I urge all citizens to make this Thanksgiving not merely a holiday from their labors, but rather a day of contemplation. I ask the head of each family to recount to his children the story of the first New England thanksgiving, thus to impress upon future generations the heritage of this nation born in toil, in danger, in purpose, and in the conviction that right and justice and freedom can through man’s efforts persevere and come to fruition with the blessing of God.

President John F. Kennedy, 1961

What is the history of Thanksgiving?

Why do we, as a country, celebrate this day?

And when push comes to shove, to whom are we giving thanks?

History of The Pilgrims

The Pilgrims were English Separatists seeking religious freedom from what they considered the corrupted Church of England. Many had been persecuted and suffered imprisonment or worse. They fled to Holland (1608-1609) where they were able to “worship with all freedom.”* The Separatists (later Pilgrims) should not be confused with the Puritans who, as opposed to separation, sought Purification of the State Church. The Puritans did not settle in America until around 1629 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony under the leadership of John Winthorp.

Four major reasons compelled the Separatists (Pilgrims) to leave Leyden, Holland for America.

First, others in England had hoped to join them in their freedom, but could not bear the burden of their hardship in Holland.

Second, they saw their population aging and feared that as their numbers dwindled they would be scattered and their faith corrupted.

Third, the children of these people were forced to bear heavy burdens so much so that many rebelled and fled into the corruption of the world.

Lastly, they hoped that they might be able to spread “some good foundation, or at least to make some way thereunto, for the propagating and advancing of the kingdom of Christ in those remote parts of the world; yea, though they should be but even as stepping-stones unto others for the performing of so great a work.“*

Despite their many fears of hardship, sickness and death,  William Bradford and the Pilgrims knew that “all great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and must be both enterprised and overcome with answerable courage.”* So these brave men and women chartered a ship and with much fasting and prayer “they left that goodly and pleasant city which had been their resting place for near twelve years; but they knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lift up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits.”*

They traveled to Southampton where they met others in their company and boarded the Mayflower for their journey. Here they were forced to make agreement with a merchant company in London for the funding of their trip, and as such committed to make restitution within seven years time.

The Mayflower carrying 102 Pilgrims set sail from England on September 16, 1620 (see note on historical dates) for Northern Virginia (or present day Southern New York State*) and spotted land on November 9, 1620 at Cape Cod (first named by Captain Gosnold in 1602). A day before they came into the harbor there was some dissention among the people and in an effort to provide unity they made the following pact which is now referred to as the “Mayflower Compact“

Bradford's transcription of the compact

Bradford’s transcription of the compact

“In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread sovereign lord King James, by the grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland King, Defender of the Faith, etc. Having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honor of our king and country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, covenant, and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation, and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, offices from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony: unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names; Cape Cod, the 11th of November, in the year of the reign of our sovereign lord King James, of England, France and Ireland eighteenth and of Scotland fifty-fourth, Anno Domini 1620.”*

God’s providence caused them to abandon their plans to travel farther south and on November 11, they set anchor in Cape Cod where they ultimately remained. The purpose of their trip was clear, they desired to glorify God by spreading His word to all parts of the unknown world. William Bradford used these words to describe their glorious arrival to America.

“Being thus arrived in a good harbor, and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof, again to set their feet on the firm and stable earth, their proper element.” *

After spending an extra day onboard the ship for Sunday worship, the Pilgrims went ashore.

The immigrants finally set foot on land at what would become Provincetown on November 13. The first task was to rebuild a shallop, a shallow draft boat that had been built in England and disassembled for transport aboard the Mayflower. It would remain with the Pilgrims while the Mayflower returned to England. On November 15, Captain Myles Standish led a party of sixteen men on an exploratory mission, during which they disturbed a Native American grave and located a buried cache of Indian corn. [Philbrick]

As we examine this incident from the perspective of the Pilgrims, we see an enduring respect for the native Indians,

“we found a little path to certain heaps of sand, one whereof was covered with old mats, and had a wooding thing like a mortar whelmed on the top of it, and an earthen pot laid in a little hole at the end thereof. We, musing what it might be, digged and found a bow, and, as we thought, arrows, but they were rotten. We supposed there were many other things, but because we deemed them graves, we put in the bow again and made it up as it was, and left the rest untouched, because we thought it would be odious unto them to ransack their sepulchers. “.*

Other comments from John Winthorp’s accounts also indicate the Pilgrims value for all peoples and their disdain for the slave trade.* They actually seem to have had a great care for the Indians as creatures of God and considered many of them to be close friends.

