The Real Story of Thanksgiving

Posted on November 23, 2011 by


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; 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 public 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 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. —George Washington

On a social networking site which I frequent, an individual in one of my “circles” of “friends” posted “The Real Story of Thanksgiving.” The tagline was as follows:

Sorry to be a downer… Thanksgiving – the celebration of stealing land and killing the natives and now the killing of 45 million turkeys every year.

They then proceeded to link to a story vilifying the Pilgrims as “religious zealots”, and promoting the idea that the Thanksgiving celebration originated as a way to celebrate the bloody massacres of Native Americans. The story then proceeded to mangle a number of historical facts, painting the Pilgrims in the harshest possible light (not to mention mangling their theology) and sympathetically portraying the plight of the poor, “noble savages” – the Native Americans who would, just a generation after the First Thanksgiving, be defeated by the Europeans in King Phillip’s War.

The truth is somewhat more complex. The story of Thanksgiving really starts in England. The Church of England had become corrupt and ideologically polluted, and vehemently oppressed all other Christians who would not conform to the state Church. Many Christians in England acknowledged that something had to be done. There were two distinct schools of thought: First, that the Church of England should be reformed from within. Those who believed this were called the “Puritans” because they sought to purify the church.

Second, there were those who sought to separate from the Church of England altogether. These individuals were often referred to derisively as “separatists”, or “dissenters.” It was one particular congregation of dissenters who left the religious persecution of the Church of England and became known as the “Pilgrims.” The Pilgrims fled originally to the Netherlands, a land known for its relative religious tolerance. But upon their arrival there, the Pilgrims encountered another issue all together.

In Of Plymouth Plantation, William Bradford (a Pilgrim himself, and the second governor of Plymouth Colony) says this of their stay in the Netherlands:

“But that which was more lamentable, and of all sorrows most heavy to be borne, was that many of their children, by these occasions, and the great licentiousness of youth in that country, and the manifold temptations of the place, were drawn away by evil examples to extravagant and dangerous courses, getting the reins off their necks, and departing from their parents. Some became soldiers, others took upon them far voyages by sea, and other some worse courses, tending to dissoluteness and the danger of their souls, to the great grief of their parents and dishonor of God. So that they saw their posterity would be in danger to degenerate and be corrupted.”

The Pilgrims had left England to protect their families from religious and physical persecution – but in so doing, they realized that they were now losing their children to a greater danger altogether. It’s hard for us in this day and age to understand how truly devastating this was – today, we are all too happy for our children to pursue whatever they fancy as long as it doesn’t end them up in jail or doing something that embarrasses us. But the Pilgrims had a higher hopes and expectations: they wanted their children to grow up as a godly generation that would be honoring to the Lord.

And so, after twelve years, with the twofold purpose of cultural preservation and gospel missions, the Pilgrims set sail for America on a ship called the Mayflower. Bradford put it this way:

“Lastly, (and which was not least), a great hope and inward zeal they had of laying some good foundation, or at least to make some way thereunto, for the propagating and advancing the gospel 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.

“These, and some other like reasons, moved them to undertake this resolution of their removal; the which they afterward prosecuted with so great difficulties, as by the sequel will appear.”

The Pilgrims did in fact finally reach the New World with great difficulty, the gist of which is that they finally anchored their ship in a place today known as Provincetown Harbor. There in the harbor, and before they set foot on land, the Pilgrims drafted a governing document known as the Mayflower Compact. The Mayflower Compact itself is the one of the most important documents in American history, as it formed the foundation and example for many governing documents to follow, including several state constitutions.

Some of the groundbreaking ideas established by the Mayflower Compact were equal treatment for Pilgrims and non-Pilgrims (of which there were a few on the Mayflower) alike under the law, voting rights for all freemen, and the ability to make their own laws and elect their own leaders. It is one of the purest examples of the social contract that exists in American history.

It bears noting that the very wording of the Mayflower Compact lays out the purpose of the Pilgrim’s voyage and subsequent settling of the land:

Having undertaken, for the Glory of God, and advancements 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 another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic…”

Of the 102 original passengers, nearly half died within the first winter, due to sickness, exposure, and starvation. When spring finally came, the Pilgrims met Indians who taught them how to plant corn (Indian Maize), fish for cod, and trap and skin beavers for their pelts to make warm clothing. And that, right there, is where most of the history books and children’s stories about Thanksgiving stop. But there is more to it than that. The pilgrims, true to their original agreement before coming to the New World, had a system of community property – meaning that everyone in the community got an equal share, regardless of their labor. This collectivism very nearly led to the colony’s starving to death once again. As Bradford wrote:

“For this community (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For the young-men that were most able and fit for labor and service did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children, without any recompense. The strong, or man of parts, had no more in division of victuals and clothes, then he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalized in labors, and victuals, clothes, etc., with the meaner and younger sort, thought it some indignity and disrespect unto them. And for men’s wives to be commanded to doe service for other men, as dressing their meat, washing their clothes, etc., they deemed it a kind of slavery, neither could many husbands well brook it.”

Puzzled, the Pilgrims turned to the one book they trusted to guide their lives and answer their questions: The Holy Scriptures. According to Bradford, “God in his wisdom saw another course fitter for them.”

Following the principles of Scripture, Bradford allowed each family and individual to keep the fruits of their own labor and industry. Soon, Bradford writes,

This had very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted then otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn, which before would allege weakness, and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.”

It was in response to God’s wisdom and direction, as well as a miraculous provision of rain, that the autumn celebration we now call the “First Thanksgiving” was held in October of 1621. Unlike our Thanksgiving celebrations today, there was very little revelry. Instead, it was a solemn ceremony of praise and thanks to God for all of the ways He had blessed and guided the colony in the previous year.

The real story of the First Thanksgiving reminds us of three things: First, God’s calling out His people to be holy and set apart for him; second, the perfect gift and guidance we have in the Word of God; third, all the ways in which God provides for His people, even in the midst of difficulty and adversity.

Yes, there were some terrible atrocities committed by both Native Americans and Europeans as two radically diverse cultures came into conflict on the continent of North America over the next two-hundred years. But to blame the Pilgrims for this, or to say that the heritage of Thanksgiving is somehow one of genocide isn’t just disingenuous – it’s bad history.