The History of Thanksgiving Day in America

The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth by Jennie A. Brownscombe, 1914. Pilgrim Hall Museum.

The First Thanksgiving in America

The Protestant Reformation of the 1500s had given rise to a devout group of Christians in England in the 1600s who called for reform of the Church of England.  Though the church implemented some reforms during this time, some Christians did not believe its reforms went far enough.  The “Puritans,” as they were called, wanted to purify the church from within, to expel what they saw as heresy and corruption in doctrine and worship.  One remnant of this group believed the church was too corrupt to be restored, and they separated from it altogether.  Because these “Separatists” did not want to conform to the official state church, their movement was outlawed.  To escape persecution, they set sail for America.  They became known as the Pilgrims.  The Pilgrims’ migration across the Atlantic on the Mayflower in 1620 proved to be an historic move.

The Pilgrims’ primary reason for coming to America was religious freedom.  They wanted freedom to believe and worship peacefully without harassment or persecution.  They sought freedom in America to set up their own church and community to live as they chose.  The Pilgrims also hoped, in the process, to advance the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

When the Pilgrims arrived in America, landing at Plymouth in 1620, they faced overwhelming difficulties and challenges.  They lacked food, clothing, supplies, and shelter.  They also experienced a harsh winter climate and poor soil, which made hunting and farming very difficult.  As such, the Pilgrim`s suffered from starvation, sickness, and death.  Half of them died during that first year.

Landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth by N. Currier, 1820.

During this difficult time, however, the Pilgrims became friends with some friendly Native Americans who showed them how to plant corn.  In the spring, the Pilgrims farmed their land and planted many crops.  The following autumn, they reaped a plentiful harvest.

In the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims held three days of Thanksgiving to God for His provision and blessings.  They celebrated with a feast and invited their Native American friends to join them in the celebration.  Pilgrim Edward Winslow described this event in his Journal of the Pilgrims:  “God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn and good barley….  Our harvest being brought in, our governor sent four men on fowling, so that we might in special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors….  And although it is not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”  The Pilgrims thus overcame famine, and Plymouth Colony survived.

Throughout their severe trials, the Pilgrims’ faith comforted, encouraged, and strengthened them to press on and to trust in God’s deliverance and provision.  Through their faith and trust in God, the Pilgrims persevered through adversity, gave thanks for God’s mercy and provision, and became key figures who laid the groundwork for a new life and nation for generations to come.

A Fragment of a Poem about New England
by William Bradford, Governor of Plymouth Colony
(in The Mayflower Descendant)

Famine once we had–
But other things God gave us in full store,
As fish and ground nuts, to supply our strait,
That we might learn on providence to wait;
And know, by bread man lives not in his need,
But by each word that doth from God proceed.
But a while after plenty did come in,
From his hand only who doth pardon sin.
And all did flourish like the pleasant green,
Which in the joyful spring is to be seen.


Thanksgiving in the New Nation, the United States of America

During the American Revolution, after the Americans declared independence from Great Britain, the United States’ Continental Congress issued a Thanksgiving proclamation every year from 1777 to 1784 to beseech and thank God for His continued assistance and mercy for the new nation.  When the revolution ended, Congress asked first President George Washington to recommend to the people of the United States “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”

In November of 1789, Washington issued the first presidential Thanksgiving proclamation in the nation so the people might devote themselves to and thank God, and ask for forgiveness of sins:

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 favor, …I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th 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 all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks….  And also that we may 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.

During the Civil War, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national annual holiday.  His proclamation invited citizens to thank and praise God and to pray for the nation:

I invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States…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…they do also…fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.

Thanksgiving is now celebrated every year on the fourth Thursday in November.

Historically, Thanksgiving Day is an invitation and opportunity for we the people of the United States to celebrate and pray, to consider and ponder in our hearts several things (which we might take for granted).  It is an opportunity for Americans to thank God for our self-governing nation and just, constitutional government; our civil and religious freedoms; peace; and His provision in our lives.  It is also a day on which Americans are exhorted to ask God for mercy and forgiveness of ours sins both personal and national.  Further, it is a day on which Americans are called to pray for our nation and community, with consideration for the challenges and issues of our time, and to seek God’s will, honor, and glory in the nation and in the world.

Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

This article and a reading quiz activity are available as a printable PDF handout in the member resources section on americanheritage.org.  Simply sign up and login as a member (no cost), go to the resources page, and look under Miracle of America articles.

Sources for more information:
Kamrath, Angela E.  The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief.  Second Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.  Third edition (2020) is available!

Bowman, George Ernest, ed.  The Mayflower Descendant:  A Quarterly Magazine of Pilgrim Genealogy and History.  Vol. 7.  No. 3.  Whole no. 27.  Boston, MA:  Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, July 1905.  See p. 152.  Google Books.

Johnson, Caleb, ed.  Mourt’s Relation:  A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, 1622, by Edward Winslow and William Bradford.  The Plymouth Colony Archive Project, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, http://www.histarch.illinois.edu/plymouth/mourt6.html (2007).