The week following this encounter with the Indians, Susanna White gave birth on the Mayflower to her son, Peregrine White. He was the first English child born to the Pilgrims in the New World. The Pilgrims spent the next few months in this new land alone and found no help from the natives. What they did not know yet was that the Indians who had formerly inhabited the land, the Patuxet tribe, had already been wiped out in a 1617 by a terrible plague . In the three years between their demise and the Pilgrims arrival, no other neighboring tribes had inhabited the land.  Recent research speculates on what caused the devastating epidemic among the Native Americans.

In the years before English settlers established the Plymouth colony (1616–1619), most Native Americans living on the southeastern coast of present-day Massachusetts died from a mysterious disease. Classic explanations have included yellow fever, smallpox, and plague. Chickenpox and trichinosis are among more recent proposals. We suggest an additional candidate: leptospirosis complicated by Weil syndrome. Rodent reservoirs from European ships infected indigenous reservoirs and contaminated land and fresh water. Local ecology and high-risk quotidian practices of the native population favored exposure and were not shared by Europeans [Marr].

Regardless of the cause, the result was a diminished native population that without question left a vacuum that was filled by the new European immigrants.

The ground was hard with winter freeze and the Pilgrims, lacking provision, went in search of Indians, but could find none. But again by “God’s good providence“* they found baskets of corn, wheat, and beans buried in the ground next to abandoned dwellings. The corn was greatly in need as they hoped to use it for seed to plant and harvest. In their first days ashore, the Pilgrims found habitations and other signs of Indians, but had no communication. They took many of the provisions so that their people would not die, but planned to make restitution when they finally did encounter the Indians. (Almost a year later, they finally meet the Indians whose provisions they had used and were able to make restitution.)

A third expedition along Cape Cod left on December 6, the Pilgrims had “The First Encounter” with the Indians. The event was not promising, but they were not discouraged by this surprise attack by the Indians. In the words of Winslow,

“After prayer we prepared ourselves for breakfast and for a journey, and it being now the twilight in the morning, it was thought meet to carry the things down to the shallop… Anon, all upon a sudden, we heard a great and strange cry, which we knew to be the same voices, though they varied their notes. One of our company, being abroad, came running in and cried, “They are men! Indians! Indians!” and withal, their arrows came flying amongst us. Our men ran out with all speed to recover their arms, as by the good providence of God they did… The cry of our enemies was dreadful, especially when our men ran out to recover their arms; their note was after this manner, “Woach woach ha ha hach woach.” Our men were no sooner come to their arms, but the enemy was ready to assault them…

There was a lusty man and no whit less valiant, who was thought to be their captain, stood behind a tree within half a musket shot of us, and there let his arrows fly at us. He was seen to shoot three arrows, which were all avoided, for he at whom the first arrow was aimed, saw it, and stooped down and it flew over him; the rest were avoided also. He stood three shots of a musket. At length one took, as he said, full aim at him, and after which he gave extraordinary cry and away they all went. We followed them about a quarter of a mile, but we left six to keep our shallop, for we were careful about our business. Then we shouted all together two several times, and shot off a couple of muskets and so returned; this we did that they might see we were not afraid of them nor discouraged.

Thus it pleased God to vanquish our enemies and give us deliverance… “*

The Pilgrims were not discouraged by these bad relations with the Indians, but decided to leave Provincetown Harbor and set sail on the Mayflower for Plymouth Harbor where they prepared for the long harsh winter to come.

It was on the 9th of January, that the Pilgrims went about building their town.

