The Cause and Custom of the American Thanksgiving, Part 6

Final Thoughts on the Pilgrims, the Trip and the Mayflower Compact

Mayflower_Compact2As we discussed in earlier sections, the Pilgrims of American Thanksgiving yore, were Christians who had serious theological differences with the established churches in Europe and England. The Pilgrims called themselves Separatists, and for good reason. The Separatists believed the State Church and much of the Protestant movement were, in fact, violating vital biblical foundations and therefore, not truly Christian. The established state churches  as well as certain other protestant groups were becoming corrupt and oppressive. So, the Separatists fled from England to Holland in the early 1600s, they did so with dreams of a better, peaceful life. But God did not let their dreams pan out. Eventually the Separatists realized that things were not going to work out in Holland, and the political climate could end up actually being much worse.  

So the decision was then made to migrate to North America where they believed they could be free to worship God as they chose, and hopefully, in peace. Most Separatists or Pilgrims as we call them, were just simple, ordinary people who valued “peace and their spiritual life above any other riches…”

MayflowerAtSeaCroppedThe Leaders struggled preparing for the move, but nothing went well.  God’s hand did not seem to be with them as a number of adverse mishaps, misadventures and heart-breaking setbacks delayed their journey. To top it off, while in Holland, they bought a lemon of a ship called the “Speedwell,” which just as easily could have been called the “Sinkwell” because it was not in the least bit seaworthy. After crossing the English Channel to join with the larger Mayflower, the “Speedwell,” despite ongoing efforts, continued to leak badly. The Separatists tried twice to set out to open sea, but eventually the “Speedwell” was a lost cause. To make matters worse for the Separatists, their delays and setbacks caused the them to leave in September of 1620, which is near the peak of what we now call the “hurricane season.” 102 men, women, and children of the Separatist party had packed into the Mayflower, along with a crew of about 36 sailors as well as various live farm animals for their settlement.

PilgrimFathers1After 11 weeks of being seasick in high winds and rough seas, they arrived far north of their intended destination. Unfortunately, their authorized charter only permitted them to settle in the Virginia territory, which at the time extended from Jamestown up to New Amsterdam (which we now call New York). But unfortunately, the high winds had ultimately driven the ship well away from the area which they had been given a legal right to settle. So with no legal authority for settlement, the Pilgrims had to make a serious decision as to what they should do. Affecting this decision was the fact that the weather was still rough, and the stormy winter seas were preventing them from sailing farther south, not to mention that after being seasick for so long, and weak from their voyage, they had little appetite for setting out again on in such rough water to brave treacherous shoals and unknown beaches, so they decided  to explore the shoreline on foot for potential settlement sites. A series of scouting expeditions led them to decide on settling at an abandoned village of Pautuxet (now Plymouth, MA).

embarkation_pilgrimsIt must have felt like that they were stumbling around all on their own, but God had not abandoned them. While the Mayflower was still anchored, there was much debate over what to do. It was reported that “discontented and mutinous speeches” were made which threatened to dissolve the group. William Bradford’s graphic account in his History of Plymouth Plantation explains that it was this dissension which led to drawing up the famous Mayflower Compact. Bradford indicated that all the adult males would submit to “such government and governors as [they] should by common consent agree to make and choose.” John Carver, who had been a key organizer in the journey and had chartered the Mayflower, is believed to have led in drawing up the historic document. Even here, God used the dissent of a discontented people to accomplish his good.

The Mayflower Compact contained the seeds of a democratic-republic.

The_Mayflower_Compact_1620_cph.3g07155John Carver was elected the first governor of the settlement and he must have had tremendous leadership skills, because to lead a group of non-conforming, discontented Separatists must have been a lot like herding cats. However, despite his initial success in maintaining unity within this small band of non-conformists and organizing a democratic government for “the good of the colony,” one difficulty seemed to lead to another.  Think about it, the Pilgrims had arrived in the dead of winter. Their food supplies were low to non-existent, and they had no shelter from the harsh weather. Further, they were weak from the long rough trip at sea. But if the eleven weeks of bad seas and seasickness was over, the worst was yet to come…a very cold, wet winter!

pilgrimsWilliam Bradford explains that they had extreme difficulty surviving that first, harsh winter. According to Bradford, that winter, “was most sad and lamentable… In two or three month’s time half of [our] company died… being the depth of winter, and wanting houses and other comforts [and] being infected with scurvy and other diseases.” Ironically, it was a majority of the women and children who had stayed aboard the Mayflower who died due to the unsanitary and disease-bearing conditions on the ship. Yet, not one of the Pilgrim survivors chose to go back with the Mayflower when it returned to England in the spring.

