light; and is the evil that all contention comes from. Prov. 13.10. This moved such as called themselves Christians in Europe, to claim the property of infidels in America; from the poison thereof we are not yet thoroughly purged...If any enquire how tyranny, simony, and robbery came to be introduced, and to be practiced so long, under the Christian name? The answer is plain, from the word of truth. It was by deceitful reasonings from the hand-writings which Christ blotted out, and nailed to his cross. Col. 2.8, 14. In those writings direction was given to Israel, to seize the lands and goods of heathens, to make slaves of them; and in other respects, to make a visible distinction in their dealing betwixt their own brethren and all others. A high priest was also set up at the head of their worship, who, with his family, were to have the whole direction thereof; and at whose sentence unclean persons were to be excluded from their camp; unclean houses pulled down and removed; and who had power to turn even a king out of the temple. And who can describe all the superstition, blind devotion and church-tyranny, that have been brought in by deceitful reasonings from thence.” (Policy, As Well As Honesty, Forbids The Use Of Secular Force In Religious Affairs, Isaac Backus, 1779, pp. 4-7).
Another clear Baptist voice for liberty was a contemporary of Backus, Elder John Leland. He “...helped to found several Baptist congregations in Connecticut, to which President Jefferson later wrote his famous letter to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut in 1802 regarding religious freedom.” (Wikipedia). In 1802, he was invited to preach to Congress and President Jefferson on religious liberty. In his Right of Conscience Inalienable, he stated, “Truth disdains the aid of the law for its defense---it will stand upon its own merits...Every man must give account of himself to God, and therefore every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in a way that he can best reconcile to his conscience. If government can answer for individuals at the day of judgment, let men be controlled by it in religious matters; otherwise, let men be free.”
There were other such voices from varied segments of society but let us return to the Pilgrims.
The Pilgrims left England in 1608 for the more tolerant lands of Holland, where they labored industriously until, after trial and disappointment, they secured a patent from the Virginia Company of London. Their first vessel, the Speedwell, launched but returned home shortly thereafter with a belly full of water and was declared unseaworthy but the Pilgrims eventually set sail on the Mayflower. The Mayflower was a “sweet ship,” so called because of residues in her wood from the wine trade in which she had been employed. But any sweetness was overcome by the two months the Pilgrims endured in the dimly lit, unventilated recesses of the damp gun deck, surviving on what could only charitably be called “food.” No one could bathe or change their clothes for the entire trip. Some of the ship's crew added to their affliction by verbal harassment. One particularly obnoxious tormentor took great delight in calling them, “psalmsinging puke-stockings” and prophesied that he would soon be feeding them to the fish. “But it pleased God, before they came half seas over, to smite the young man with a grievous disease, of which he died in a desperate manner, and so was himself the first to be thrown overboard (Bradford's History of The Plymouth Settlement, p. 62). This calls to mind what Paul wrote the persecuted Thessalonian saints: “Seeing it is a righteous thing with God to recompense tribulation to them that trouble you” (2TH 1:6).
At last, land was sighted on November 9th, 1620 (Julian calendar), not the shores of more moderate Virginia but the colder and less forgiving Highlands of Cape Cod. Before any disembarking, the company on the Mayflower drew up the novel Mayflower Compact, of which it has been observed that this constituted the first time in recorded history when free men had voluntarily covenanted together to formulate their own civil government. Thus were the seeds sown in the New World of government of, by and for the people, producing ripe fruit years later as the Constitutional Republic of the United States of America.
After a few explorations of the area which proved the natives and elements less than receptive, they removed to find good harbor at Plymouth Rock. But in the week that it took to dispatch all goods and passengers from the Mayflower as it anchored in deeper waters, future colony governor William Bradford's wife “fell” overboard and drowned, possibly a suicide brought on by fits of depression. In time, 99 of the original 102 went ashore, and began to undergo the most miserable of fortunes: hunger, privations, sickness and death. Before a year passed, only half of them remained alive.
The expected threat of Indian attack strangely did not materialize, though. It was later found that the fierce, ruthless Patuxet Indians who once dwelt where the Pilgrims landed had been wiped out by plague in 1617. In the middle of March of 1621, an Indian who had been watching the Pilgrims walked boldly into their camp. He said, “Welcome...Have you got any beer?” Funny, but apparently true. Samoset was an Abenaki sagamore (subordinate chief) who previously had interaction with English vessels and learned English in the process. He told the Pilgrims that the Wampanoags were the nearest Indian nation, about forty miles distant. Their chief, Massasoit, would be very honored to establish peaceful relations with the people of the Great White Spirit. Soon thereafter, a somewhat apprehensive parlay was arranged with Massasoit, who came in full regalia with a company of some sixty painted warriors. With them was the last surviving Patuxet Indian, named Tisquantum (Squanto), who spoke excellent English and served as interpreter. Fifteen years earlier, Squanto had been providentially befriended by an English explorer, Captain John Weymouth, who took him to England. Upon his return, Squanto was kidnapped and sold as a slave to the Spanish in the Caribbeans. There, a priest befriended him and helped him to Spain from where he eventually got to England, met Samoset and returned to Patuxet to find it devastated. Though he had been misused, Squanto had developed an appreciation for the English and an affection for the Lord Jesus Christ, being baptized in His name.