“in two rows of houses for more safety. We divided by lot the plot of ground whereon to build our town. After the proportion formerly allotted, we agreed that every man should build his own house, thinking by that course men would make more haste than working in common.” *

They built one Common house for stores, materials and meetings. The weeks which followed brought sickness and much hardship and through the course of their first winter over half of the people died, but by God’s good graces the Pilgrims survived. There were no direct encounters with the Indians, but they did see them on occasion from far off. Their encounters were enough so that on January 17, they made Miles Standish the Captain of defense from the “savages” who seemed so elusive.

It was not until March 16, 1621 that the Pilgrims had their first personal encounter with an Indian named Samoset who walked boldly into their plantation. He surprised the Pilgrims with an English military salute and welcomed them in broken English he had learned from English fisherman at Monchiggon. He was from Morattiggon, and one of the Sagamores (or lords). The Pilgrims clothed him, as he was naked except for a leather belt with fringe and furnished him with food and drink. He informed the Pilgrims of the great plague which had killed all the native inhabitants of the land. The Indian insisted on staying the night and despite their reservations, they provided him housing in the home of Stephen Hopkin.

Native American tribes of southeastern Massachusetts in ≈1620.

Native American tribes of southeastern Massachusetts in ≈1620.

The Wampanoag, to the West, were the closest neighbor to the Pilgrims and numbered about sixty. The Nausets, who turned out to be the more aggressive Indians who had attacked them, lived to their South-East and numbered about one hundred.

On March 22, 1621, Samoset came again with Tisquantum, the only native of Patuxet. Tisquantum ( or Squanto), who had lived in England for a time, returned to American in 1619 and found the rest of his tribe demolished by the plague.

Tisquantum and Samoset helped the Pilgrims negotiate a peace treaties with Massasoit, who was the grand sachem (intertribal chief) of Wampanoag. This treaty with the great king allowed them to develop friendly relations with the other tribes in the area and eventually brought about a peace among the Indians themselves.  This relationship proved beneficial to both sides because in 1623 Massasoit was nursed back to health from a serious illness by grateful Pilgrims.

The First Thanksgiving Celebration.

the_first_thanksgiving1

The first thanksgiving was really a harvest celebration for God’s great provision to the Pilgrims in their time of need. This first celebration took place in late October of 1621 and there are only two original accounts of the event. The first is by William Bradford and it details the gathering of their harvest and the great stores of food which they had on hand.

“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 exercising 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.” *

The second account is from the writings of Edward Winslow and gives a bit more detail about the actual feast.

“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 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 have 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 amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, 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 harvest thanksgiving was clearly a celebration of God’s great provision. This three day feast included their friends the Indians who provided venison as their contribution, but was this really a feast to thank the Indians? In some respects, yes, for they had taught the Pilgrims to plant Indian corn and had proved to be good friends.

“We have found the Indians very faithful in their covenant of peace with us; very loving and ready to pleasure us; we often go to them, and they come to us; some of us have been fifty miles by land in the country with them, the occasions and relations whereof you shall understand by our general and more full declaration of such things as are worth the noting, yea, it has pleased God so to possess the Indians with a fear of us, and love unto us, that not only the greatest king amongst them, called Massasoit, but also all the princes and peoples round about us, have either made suit unto us, or been glad of any occasion to make peace with us, so that seven of them at once have sent their messengers to us to that end. Yea, an Isle at sea, which we never saw, hath also, together with the former, yielded willingly to be under the protection, and subjects to our sovereign lord King James, so that there is now great peace amongst the Indians themselves, which was not formerly, neither would have been but for us; and we for our parts walk as peaceably and safely in the wood as in the highways in England. We entertain them familiarly in our houses, and they as friendly bestowing their venison on us. They are a people without any religion or knowledge of God, yet very trusty, quick of apprehension, ripe-witted, just. The men and women go naked, only a skin about their middles.”*

But ultimately the Pilgrims recognized that all their blessing came from God alone for it had “pleased God so to possess the Indians with a fear of us, and love unto us,”. The Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving was a celebration of God’s love and grace, for it was His provision alone that brought the Pilgrims through these most trying times. Some of the Pilgrim’s descendants later celebrated a “Forefather’s Day” which usually occurred on December 21 or 22, but there was never really an established Thanksgiving holiday.

