the Religious Roots of Thanksgiving
November - December 2001
An exhibit by Peggy M. Baker, Director & Librarian, Pilgrim Society
Sponsored by Adelphia
The Thanksgiving we celebrate today is a combination of two very different New England traditions: the purely religious day of thankful prayer and the harvest feast. The harvest feast is still with us and so, in subtler ways, is the religious spirit.
The Sabbath, days of fasting and days of thanksgiving were the only religious holy days celebrated by the Pilgrims. A religious day of thanksgiving would be called only after the community had benefited from a single significant act of Divine Providence. The event we know as the "First Thanksgiving" was a secular harvest feast and not, as far as we know, an official religious day of thanksgiving. (NOTE: This does NOT mean that the Pilgrims did not give thanks to God; the Pilgrims were a deeply religious people and every activity in which they engaged was influenced by their deep reverence for Scripture.)
As a deeply religious people, the Pilgrims undoubtedly prayed at the 1621 harvest feast. Their prayers were spontaneous, however, and the exact words not known. A typical prayer might be:
O Lord our God and heavenly Father, which of Thy unspeakable mercy towards us, hast provided meate and drinke for the nourishment of our weake bodies. Grant us peace to use them reverently, as from Thy hands, with thankful hearts: let Thy blessing rest upon these Thy good creatures, to our comfort and sustentation: and grant we humbly beseech Thee, good Lord, that as we doe hunger and thirst for this food of our bodies, so our soules may earnestly long after the food of eternal life, through Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour, Amen.
For the full text of every presidential
Thanksgiving proclamation, click here.
A Day of Thankful Prayer
The Pilgrims’ first recorded religious day of thanksgiving was held in 1623. Plymouth had been stricken with a severe drought. "Upon which," said William Bradford, "they set apart a solemn day of humiliation, to seek the Lord by humble and fervent prayer, in this great distress." That same evening it began "to rain with such sweet and gentle showers as gave them cause of rejoicing and blessing God… For which mercy, in time convenient, they also set apart a day of thanksgiving."
A 1636 Thanksgiving held in the Plymouth Colony community of Scituate began with prayer
"In ye Meetinghouse, beginning some halfe an hour before nine & continued untill after twelve aclocke, ye day beeing very cold, beginning wt a short prayer, then a psalme sang, then more large in prayer, after that an other Psalme, & then the Word taught, after that prayer - & then a psalme…" and then was followed by dinner, "…the poorer sort beeing invited of the richer."
As the 17th century progressed, Thanksgiving began to evolve into an autumn holiday proclaimed by the Governor, for the purpose of praising God for the general blessings of the year. In 1668, the Plymouth Colony Court decreed
takeing notice of the goodnes of God to us in the continuance of our civill and religious liberties, the generall health that wee have enjoyed, and that it hath pleased God in some comfortable measure to blesse us in the fruites of the earth… doe propose unto the severall congregations of this gov’ment, that the 25th day of November next, which wilbe ye fourth day of the weeke, to be kept as a sollemne day of thanksgiveing…
By the 18th century, traditions merged.
Thanksgiving Day began with church services, which included a reading of the proclamation from the pulpit. The prayerful spirit of gratitude to God and generosity to others was interwoven with recreation, family reunions and abundant festive dinners.
Today, we still share the religious spirit of those earlier Thanksgivings:
- an autumn thanksgiving to God for the blessings of the year is proclaimed,
- our abundance is shared with those who are less fortunate,
- and many families, before the feast, bow their heads in prayer.
A Day Set Apart:
Thanksgiving Proclamations & Sermons
Early Thanksgivings were proclaimed by the individual governors of the colonies on a day of their choosing. There was little or no coordination of the timing among the governors.
This proclamation, issued in 1723 by Massachusetts Bay Governor William Dummer, is from the collections of the Pilgrim Society and Pilgrim Hall Museum. It is one of the earliest printed proclamations to survive. Click here to read the text
The first national Thanksgiving was proclaimed in gratitude for the American victory at Saratoga in 1777. The Continental Congress set aside Thursday, December 18th that "the good people may express the grateful feelings of their hearts, and consecrate themselves to the service of their divine benefactor."
On December 17, 1777, the day before the first national Thanksgiving, George Washington was in winter quarters at Valley Forge. He wrote:
Tomorrow being the day set apart by the honorable Congress for Public Thanksgiving and praise, and duty calling us devoutly to express our grateful acknowledgments to God for the manifold blessings he has granted us, the general directs … that the chaplains perform divine service.
Click here for the complete text of the 1777 proclamation and here for all other Thanksgiving proclamations of the Continental Congress, 1778-1784.
Just as many proclamations speak to the religious aspects of Thanksgiving, so many Thanksgiving sermons speak to the political issues of their day.
The officiating clergyman commonly takes this opportunity to present some topic of a national character, and to enforce upon his congregation attention to their political duties. Those subjects which he would hardly feel at liberty to discuss in the pulpit on the Sabbath, he avails himself of this opportunity to present.
Thanksgiving sermons often address political issues. Rev. J.S. Gardiner began his Sermon Preached at Trinity Church in Boston, on the day appointed for Publick Thanksgiving throughout the State of Massachusetts, Dec. 1, 1808
I would ask, for what purpose are we this day assembled? Are we not here met together in social worship, in obedience to civil authority, and in compliance with the wise usage of our pious ancestors?… The days appointed, by civil authority, for fasts and thanksgivings, have ever been, in this country, peculiarly appropriated to the consideration of political topicks.
