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Biblical Roots of America's Thanksgiving Holiday

If we ask people to name our nation's religious holiday's, almost all Christians and a large number of non-Christians will usually name Christmas and Easter.  Yet, very few non-Christians, and even many Christians fail to include Thanksgiving on this list.   Therefore, the purpose of this article is to demonstrate that the foundation for America's Thanksgiving holiday can be found in the Bible.  Along the way, we'll take a brief historical survey of Christianity in England, examine the Biblical basis for the Pilgrim's Thanksgiving celebrations, and explore the connection between our American Thanksgiving and the Hebrew festival of Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles).

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Introduction - Biblical Directives

While I'm writing this, many people are celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday with friends and family.  Yet, with Christmas decorations filling many retail stores for the past few weeks or even months, Black Friday beginning earlier each year, the resulting shoppers brawls, and the general hustle and bustle of the season, it’s relatively easy to overlook our Thanksgiving holiday.  By doing this however, we make light of an important holiday that has its roots in the Bible.

As many of our readers are aware, the secular revisionist historians have been very busy in their attempt to scrub any references to God and Christianity from our society, and the Biblical connections to Thanksgiving are no exception.  Thus I decided to write this article about some of the beliefs and events that helped establish the holiday.  We begin with the many directives throughout the Bible to give thanks or to have a thankful heart (eg Eph 5:20, 1Th 5:18).  Although the Book of the Psalms is permeated with expressions and exhortations of thanksgiving, only the 100th Psalm carries the subtitle “A Psalm for Giving Thanks”.  Many Bible readers treat these subtitles as supplementary to the Bible text, as if later added by a scribe.  These subtitles however, are found in the oldest known Hebrew manuscripts, so should be accredited the same level of inspiration and authority as the other text.

Psalms 100 reads:

Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth.
Worship the LORD with gladness;
come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the LORD is God.
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise;
give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the LORD is good and his love endures forever;
his faithfulness continues through all generations.

The observance of our American Thanksgiving can be traced back to the celebrations by the Pilgrims as an expression of thanksgiving to God for their survival in the early 1620s.  Most secular historians claim that the Pilgrims were expressing thanks to the American Indians, but a brief examination of Pilgrim history will show otherwise.

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Brief History of Christianity in England

Parts of England, the Pilgrims’ country of origin, were distinctively Christian from the fifth century.  St Patrick drafted the Liber Ex Lege Moisi (Book of the Law of Moses) that became known as the Code of Laws that applied Biblical Law to the Civil Laws in Ireland.  All of England was united near the end of the ninth century under Alfred the Great, who instituted Christian reforms and a common law based upon Patrick’s code, the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, and other Biblical laws.

Christianity was forced underground, after the Norman Conquest led by William the Conqueror in 1066, severely restricted the rights of the people.  Some forms of the common law returned in 1215 with the reluctant signing of the Magna Carta by King John.  This document was supported by the English Catholic Church but opposed by the Pope due to its Celtic origins.

Christian persecution returned in a vengeance in the sixteenth century under such leaders as Henry VIII and Mary Tudor (bloody Mary).  Minor relief came under Queen Elizabeth, but was short-lived as the Scottish King James crowned himself King of England in 1603 and promised to banish from the land anyone who opposed him.  The Separatists (from whom the Pilgrims originated) were his primary target.  The Pilgrims made their way to the Netherlands where they resided for about 12 years before sailing to America in 1620.

[Most of what we know about the Pilgrims comes from the journal of William Bradford, originally titled Of Plimoth Plantation (“Plimoth” later changed to “Plymouth” in the title), that covered the first 35 years or so of the Pilgrims’ experiences in America.  Bradford was the first Governor of the Plymouth Colony.  Some additional information is courtesy of the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, MA.  Their website contains some excellent historical information about both Thanksgiving and Pilgrim history.]

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England’s Thanksgiving Celebrations

During the time the Pilgrims were living in England, there were multiple types of celebrations that were typically observed, even some that were secular.  As a later example, King William and Queen Mary proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving in 1691 to celebrate England’s victory over the French.  This practice was probably similar to America's Armistice Day that commemorates the signing of the agreement to end fighting of the First World War on November 11, 1918; although this particular British celebration appears to be a one time event, while the Armistice Day celebration was repeated annually, and later became Veterans Day.

The traditions that undoubtedly influenced the Pilgrims due to their high regard for Scripture however, were those that were purely or primarily religious.  Many of these events were simply days of prayer, often spent in church with no accompanying feasts, recreation, or entertainments.  These occasions were often called by a religious leader as a day of prayer, fasting and soul searching during a time of adversity (drought, disease, etc).  A day of thanksgiving was then called after the adversity had passed.  A similar thanksgiving was also proclaimed after the annual fall harvest to thank God for his continued life-sustaining provision.