One interesting side note… the Pilgrims did not have the best table manner because they probably did not even have a table. Here is what National Geographic concludes,

it’s unlikely that the colonists sat down at a long table with white linen, as depicted in Victorian-era engravings. As he writes in his book, the feasters probably sat or squatted on the ground as they gathered around outdoor fire pits where venison and birds turned on wooden spits, and where pots containing vegetable and meat stews simmered. They used knives to carve away their portions and ate the food with their fingers; forks didn’t arrive in Plymouth until late in the 1600s.

A Day of Thanksgiving for Americans

The following Thanksgiving declarations established a single day of celebration and thanks and did not establish any sort of annual holiday.

June 20, 1676 – The First Declaration

Contrary to what most people are taught today in popular movies and school texts, Thanksgiving was not established to thank the Indians for their generosity. Thanksgiving was always reverenced as a celebration of God’s Fatherly compassion.  The governing council of Charlestown, Massachusetts, held a meeting to determine how best to express thanks to God, for his blessings on their community. By a unanimous vote the clerk Edward Rawson, proclaimed June 29 as a day of thanksgiving

June 20, 1676 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation

June 20, 1676 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation

“The Holy God having by a long and Continual Series of his Afflictive dispensations in and by the present War with the Heathen Natives of this land, written and brought to pass bitter things against his own Covenant people in this wilderness, yet so that we evidently discern that in the midst of his judgments he hath remembered mercy, having remembered his Footstool in the day of his sore displeasure against us for our sins, with many singular Intimations of his Fatherly Compassion, and regard; reserving many of our Towns from Desolation Threatened, and attempted by the Enemy, and giving us especially of late with many of our Confederates many signal Advantages against them, without such Disadvantage to ourselves as formerly we have been sensible of, if it be the Lord’s mercy that we are not consumed, It certainly bespeaks our positive Thankfulness, when our Enemies are in any measure disappointed or destroyed; and fearing the Lord should take notice under so many Intimations of his returning mercy, we should be found an Insensible people, as not standing before Him with Thanksgiving, as well as lading him with our Complaints in the time of pressing Afflictions: The Council has thought meet to appoint and set apart the 29th day of this instant June, as a day of Solemn Thanksgiving and praise to God for such his Goodness and Favor, many Particulars of which mercy might be Instanced, but we doubt not those who are sensible of God’s Afflictions, have been as diligent to espy him returning to us; and that the Lord may behold us as a People offering Praise and thereby glorifying Him; the Council doth commend it to the Respective Ministers, Elders and people of this Jurisdiction; Solemnly and seriously to keep the same Beseeching that being persuaded by the mercies of God we may all, even this whole people offer up our bodies and souls as a living and acceptable Service unto God by Jesus Christ.”

Particulars of which mercy might be Instanced, but we doubt not those who are sensible of God’s Afflictions, have been as diligent to espy him returning to us; and that the Lord may behold us as a People offering Praise and thereby glorifying Him; the Council doth commend it to the Respective Ministers, Elders and people of this Jurisdiction; Solemnly and seriously to keep the same Beseeching that being perswaded by the mercies of God we may all, even this whole people offer up our bodies and soulds as a living and acceptable Service unto God by Jesus Christ.”

This one time Thanksgiving celebration was not in remembrance of the goodness of the native Indian as they were looked upon as “heathen natives” and subsequently not as the people for whom all praise should be given. Rather, it was a celebration of God’s everlasting compassion on this nation.

November 1, 1782 – Congress Finds Reason to Thank God.

On November 1, 1782 the Continental Congress established a single day of Thanksgiving which is very Reminiscent of the First Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1676. The Congress established this Thanksgiving day as a time of solemn thanksgiving to God for all his mercies and American liberty from British rule. In the very words of Congress,

On November 1, 1782 the Continental Congress established a single day of Thanksgiving. Authorized by John Hanson, President and Charles Thomson, Secretary. Printed at Exeter.

On November 1, 1782 the Continental Congress established a single day of Thanksgiving. Authorized by John Hanson, President and Charles Thomson, Secretary. Printed at Exeter.

