This post was originally published on November 20th 2018 and updated on November 25th 2019.
The history of American Thanksgiving is a rich one, and is very illustrative of our nation’s Christian roots. As early as the 16thcentury, there were days of thanksgiving held by Spaniards and French people on our soils.
Entering the 17thcentury, there were more prominent examples of thanksgiving days held by European immigrants. For example, in 1610 at Jamestown Virginia, which was our first settlement, there was a day of thanksgiving. In 1619, thirty-eight English immigrants arrived at what was then called Berkeley Hundred Virginia. The day of their arrival was held as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God, and was decreed to be an annual celebration as such perpetually.
The First Thanksgiving
Then of course there is the feast the pilgrims held in 1621. This is the one that is pointed to by many today as Americas first Thanksgiving. It was actually more of a harvest celebration, but the attitude of thanksgiving for the many blessings they were enjoying after severe hardship was certainly present.
The pilgrims had arrived at the shores of Massachusetts in late 1620 with around 100 passengers. By spring 1621 their numbers were cut in half, due to various illnesses. But things moved in the other direction as spring arrived.
The pilgrims were introduced to Squanto, a local Native American, who lived among the Wampanoag tribe. He knew English, due to previous captivity and enslavement in England, and was able to communicate with the new settlers. He taught them basic survival in their new climate, and brokered a treaty between the pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe.
By fall of 1621, the pilgrims had a great harvest, and Governor William Bradford thought it fitting to have a feast of celebration. He sent fowlers out to shoot game for the occasion. As the feast began, 90 Wampanoag Indians showed up and were welcomed to participate. These Indians brought venison to add to the feast, which ended up lasting several days.
More Days Of Thanksgiving
In 1623, with the end of a long drought, the pilgrims held a fast followed by a feast of thanksgiving. Throughout this and the following century, many colonies and communities throughout New England held various forms of thanksgiving celebrations.
Thanksgiving Throughout the Revolution
If we fast-forward to the Revolutionary War period, we will also find many proclamations of thanksgiving. Before the new federal government was formed, while the war was going on, the Continental Congress enacted at least one day of thanksgiving per year. The first of these came in 1777. Samuel Adams created the original draft but a final one was later put forth by congress. Here is the proclamation as it was written back then:
For as much as it is the indispensable Duty of all Men to adore the superintending Providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with Gratitude their Obligation to him for Benefits received, and to implore such farther Blessings as they stand in Need of: And it having pleased him in his abundant Mercy, not only to continue to us the innumerable Bounties of his common Providence; but also to smile upon us in the Prosecution of a just and necessary War, for the Defense and Establishment of our unalienable Rights and Liberties; particularly in that he hath been pleased, in so great a Measure, to prosper the Means used for the Support of our Troops, and to crown our Arms with most signal success:
It is therefore recommended to the legislative or executive Powers of these United States to set apart Thursday, the eighteenth Day of December next, for Solemn Thanksgiving and Praise: That at one Time and with one Voice, the good People may express the grateful Feelings of their Hearts, and consecrate themselves to the Service of their Divine Benefactor; and that, together with their sincere Acknowledgments and Offerings, they may join the penitent Confession of their manifold Sins, whereby they had forfeited every Favor; and their humble and earnest Supplication that it may please God through the Merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of Remembrance; That it may please him graciously to afford his Blessing on the Governments of these States respectively, and prosper the public Council of the whole: To inspire our Commanders, both by Land and Sea, and all under them, with that Wisdom and Fortitude which may render them fit Instruments, under the Providence of Almighty God, to secure for these United States, the greatest of all human Blessings, Independence and Peace: That it may please him, to prosper the Trade and Manufactures of the People, and the Labor of the Husbandman, that our Land may yield its Increase: To take Schools and Seminaries of Education, so necessary for cultivating the Principles of true Liberty, Virtue and Piety, under his nurturing Hand; and to prosper the Means of Religion, for the promotion and enlargement of that Kingdom, which consisteth “in Righteousness, Peace and Joy in the Holy Ghost.
And it is further recommended, That servile Labor, and such Recreation, as, though at other Times innocent, may be unbecoming the Purpose of this Appointment, be omitted on so solemn an Occasion.
After the war
After the war, with our new federal government in place, George Washington made similar proclamations. Several presidents after him likewise made proclamations of thanksgiving with the notable exception of Thomas Jefferson. He was a deist, and as such did not believe in God’s interference with the affairs of mankind.
In 1817 New York made Thanksgiving a perpetual state holiday. Other states followed suit. Each state that did so, had their own dates. Nothing perpetual was established federally at this point—only occasional proclamations.
Abraham Lincoln And Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving did not become a federal holiday until 1863. Ironically this falls right in the middle of the Civil War, and it would seem there was not much to be thankful for at the time. Nonetheless, Abraham Lincoln ceded to the influence of an author by the name of Sarah Josepha. She had been advocating for the federal holiday since 1827.
Lincoln made a thanksgiving proclamation like so many others before him, but this time it was to be an annual, perpetual holiday. The proclamation went like this:
The year that is drawing towards 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 even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, 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 theatre of military conflict; while that theatre 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 defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had 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 battle-field; 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 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, tranquility and Union.
In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.”
Proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln, October 3, 1863.
With this proclamation in place, Thanksgiving was officially celebrated every year on the last Thursday of every November. It remained this way until 1939. Franklin Delano Roosevelt thought he could boost the economy by moving Thanksgiving back by a week. His thinking was, since Christmas shopping traditionally began after Thanksgiving, he could give the economy a boost with an additional week of holiday shopping.
This wasn’t very popular amongst Americans, and finally in 1941 FDR made another change to the holiday. This time it was designated to the fourth Thursday of every November, which is not always the last.
Modern Day Thanksgiving
And that pretty much leaves us where we are today. Thanksgiving has been a great American tradition from its very founding. Unfortunately, it has become quite commercialized, and it has lost a lot of its Religious significance for many people. But its roots remain the same, and for those of us who choose to do so, we can still recognize it as it was intended. As it was proclaimed by statesmen who seem by all appearances to have had more spiritual understanding than many Religious leaders today.
God bless you all, and happy Thanksgiving!