Gardiner then delivered a passionate oration on both foreign policy and constitutional issues, ending with a strongly-worded diatribe against Jefferson and Bonaparte.
Thanksgiving sermons were sometimes used to praise prominent citizens.
Among the topics suitable to an occasion like this, when we are met together to ‘offer unto God THANKSGIVING,’ may very properly be reckoned the services of distinguished public benefactors
preached William P.Lunt in his 1852 Thanksgiving discourse (A Discourse Delivered in Quincy, Massachusetts, on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 25, 1852). Lunt then memorialized the recently deceased Daniel Webster,
He sleeps near by the Rock on which the Pilgrim exiles of freedom, weary with wandering, stepped when they landed on the shores of the New World. Fit resting-place for the great American
Nathan Holman, in an otherwise rather gloomy sermon (A Sermon Delivered at Attleborough, East Precinct, November 21st, 1811, being the Anniversary Thanksgiving in Massachusetts) found reason for giving thanks in the example of his ancestors.
It is also a matter of joy that we inhabit those colonies which were planted in righteousness. Our ancestors were eminently pious… The blessings which attended their exertions, and the effects of their prayers are visible even at the present day. As God has owned, and blessed, and prospered this nation beyond a parallel, even from its first settlement, we have reason to hope that, though he may punish us for our great degeneracy, yet he will not at once wholly forsake us.
Thanksgiving was seen as a particularly American holiday. Patriotism and the values of public service were common themes for Thanksgiving sermons as in A Sermon Preached At Dorchester, Nov. 26, 1807, on the day of Public Thanksgiving by Thaddeus Mason Harris:
On this festive anniversary we commemorate, and we exult in, the security of our persons and properties, our national honour and welfare. What we rejoice in, we will cherish; we will maintain. The love of liberty is so ingrafted into our hearts, that the sword which cuts it out, or that hews down the pillars which support our Independence, must be of firmer blade and have a keener edge than that we resisted and blunted which was thirty-two years ago wielded against us.
Thanksgiving & the Social Conscience
Nor are the poor forgotten, for that holiday must come with as bountiful a hand to the lone widow and defenceless orphan, as to the richest man in town; and churlish would he be considered, who should dole out, on that day, a stinted morsel, even to the thriftless beggar.
Consecrate the day to benevolence of action, by sending good gifts to the poor, and doing those deeds of charity that will, for one day, make every American home the place of plenty and of rejoicing.
The Cheerful Giver
Although Providence has blessed our land with an abounding harvest, we must remember that there are among us many who will have but a scanty and insufficient share in this abundance. The civil war has given to our care many maimed and helpless men, many widows and orphans, many destitute refugees… Let us each see to it that on this one day there shall be no family or individual, within the compass of our means to help, who shall not have some portion prepared, and some reason to join in the general Thanksgiving.
After dinner aunt Hetty asked me if I didn’t want to carry some Thanksgiving dinner down to the widow Tracy, whose husband was killed in the war. I told her I did, and she gave me a big basket full of nice things. I went to the little house where the widow lived, and it was all still. Then I knocked at the door, and the widow came. She had been crying; and when I told her what I had come for, she caught me up in her arms and hugged me, and then burst out crying again… All the way back I felt a choking feeling in my throat; but my heart was light, and I was very happy, thinking I had made somebody else so.
Bless This Food: Thanksgiving Grace
Sorry they who dine for food alone; sorry they who dine not at all: but sorrier far, they who cannot remember a New England Thanksgiving … [Then the family] gathered round the long, heavily-burdened tables; one for grown folks, and one for the little ones. A moment of sacred silence, as they listened, with beating hearts, to the words of thankful prayerful grace that, in trembling voice, dear old gran’ther sent straight up to the heart of God, before they fell to feasting.
"Bless This Food"
Benedita sea esta comida (Spanish)
Benis ce repas (French)
Benedetto questo cibo (Italian)
Segne diese speisen (German)
Gode Gud valsigna maten (Swedish)
Abencoe esta comida (Portuguese)
Zegen deze maaltijd (Dutch)
Whether the usual dinnertime "grace" is spontaneous or formal, many families acknowledge the special significance of Thanksgiving by asking each person at the table to give thanks for the most meaningful personal blessing of the past year.
On Thanksgiving Day 1793, 75-year-old Samuel Lane was thankful for:
- The Life & health of myself and family, and also of so many of my Children, grand Children and great grandchildren; also of my other Relations and friends & Neighbors, for Health peace and plenty amongst us.
- for my Bible and Many other good and Useful Books, Civil & Religious Privileges, for the ordinances of the gospel; and for my Minister.
- for my Land, House and Barn and other Buildings, & that they are preserv’d from fire & other accidents.
- for my wearing Clothes to keep me warm, my Bed & Bedding to rest upon.
- for my Cattle, Sheep & Swine & other Creatures, for my support.
- for my Corn, Wheat, Rye Grass and Hay; Wool, flax, Cider, apples, Pumpkins, Potatoes, Cabbages, turnips, Carrots, Beets peaches and other fruits.
- For my Clock and Watch to measure my passing time by Day and by Night,Wood, Water, Butter, Cheese, Milk, Pork, Beef, & fish, &c
- for Tea, Sugar, Rum, Wine, Gin, Molasses, pepper, Spice & Money for to bye other Necessaries and to pay my Debts & Taxes &c.
- for my Leather, Lamp oil & Candles, Husbandry Utensils, & other tools of every sort &c &c &c.
Bless the Lord O my soul and all that is within me Bless his holy Name.
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