STATE OF NEW-HAMPSHIRE.
IN COMMITTEE of SAFETY,
EXETER, November 1, 1782.

 

ORDERED,

THAT the following Proclamation for a general THANKSGIVING on the twenty-eighth day of November [instant?], received from the honorable Continental Congress, be forthwith printed, and sent to the several worshipping Assemblies in this State, to whom it is recommended religiously to observe said day, and to abstain from all servile labour thereon.

M. WEARE, President.
By the United States in Congress assembled.

 

PROCLAMATION.
IT being the indispensable duty of all Nations, not only to offer up their supplications to ALMIGHTY GOD, the giver of all good, for his gracious assistance in a time of distress, but also in a solemn and public manner to give him praise for his goodness in general, and especially for great and signal interpositions of his providence in their behalf: Therefore the United States in Congress assembled, taking into their consideration the many instances of divine goodness to these States, in the course of the important conflict in which they have been so long engaged; the present happy and promising state of public affairs; and the events of the war, in the course of the year now drawing to a close; particularly the harmony of the public Councils, which is so necessary to the success of the public cause; the perfect union and good understanding which has hitherto subsisted between them and their Allies, notwithstanding the artful and unwearied attempts of the common enemy to divide them; the success of the arms of the United States, and those of their Allies, and the acknowledgment of their independence by another European power, whose friendship and commerce must be of great and lasting advantage to these States: —– Do hereby recommend to the inhabitants of these States in general, to observe, and request the several States to interpose their authority in appointing and commanding the observation of THURSDAY the twenty-eight day of NOVEMBER next, as a day of solemn THANKSGIVING to GOD for all his mercies: and they do further recommend to all ranks, to testify to their gratitude to GOD for his goodness, by a cheerful obedience of his laws, and by promoting, each in his station, and by his influence, the practice of true and undefiled religion, which is the great foundation of public prosperity and national happiness.

Done in Congress, at Philadelphia, the eleventh day of October, in the year of our LORD one thousand seven hundred and eighty-two, and of our Sovereignty and Independence, the seventh.

Thanksgiving to God for his mercies is the “great foundation” for this nations prosperity and happiness, and thanksgiving is the opportunity we have to praise our God and Savior for his mercies upon our lives as a people.

Washington’s Presidential 1789 Proclamation

This declaration did not go unsupported. In 1789 George Washington made the first presidential proclamation ever issued in the United States. This Thanksgiving proclamation was lost for over 100 years so the original manuscript was not in the official United States archives until 1921 when Dr. J. C. Fitzpatrick, then assistant chief of the manuscripts division of the Library of Congress repurchased the proclamation at auction. Washington declared that as a nation it is our duty to honor the “providence of Almighty God”, and in accordance with the establishments of congress, Washington called for

Washington's Original Thanksgiving Proclamation from the The Massachusetts Centinel, Wednesday, October 14, 1789

Washington’s Original Thanksgiving Proclamation from the The Massachusetts Centinel, Wednesday, October 14, 1789

“WHEREAS it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favour; and Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me “to recommend to the people of the United States a DAY OF PUBLICK THANKSGIVING and PRAYER, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:”

NOW THEREFORE, I do recommend and assign THURSDAY, the TWENTY-SIXTH DAY of NOVEMBER next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed;– for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enable to establish Constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted;– for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge;– and, in general, for all the great and various favours which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

And also, that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions;– to enable us all, whether in publick or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us); and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

GIVEN under my hand, at the city of New-York, the third day of October, in the year of our Lord, one thousand seven hundred and eighty-nine.”

Washington felt that this must also be a day of repentance before God and a day of fervent prayer in which all leaders, both private and public, would perform their duties to the good of all peoples.