The first Pilgrim celebration in America (1621) was a harvest festival.  Many secular historians argue that, since there was no official proclamation, the celebration was intended to be a one-time event.  We believe that, although the Pilgrims’ original intention may not have been to specifically establish an “official” annual holiday, the celebration and thanking God each fall for the annual harvest was deeply engrained in their beliefs and traditions.  In fact, just two years later on November 29, 1623, Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford made an official proclamation for a Day of Thanksgiving:

All ye Pilgrims:

In as much as the great Father has given us this year an abundant harvest of Indian corn, wheat, peas, beans, squashes, and garden vegetable, and has made the forests to abound with game and the sea with fish and clams, and inasmuch as he has protected us from the ravages of the savages, has spared us from pestilence and disease, has granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience;

now I, your magistrate, do proclaim that all ye Pilgrims, with your wives and little ones, do gather at the meeting house, on the hill, between the hours of 9 and 12 in the day time, on Thursday, November the 29th, of the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred and twenty-three, and the third year since ye Pilgrims landed on Pilgrim Rock, there to listen to the pastor and render thanksgiving to the Almighty God for all His blessings.  - William Bradford, Governor of the Colony. (History of Plymouth Plantation 1608-1650 - Massachuetts History Society, 1856 - English modernized)

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, these same historians also contend that the celebrations were strictly secular, but we have a journal known as Mourt’s Relation (London: 1622) that describes many of the festivities such as gathering the fruit of their labors (fowl, deer), entertaining, and feasting with their Indian guests for three days.  “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” (spelling modernized).  We know that the Pilgrims’ spiritual beliefs dominated all spheres of their lives.  They uprooted themselves from England and the Netherlands to brave the unknowns of the New World in order to avoid compromising their Christian principles.  It is unthinkable that they would not express thankfulness to God for graciously providing for their very survival.

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America’s Thanksgiving Connections to Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles)

We’ve already stated that America’s Thanksgiving Holiday is based upon the Pilgrim celebrations.  It is widely held that the Pilgrims modeled their celebrations on the Hebrew fall festival of  Sukkot (aka “Feast of Tabernacles” and a host of other names).  The Jews originally celebrated Sukkot to commemorate God’s gracious provision during their years of wanderings in the wilderness after being freed from slavery in Egypt.  After Israel entered the Promised Land, Sukkot became associated with the annual fall harvest and additional customs were incorporated into the observance of the festival.

As people of the Book, the Pilgrims would have been intimately familiar with the Biblical Hebrew Scriptures and their traditions.  Throughout his journal, Governor Bradford dated events based upon the Jewish calendar that begins with Passover (our March or April).  He also identifies the Pilgrim celebration as a day to give thanks to God for the fall harvest (like Sukkot).

Yet, like the wilderness wanderings of the Jews, the Pilgrims would also have been thankful for God’s providence and protection during their wanderings at sea.  To begin with, not a single Pilgrim died on the voyage from Europe.  This fact alone could be considered miraculous during this time period, especially with the many severe storms that they encountered.  Then as they approached their patented destination of Virginia, a southern wind prevented their landing and forced them north to Cape Cod.  Unknown to the Pilgrims, practically the entire east coast of the new land was inhabited by unfriendly and well-armed Indian tribes except at Cape Cod where a plague had wiped out the Patuxet tribe three years before (1617 AD). Yet, back in 1605, Captain George Weymouth had taken a few members of the tribe back to England, where one of them learned English and eventually returned to New England and lived with another tribe.  His name was Squanto, and he would befriend the Pilgrims and teach them farming techniques that helped lead to abundant crops and the first Thanksgiving celebration.  Gov Bradford would write that Squanto “was a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation.”  Thus the Pilgrims could thank God that He not only guided them to the only location along the coast where they could survive, but He also provided a bountiful harvest.

So, it’s no surprise that, since our American Thanksgiving derives much of its customs from the Pilgrim celebrations, our holiday also shares many similarities with Sukkot.  Both are fall feasts and Harvest festivals.  This year (Anno Domini year 2014, Jewish Year 5775), Sukkot was held from sunset on October 8 to sunset on October 15 (the Jewish day begins at sunset of the night before).  Like the Pilgrims and Israelites did with their festivals, Christians in America celebrate Thanksgiving as a holiday (the word “holiday” derives from “holy day”) to commemorate and give thanks for God’s gracious provision throughout the year.

Americans often decorate for Thanksgiving with various types of indoor and outdoor decor consisting of fall wreaths, fruit and/or gourd arrangements, decorative fall leaves and flowers, artwork etc . During Sukkot, Jews live in their own constructed sukkah (booth).   Sukkot is the plural (booths) and the holiday is also known as the “Festival of Booths”, referring to the temporary shelters or “booths” that housed each Israelite family during the wanderings.  These homemade booths are often covered by limbs with fall leaves and decorated with locally grown fruits and vegetables.  It’s also common for the Jews to hang artwork drawn by their children on the wall (building the sukkah is a family project like most Thanksgiving activities).  In fact, many Americans, upon seeing a decorated sukkah for the first time, remark with surprise about how much the sukkah (both the structure and the related activities) reminds them of Thanksgiving.

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Final Thoughts

We’ve now seen why it’s important to honor Thanksgiving just as we do other Christian holidays.  Take some time to thank God for all the blessings that He has lovingly bestowed on us.  The Bible tells us to give thanks in all circumstances (1Th 5:18).  This is not always easy in many situations, but notice that it says to give thanks “in” all circumstances rather than “for” all circumstances.  No matter how deep our valleys, we should find something to be thankful for, and we should not just settle for a generic “thanks for all the good things”, but name specific blessings.  I find that if I can just think of one or two specific things, others continue to roll off my tongue.

There’s an old hymn entitled Count Your Blessings that illustrates this principle exquisitely.  It was written by Johnson Oatman Jr and published by Edwin Excell (who also wrote the music) in 1897.  It quickly became popular and was sung almost daily during the great Welsh revival of the following decade.  We also sang it quite often as I was growing up in a small country town.  I can’t think of a better way to close this article than with a couple of stanzas and the chorus of this classic hymn.

When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.

When you look at others with their lands and gold,
Think that Christ has promised you His wealth untold;
Count your many blessings. Wealth can never buy
Your reward in heaven, nor your home on high.

Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your blessings, see what God hath done!
Count your blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.

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