If you had been a Pilgrim, at this point, what would you have thought?

Would you have thought that God was not with you? “That this was a foolhardy adventure dreamed up by fools, and how did I get roped into it?” “That maybe you were just wrong… about everything?”  “That it wasn’t worth it?”  What would you have thought if your spouse had died, or your child? Would you have believed that “God doesn’t care?”  I think all of those thoughts would have gone through each of our minds, and I am very sure that it went through their minds as well.  But their focus was putting God first in their lives, and leaving the results with him.

First-ThanksgivingUnfortunately, things did get worse before they got better, Carver and Bradford, who would be the future governor, both came down with illness that winter. However, by March, Wampanoag Indians made contact with the struggling Pilgrims. Through Samoset, and then Tisquantum (Squanto), who spoke better English (after living in England), the Pilgrims met Massasoit the chief.  Carver entered into a peace agreement with the Indians on March 22, 1621. And by late spring, both the weather and food supplies had improved, thanks to the Indians, and the survivors began regaining their health.

09 Bradford William Coastal Scene 1860In April, with high hopes, Carver sent the Mayflower back to England; but sadly, not long after, he too passed away, and William Bradford was elected as the new governor. Fortunately, the Indians kept the peace agreement, and proved to be a gracious friends.

It was that help which prompted Bradford to invite the three Wampanoags over for a thanksgiving service. However, instead of those three Indian friends, 90 Indians showed up and turned the first Thanksgiving gathering into a real celebration. But, the Indians did not come to devour the settlers’ precious harvest, because it was they, the Indians, who provided most of the food.


Illustration of Mother and Children Carrying Thanksgiving Dinner by Douglass CrockwellOn this Day of Thanksgiving, may God give you rest for your heart and mind, may He bless and keep you and your family, and may He continue to extend His blessings upon our great nation, guiding us one and all by His Word. May He grant us patience and perseverance in the unexpected turns and tests of our age. May He impress upon us the spirit of our forefathers, their soul-deep craving for freedom, expressed with courage and wisdom, as we meet the particular challenges of our days.

thanksgiving-wallpaper-6And let us always approach our Heavenly Father with true thankfulness — not just today, but every day — not only in our triumphs, but also in our trials — by acknowledging our utter dependence on Him to supply our wants and needs, for in Him we live and move and have our being. Even our self-reliance is, at its root, reliance on Him:

“Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” –Philippians 4:6-7


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 and perseverance come to fruition with the blessing of God.

– President John F. Kennedy

Taken from “A Puritan Mind.”


The Cause and Custom of the American Thanksgiving, Part 5.

thanksgiving2The very first Thanksgiving Holiday was different. It was Canadian!

The history of Thanksgiving in Canada can be traced back to the 1578 voyage of Martin Frobisher from England in search of the Northwest Passage. His third voyage, to the Frobisher Bay area of Baffin Island in the present Canadian Territory of Nunavut, set out with the intention of starting a small settlement. His fleet of 15 ships was outfitted with men, materials, and provisions. However, the loss of one of his ships through contact with ice along with much of the building material was to prevent him from doing so. The expedition was plagued by ice and freak storms which at times had scattered the fleet and on meeting together again at their anchorage in Frobisher Bay, “… Mayster Wolfall, [ Robert Wolfall ] a learned man, appointed by her Majesties Councell to be their minister and preacher, made unto them a godly sermon, exhorting them especially to be thankefull to God for their strange and miraculous deliverance in those so dangerous places …”. They celebrated Communion and “The celebration of divine mystery was the first sign, scale, and confirmation of Christ’s name, death and passion ever known in all these quarters.”

everything-about-the-first-thanksgiving-1aFrobisher returned to England in the fall of the year with over a thousand tons of what he thought was precious gold ore which turned out to be totally worthless, and minus “fortie”, or about ten percent of his ships’ complement “which number is not great, considering how many ships were in the fleet, and how strange fortunes we passed.”

The exact locations of Frobisher’s activities remained a bit of a mystery until the discoveries of the American explorer Charles Francis Hall in Baffin Island nearly three centuries later in 1861.