Established as a Annual Day of Thanks

October 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln Establishes the annual day of Thanks

At the insistence of Mrs. Sarah Joseph Hale, President Abraham Lincoln was the first president to establish an annual day of thanks. This annual day of thanks was to occur on the last Thursday in November as a day of repentance and humility before God almighty. It was a day of hope that the Holy Scriptures give us assurance that if our nation keeps God as our Lord, he will continue to bless us. Lincoln asked that we as a nation repent of our sin (the sin of slavery) and bring the dreams of our forefathers to fruition. Lincoln knew that we had been blessed by God but he also feared that

This proclamation sets apart the last Thursday of November “as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise.” According to an April 1, 1864, letter from John Nicolay, one of President Lincoln’s secretaries, this document was written by Secretary of State William Seward, and the original was in his handwriting.

This proclamation sets apart the last Thursday of November “as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise.” According to an April 1, 1864, letter from John Nicolay, one of President Lincoln’s secretaries, this document was written by Secretary of State William Seward, and the original was in his handwriting.

“The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the everwatchful providence of almighty God.

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and provoke their aggressions, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict; while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

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.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity, and union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United Stated States to be affixed.”

Lincoln’s fears of our self-pride have come to fruition in our modern society. We as a nation have rejected any notion of God’s providential care and replaced it with a celebration of personal achievements. Thanksgiving must again be restored to a holiday when we as a nation acknowledge that we must thank God for his blessings by taking action, work to heal the wounds of bigotry, and care for those in need.

1930 – 1932 President Herbert Hoover Makes His Mark On Thanksgiving Day

Hoover’s First Declaration on November 27, 1930

Herbert Clark Hoover was the 31st President of the United States (March 4, 1929 – March 4, 1933)

Herbert Clark Hoover was the 31st President of the United States (March 4, 1929 – March 4, 1933)

Notwithstanding that our forefathers endured the hardships and privations of a primitive life, surrounded by dangers and solaced only with meager comforts, they nevertheless bequeathed to us a custom of devoting one day of every year to universal thanksgiving to Almighty God, for the blessing of life itself and the means to sustain it, for the sanctuary of home and the joys that pervade it, and for the mercies of His protection from accident, sickness, or death.

Our country has many causes for thanksgiving. We have been blest with distinctive evidence of divine favor. As a nation we have suffered far less than other peoples from the present world difficulties. We have been free from civil and industrial discord. The outlook for peace between nations has been strengthened. In a large view we have made progress upon the enduring structure of our institutions. The arts and sciences that enrich our lives and enlarge our control of nature have made notable advances. Education has been further extended. We have made gains in the prevention of disease and in the protection of childhood.

Now, therefore, I, Herbert Hoover, President of the United States of America, do hereby designate Thursday, November 27, 1930, as a National Day of Thanksgiving, and do enjoin the people of the United States so to observe it, calling upon them to remember that many of our people are in need and suffering from causes beyond their control, and suggesting that a proper celebration of the day should include that we make sure that every person in the community, young and old, shall have cause to give thanks for our institutions and for the neighborly sentiment of our people.
In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

November 26, 1931

Continuing in his annual tradition, Hoover’s 1931 Proclamation Included the following.

Herbert Clark Hoover was born August 10, 1874 in West Branch, Iowa, USA and Died October 20, 1964 (aged 90) in New York City, U.S.

Herbert Clark Hoover was born August 10, 1874 in West Branch, Iowa, USA and Died October 20, 1964 (aged 90) in New York City, U.S.

We approach the season when, according to custom dating from the garnering of the first harvest by our forefathers in the New World, a day is set apart to give thanks even amid hardships to Almighty God for our temporal and spiritual blessings. It has become a hallowed tradition for the Chief Magistrate to proclaim annually a national day of thanksgiving.

Our country has cause for gratitude to the Almighty. We have been widely blessed with abundant harvests. We have been spared from pestilence and calamities. Our institutions have served the people. Knowledge has multiplied and our lives are enriched with its application. Education has advanced, the health of our people has increased. We have dwelt in peace with all men. The measure of passing adversity which has come upon us should deepen the spiritual life of the people, quicken their sympathies and spirit of sacrifice for others, and strengthen their courage. Many of our neighbors are in need from causes beyond their control and the compassion over this winter that they too may have full cause to participate in this day of gratitude to the Almighty.