A six-point peace treaty which lasted for many decades was hammered out between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags. Squanto then remained with the Pilgrims and taught them invaluable skills for survival in this new frontier. Fever took him in September of 1622; he died longing to see the Englishman's God in Heaven. But in the fall of 1621, after a bountiful harvest for which Squanto's industry was greatly responsible, Governor Bradford declared a day of Thanksgiving to God. It was enjoyed by Indian and Pilgrim alike, Chief Massasoit bringing ninety of his people and also supplying a substantial portion of the repast.
In researching for this essay a few years ago, I came across information which was shedding new “light” on Thanksgiving Day for public schoolchildren. The spin doctors were doing a marvelous job of revising this history to make it more politically correct. To sum it up, the real protagonists during the Colonial Period were the native Indians. The Indians were generally peaceful, harmless, flower-loving natives who lived in harmony with nature and one another. The antagonists were the profiteering Europeans (especially the English) whose ambitions were to pillage, plunder and exploit the New World and to tolerate the Indians only until they had the upper hand, deceiving them at every turn. It cannot be denied that there were mistakes, abuses, broken treaties and other shameful things that blackened Colonial and Constitutional relations with Indians. Such injustices are not acceptable. But to paint all settlers with the same brush is equally wrong.
One of the most unacceptable things the Pilgrims did, according to one revised public school Thanksgiving Story was, “The Pilgrims started telling their Indian neighbors that their Indian religion and Indian customs were wrong.” Apparently, challenging men's vain imaginations and their often inhuman superstitions with sound doctrine, reason and hope is deemed in our enlightened age of tolerance as intolerable. The article closes, “But today we work toward a better America, a more Indian America where people and nature once again are important.” But a Biblical worldview has always deemed people and nature to be important, except that nature is subordinate to man and neither of them should be worshipped practically or in principle. The Pilgrims even established conservation law for responsible use of natural resources.
Noble reader, there may be some things that European Christians did that were not beneficial for the Indians but converting them to Jesus Christ was not one of them. The “peaceful, harmonious, harmless” New World Indians could also be bloodthirsty savages at war with and enslaving other tribes. Their religions were hardly harmless when you consider the human sacrifice that was demanded by the thousands regularly by the Aztecs or Mayas, for example. The Mississippian Cultures and the Pawnee were known to sacrifice young women to appease their “harmless” nature spirits or to honor some great leader. One should read the account of the first contact made with the Tsimshian Indians of the Pacific Northwest, when Mcdougall watched tribal members chase down one of their own women, carve her up while still alive and ingest her hot flesh while she screamed. And, these are not simply isolated exceptions. For many of the New World Indians, even an errant form of Christianity would have been a step in the right direction away from this devilish horror.
To the secular academics of today, a truly great evil was the fact that Europeans moved in and took away the historic homeland of the natives who dwelt here. But it may be observed that conquest of other lands is a phenomenon virtually as old as human history itself. Furthermore, it is extremely unlikely that the seizure of a people's historic homeland was a concept introduced by the Europeans to a native people who were themselves completely ignorant of it.
Returning to the Pilgrims' experience, consider the heart of these people who had only recently seen the stormy clouds of trouble roll back from their lives. This first Thanksgiving Day was close on the heels of some of the most bitter times that try men's souls, yet they fretted not against God. Their attitude was, “...What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?...” (JOB 2:10). Thanksgiving is not meant only for times of ease and prosperity. “In EVERYTHING give thanks...” (1TH 5:18). How easy it is to bless and thank God when He is giving but can we do the same when “...the Lord hath taken away...” (JOB 1:21)? For every person who is sure he has Christ there is always something to be thankful for even if all creature comforts dissolve: “Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: Yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation” (HAB 3:17-18).
The Pilgrims' attitude sets in sharp relief that of the modern American who on Thanksgiving Day curses God because his cable company is not delivering a decent broadcast of the big game. How far as a nation we have deteriorated, allowing our prosperity and (sadly) even our liberty to diminish us. The Puritan preacher, Cotton Mather, observed, “Religion begat prosperity, and the daughter hath devoured the mother.” The writer and historian, Will Durant, wisely noted, “When liberty destroys order, the hunger for order will destroy liberty.” Men are only truly free when they are not enslaved to lusts, and a people that will not govern their own lusts stand to lose their liberty to those who will do it for them by force. Benjamin Franklin noted, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”
Be thankful, Christian, that a merciful God has seen fit to preserve faith in the earth and, though faith be in short supply at His coming, He shall certainly avenge the faithful (LUK 18:7-8). Be thankful for having a part in it. Be thankful for the innumerable blessings that God has given, both spiritual and material. Be thankful that it is as well with you as it is. Though it be a test of your faith, be thankful always, even for your civil government which is too often opposing true religion, for so are we commanded (1TI 2:1-3). Give thanks also that God overrules all governments, saying to the proud waves of the wicked, “...Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further...” (JOB 38:11) and, “Surely the wrath of man shall praise thee: the remainder of wrath shalt thou restrain” (PSA 76:10). Above all, “Thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift” (2CO 9:15): Jesus Christ, Whose shed blood, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, saving grace, and coming glory are cause for rejoicing “...with joy unspeakable and full of glory” (1PE 1:8).