Years later, French settlers, having crossed the ocean and arrived in Canada with explorer Samuel de Champlain, in 1604 onwards also held huge feasts of thanks. They even formed the Order of Good Cheer and gladly shared their food with their First Nations neighbours.

cavaliers_in_americaAfter the Seven Years’ War ended in 1763, with New France handed over to the British, the citizens of Halifax held a special day of Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving days were observed beginning in 1799 but did not occur every year. After the American Revolution, American refugees who remained loyal to Great Britain moved from the newly independent United States and came to Canada. They brought the customs and practices of the American Thanksgiving to Canada, such as the turkey, pumpkin, and squash.

Lower Canada and Upper Canada observed Thanksgiving on different dates; for example, in 1816 both celebrated Thanksgiving for the termination of the war between France and Great Britain, the former on May 21 and the latter on June 18. In 1838, Lower Canada used Thanksgiving to celebrate the end of the Lower Canada Rebellion. Following the rebellions, the two Canadas were merged into a united Province of Canada, which observed Thanksgiving six times from 1850 to 1865.

1The first Thanksgiving Day after Canadian Confederation was observed as a civic holiday on April 5, 1872, to celebrate the recovery of the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) from a serious illness.

For many years before it was declared a national holiday in 1879, Thanksgiving was celebrated in either late October or early November. From 1879 onward, Thanksgiving Day has been observed every year, the date initially being a Thursday in November. The date of celebration changed several times until, in 1957, it was officially declared to be the second Monday in October. The theme of the Thanksgiving holiday also changed each year to reflect an important event to be thankful for. In its early years it was for an abundant harvest and occasionally for a special anniversary.

After World War I, an amendment to the Armistice Day Act established that Armistice Day and Thanksgiving would, starting in 1921, both be celebrated on the Monday of the week in which November 11 occurred ten years later, in 1931, the two days became separate holidays, and Armistice Day was renamed Remembrance Day. From 1931 to 1957, the date was set by proclamation, generally falling on the second Monday in October, except for 1935, when it was moved due to a general election. In 1957, Parliament fixed Thanksgiving as the second Monday in October.

Source material from Wikipedia, and from “A Puritan Mind.”

The Cause and Custom of the American Thanksgiving, Part 2

By the mid-17th century, the custom of autumnal Thanksgivings was established throughout New England.


Observance of Thanksgiving Festivals began to spread southward during the American Revolution, as the newly established Congress officially recognized the need to celebrate this holy day.

The first Thanksgiving Proclamation was issued by the revolutionary Continental Congress on November 1, 1777. Authored by Samuel Adams, it was one sentence of 360 words, which read in part:

“Forasmuch 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…together with penitent confession of their sins, whereby they had forfeited every favor; and their humble and earnest supplications that it may please God through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of remembrance…it is therefore recommended…to set apart Thursday the eighteenth day of December next, for solemn thanksgiving and praise, that with one heart and one voice the good people may express the grateful feeling of their hearts and consecrate themselves to the service of their Divine Benefactor…acknowledging with gratitude their obligations to Him for benefits received….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’.”

It was one-hundred and eighty years after the first day of thanksgiving in America, that our Founding Fathers officially recognized the day by proclamation of the Constitutional government.  Soon after adopting the Bill of Rights, a motion in Congress to initiate the proclamation of a national day of thanksgiving was approved.

Congressional Record, September 25, 1789

1700“Mr. [Elias] Boudinot (who was the President of Congress during the American Revolution) said he could not think of letting the congressional session pass over without offering an opportunity to all the citizens of the United States of joining with one voice in returning to Almighty God their sincere thanks for the many blessings He had poured down upon them.  With this view, therefore, he would move the following resolution:

Resolved, That a joint committee of both Houses be directed to wait upon the President of the United States to request that he would 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….

“Mr. [Roger] Sherman (a signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution) justified the practice of thanksgiving on any signal event not only as a laudable one in itself, but as warranted by a number of precedents in Holy Writ….This example he thought worthy of a Christian imitation on the present occasion; and he would agree with the gentleman who moved the resolution….The question was put on the resolution and it was carried in the affirmative.”

This resolution was delivered to President George Washington, who readily agreed with its suggestion and put forth the following proclamation by his signature:


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; 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 enabled 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 favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplication to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions; to enable us all, whether in public 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 shown kindness to 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 3d day of October, AD 1789  George Washington.

Taken from “A Puritan Mind.”