November 24, 1932

And in his final Thanksgiving Proclamation, Hoover also commemorated the 200th Anniversary of Washington’s leadership over our nation.  The following remarks preceded a full quotation of Washington’s first Thanksgiving Declaration.

Hoover was a graduate of George Fox University and Stanford University

Hoover was a graduate of George Fox University and Stanford University

Whereas at this season of the year our people for generations past have always turned their thoughts to thankfulness for the blessings of Almighty God,

Now, therefore, I, Herbert Hoover, President of the United States, do set aside and declare Thursday, November 24, 1932, as a day of national thanksgiving, and I do urge that they repair to their places of public worship, there to give thanks to the beneficent Providence from whom comes all our good; and I do further recommend, inasmuch as this year marks the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of George Washington, the father of our country, whose immeasurable services to our liberties and our security are blessing perennially renewed upon us, that our people refresh their memory of his first thanksgiving Proclamation, which I append and incorporate in this present proclamation.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Continued the Tradition

November 30, 1933 Proclamation

Of special note, Roosevelt picks of the tradition of Thanksgiving as a time to remember our Divine-purpose as a nation to care for the poor and weak among us.

FDR was President of the United States of America from March 4, 1933 – April 12, 1945

FDR was President of the United States of America from March 4, 1933 – April 12, 1945

I, Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States of America, do set aside and appoint Thursday, the thirtieth day of November 1933, to be a Day of Thanksgiving for all our people.

May we on that day in our churches and in our homes give humble thanks for the blessings bestowed upon us during the year past by Almighty God.

May we recall the courage of those who settled a wilderness, the vision of those who founded the Nation, the steadfastness of those who in every succeeding generation have fought to keep pure the ideal of equality of opportunity and hold clear the goal of mutual help in time of prosperity as in time of adversity.

May we ask guidance in more surely learning the ancient truth that greed and selfishness and striving for undue riches can never bring lasting happiness or good to the individual or to his neighbors.

May we be grateful for the passing of dark days; for the new spirit of dependence one on another; for the closer unity of all parts of our wide land; for the greater friendship between employers and those who toil; for a clearer knowledge by all nations that we seek no conquests and ask only honorable engagements by all peoples to respect the lands and rights of their neighbors; for the brighter day to which we can win through by seeking the help of God in a more unselfish striving for the common bettering of mankind.

Roosevelt continues his theme of caring for the needy in his 1935 proclamation

FDR was the 44th Governor of New York from January 1, 1929 – December 31, 1932

FDR was the 44th Governor of New York from January 1, 1929 – December 31, 1932

In traversing a period of national stress our country has been knit together in a closer fellowship of mutual interest and common purpose. We can well be grateful that more and more of our people understand and seek the greater good of the greater number. We can be grateful that selfish purpose of personal gain, at our neighbor’s loss, less strongly asserts itself. We can be grateful that peace at home is strengthened by our growing willingness to common counsel. We can be grateful that our peace with other nations continues through recognition of our peaceful purpose.

But in our appreciation of the blessings that Divine Providence has bestowed upon us in America, we shall not rejoice as the Pharisee rejoiced. War and strife still live in the world. Rather, must America by example and in practice help to bind the wounds of others, strive against disorder and aggression, encourage the lessening of distrust among peoples and advance peaceful trade and friendship.

The future of many generations of mankind will be greatly guided by our acts in these present years. We hew a new trail.

Let us then on the day appointed offer our devotions and our humble thanks to Almighty God and pray that the people of America will be guided by Him in helping their fellow men.

in 1939 Roosevelt moves Thanksgiving Day

Roosevelt made an annual proclamation every year of his Presidency from 1933- 1945.  However, in 1939 he moved the Thanksgiving holiday from the last Thursday in November to the Fourth Thursday in November.

I

FDR was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy from March 17, 1913 – August 26, 1920

FDR was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy from March 17, 1913 – August 26, 1920

, Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States of America, do hereby designate Thursday, the twenty-third of November 1939, as a day of general thanksgiving.