Related posts/videos:
1.  Three P’s That Led to Freedom in the West:  Printing Press, Protestant Reformation, & Pilgrims
2.  Who were the Pilgrims?  Why did they come to America?
3.  Why the Pilgrims Identified with the Ancient Israelites
4.  The Mayflower Compact:  The Pilgrims’ First Self-Governing Act in America
5.  The Pilgrims’ Mayflower Compact as a Covenant
6:  The Pilgrims & Private Property:  What the Pilgrims Might Have Thought About Communism & Socialism
7.  The Pilgrims Persevered in Adversity
8.  The First Thanksgiving in America
9.  Early Americans Valued a Strong, Bible-Inspired Work Ethic
10.  The Puritans’ Moral Authority Was the Bible
11. 
A City on a Hill:  Why John Winthrop and the Puritans Came to America
12.  The Puritans in America Identified with the Ancient Israelites and Practiced Covenants
13.  Why and How Did Schools Begin in the United States:  The Puritans Supported Education for Bible Literacy

Poster:  Declaration of Independence

—–

1. Elementary Activity:  America’s Heritage:  An Adventure in Liberty (Elementary Edition), “The History of Thanksgiving Day,” p. 113-119.  ES.  Elementary lesson available in member resources at americanheritage.org.

2. Elementary/Middle/High Activity:  The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 2, Part 3, Activity 7:  The History of Thanksgiving Day in America (revised), p. 93, 318-319.  ES-HS.

The History of Thanksgiving Day in America (revised)

Purpose/Objective:  Students learn about the practice, purpose, and significance of Thanksgiving Day to Americans through history as well as the prevalent American beliefs and values that shaped this national holiday.

Suggested Readings:
1)  The Founding Blog article:  “The History of Thanksgiving in America” (See article above.  Printable PDF handout available in member resources on americanheritage.org).
2)  Chapter 2 of Miracle of America reference/text.  Students read sections 2.2, 2.7, 2.8, and pp. 238-239.
3)  Related blogs/videos (see above).
4)  [revised option] Part 6 of Mourt’s Relation:  A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, 1622, by Edward Winslow and William Bradford, edited by Caleb Johnson.  The Plymouth Colony Archive Project, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, http://www.histarch.illinois.edu/plymouth/mourt6.html (2007).

A.  Read and Respond with Short Paragraph Answers:
The teacher delivers content on Thanksgiving.  Students should read the above “History of Thanksgiving Day” blog article and, if the teacher wishes, also the fuller excerpts of the proclamations from “The History of Thanksgiving Day ” in Chapter 7 of Miracle of America, pp. 238-239.  As an option (revised), students may also read Part 6 in Mourt’s Relation:  A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth.  The teacher may print the Miracle reading excerpts for the class or display them on an overhead projector.  From the readings, students analyze different historical passages that reveal the purpose, motive, and significance of Thanksgiving Day to Americans through history.  Students write short paragraph answers to the following questions and discuss as a class:

1.  What was the original purpose for the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving?
2.  What has been the purpose of Thanksgiving throughout United States’ history?
3.  What worldview, religious beliefs, and values are revealed in the content of the official Thanksgiving proclamations in U. S. history?  Or, what do these passages tell you about the beliefs, values, and actions of early Americans?
4.  Why do you think it is important to recognize Thanksgiving Day in our heritage and in our lives today?  Or, why/how is Thanksgiving relevant and applicable to you and to the community and nation today?

B.  Thanksgiving Reading Quiz and Discussion:
After students read “The History of Thanksgiving Day in America” article above, either individually or in small groups, students answer the following Reading Quiz questions and then discuss/share in large group:
1.  Who were the Pilgrims?
2.  Why did the Pilgrims come to America?
3.  What trials and difficulties did the Pilgrims experience when they came to America?
4.  What kept the Pilgrims going during this hard time?  In his poem, what two things did Governor William Bradford say the Pilgrims learned?  Trivia:  For the latter, what Bible verse does he reference?
5.  What positive things did the Pilgrims do during this difficult time?
6.  What was the purpose of the Pilgrims’ celebratory feast in the fall of 1621?
7.  What did the first presidential Thanksgiving proclamation by President George Washington exhort Americans in the new nation to do?
8.  Who made Thanksgiving a national annual holiday?
9.  What did the 1863 Thanksgiving proclamation (during the Civil War) instruct citizens to do?
10.  How/why is Thanksgiving relevant and applicable to you/us as a nation today?

The “History of Thanksgiving Day in America” article handout, quiz handout, and answer key are available in printable PDF in member resources on americanheritage.org 

—–

To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on americanheritage.org.  To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.

—–

To receive blog updates, we invite you to subscribe to the Founding Blog on this page.

This blog is provided by the American Heritage Education Foundation (AHEF).  AHEF is a non-profit organization dedicated to the understanding and teaching of America’s founding philosophy, principles, documents, and history.  AHEF’s work is made possible by the donations of private individuals and organizations.  Please consider a tax-deductible donation to AHEF to support our mission.  Thank you!

Copyright © American Heritage Education Foundation.  All rights reserved.