More than three centuries ago, at the season of the gathering in of the harvest, the Pilgrims humbly paused in their work and gave thanks to God for the preservation of their community and for the abundant yield of the soil. A century and a half later, after the new Nation had been formed, and the charter of government, the Constitution of the Republic, had received the assent of the States, President Washington and his successors invited the people of the Nation to lay down their tasks one day in the year and give thanks for the blessings that had been granted them by Divine Providence. It is fitting that we should continue this hallowed custom and select a day in 1939 to be dedicated to reverent thoughts of thanksgiving.

Our Nation has gone steadily forward in the application of democratic processes to economic and social problems. We have faced the specters of business depression, of unemployment, and of widespread agricultural distress, and our positive efforts to alleviate these conditions have met with heartening results. We have also been permitted to see the fruition of measures which we have undertaken in the realms of health, social welfare, and the conservation of resources. As a Nation we are deeply grateful that in a world of turmoil we are at peace with all countries, and we especially rejoice in the strengthened bonds of our friendship with the other peoples of the Western Hemisphere.

Let us, on the day set aside for this purpose, give thanks to the Ruler of the Universe for the strength which He has vouchsafed us to carry o our daily labors and for the hope that lives within us of the coming of a day when peace and the productive activities of peace shall reign on every continent.

The move was approved by the United States Congress in 1941. It is generally speculated that the Thanksgiving holiday was moved because business felt it came too close to Christmas and was a hindrance to shopping.

NOTE ON DATING

All dates given in this article reflect the Pilgrims use of the Julian calendar. To find the corresponding date by our modern Gregorian calendar one must add 10 days to the dates as given. For example, according to the Julian calendar it was on November 11 when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth for us in modern times who use the Gregorian calendar the date of their landing would be November 21.

The Julian calendar, named for Julius Caesar, was adopted by him in the year 709 a.u.c. (46 B.C.) consisted of a solar year of twelve months and of 365 days with an extra day every fourth year.

“The system of numbering years A.D. (for Anno Domini, “in the year of Our Lord”) was instituted in the year 525 by the Roman abbot Dionysus Exiguus, and endured for more than a millennium. Because of its specifically Christian meaning this designation is now often replaced by the more neutral C.E. (for Common Era), and B.C. is now often written B.C.E. (for Before Common Era).” (see link below for reference)

Because of errors in dating in the Julian calendar, for every 128 years which pass the calendar is out of sync with the equinoxes and solstices by one day. Consequently, as centuries passed the Julian Calendar became increasingly inaccurate with respect to the seasons.

Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian Reform of the Calendar on February 24, 1582. The decree containing this reform has been nicknamed, Inter Gravissimas, after the first two words of the text. The calendar was adjusted by 10 days so as to restore the date of Easter to the same time of the year at which it had occurred at the time of the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.).

One of the confusions this has caused is the dating of certain key events in history. For example the year of George Washington’s birth changed from 1731 to 1732. In the Julian Calendar he was born on 2/11/1731 but in the Gregorian Calendar his date of birth is 2/22/1732.

FOOTNOTES

 

For a fuller history see HERE

Some of the better sources I used that are worth looking into:

  1. Bradford, William, Bradford’s History, Davis Edition from 1908
  2. Johnson, Caled, Mayflower Web Pages…(1997) Full of many primary source documents.
  3. Johnson, Caleb, Common Mayflower Myths….(1997) A MUST read!
  4. Winslow, Edward, Mourt’s Relations: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, 1622
  5. Marr JS, Cathey JT. New hypothesis for cause of an epidemic among Native Americans, New England, 1616–1619. Emerg Infect Dis [serial on the Internet]. 2010 Feb [date cited].
  6. Philbrick, Nathaniel (2006). Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. New York: Penguin Group. ISBN 0-670-03760-5. ,pp 55–77
  7. Pilgrim Hall Museum, Thanksgiving Declarations of Every US President

Dr. Joe Miller (aka JR) is a Professor of Applied Theology and Leadership & Dean of Online Learning at Southern California Seminary. In addition, he is a church planter and coach for emerging leaders. Dr. Miller has a diverse educational background and authored multiple books on church history, biblical theology, and Leadership. Joe and his wife Suzanne enjoy the sun and surf with their 3 sons in San Diego, CA.

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