Understanding Our For Fathers Heart 

It is Thanksgiving, not Christmas! The tradition of Thanksgiving in America, our focus on God and His blessing date way back. David Barton of Wall Builders wrote, “The main thrust of celebrating Thanksgiving here in America, is from the familiar story of the Pilgrim’s Thanksgiving celebration of 1621.” (David Barton – 11/2008

Today, it appears the Thanksgiving season is open season to make merchandise of the Gospel with the purpose of making money.  To use the Thanksgiving season as a prelude to touching the Holy things of God with unholy hands is an insult to the Lord, for He has given us the blessings we enjoy.

Could it be? Is it time? Does the church today need to follow the example of Christ?  In His dealing with the money changers in the temple when they used the sacrifices found in Scripture to make a fortune for themselves. He aggressively addressed their sin by overturning the tables and reminded them, “God’s house is to be a house of prayer, not a den for thieves.” (Luke 19:45-46)   In a nation where the foundation of the founding fathers was a healthy reverence for God, the church needs to aggressively address the sins of America.

I would propose to you, the Word of God holds the foundational truths for expressing a thankful life. Psalm 107:21, “Let them thank the Lord for His unfailing love and His wonderful deeds for mankind.” Understanding, the heartbeat of the first Thanksgiving lays the foundation for a thanksgiving season that glorifies the Lord.

To whom did the early Pilgrims give thanks to?

The Pilgrims

The Pilgrims set sail for America on September 6, 1620, and for two months they braved the harsh elements of a storm-tossed sea.  Upon disembarking at Plymouth Rock, they held a prayer service and then hastily began to build shelters; however, unprepared for such a harsh New England winter, nearly half of them died before spring. (William Bradford, History of Plymouth Plantation (Boston: Little, Brown & Co, 1856), pp. 74, 78, 80, 91.)  After enduring a harsh winter they met an English speaking Indian, Samoset, whom learnt English from fisherman and traders.  One week later Samoset showed up with Squanto, who chose to live with the Pilgrims and accepted their Christian faith.  Pilgrim Governor William Bradford, described Squanto as “A special instrument sent of God for [our] good… and never left [us] till he died.” (William Bradford, History of Plymouth Plantation (Boston: Little, Brown & Co, 1856), p. 95)

As one continues to look at the period of the first Thanksgivings in America – we see in the summer of 1621, the Pilgrims reaped a huge harvest.  Pilgrim Edward Winslow affirmed this by writing, “God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn”; “by the goodness of God, we are… far from want.” (Mourt’s Relation or Journal of the Plantation at Plymouth, Henry Martyn Dexter, editor (Boston: Jim Kimball Wiggin, 1865; reprint of 1622 original), p. 133. See also William S. Russell, Guide to Plymouth and Recollections of the Pilgrims (Boston: George Coolidge, 1846), p. 95, quoting from a letter of Pilgrim Edward Winslow to George Morton of London, written on December 21, 1621)

The pilgrims declared a three-day feast in December 1621 to thank God and to celebrate with their Indian friends, whom showed them how to survive in the New England land.  America’s first Thanksgiving Festival involved Ninety Wampanoag Indians and fifty Pilgrims feasting three days.  They ate shellfish, lobster, turkey, corn bread, berries, deer, and other foods.  The Pilgrims and Indians engaged in races, wrestling matches, and other athletic events and prayer. (David Barton – 11/2008)

In 1623, there was another hardship, a prolonged drought, which if continued would lead to another period of starvation and death, much like they experienced in the winter of 1620.  Governor Bradford, called the Pilgrims to a time of prayer and fasting to seek God’s direct intervention. Significantly, shortly after time of prayer – and to the great amazement of the Indian who witnessed the scene – clouds appeared in the sky giving a gentle steady rain upon the land.  (David Barton – 11/2008)

  • Governor Bradford explained: “It came without either wind or thunder or any violence, and by degrees in abundance, as that ye earth was thoroughly wet and soaked therewith, which did so apparently revive and quicken ye decayed corn and other fruits as was wonderful to see, and made ye Indians astonished to behold; and afterwards the Lord sent them such seasonable showers, with interchange of fair warm weather as, through His blessing, caused a fruitful and liberal harvest, to their no small comfort and rejoicing.” (William Bradford, History of Plymouth Plantation (Boston: Little, Brown & Co, 1856), p. 142)

The drought had been broken. The fall harvest was one which caused another reason to celebrate Thanksgiving. The Pilgrim’s practice of designating official times of Thanksgiving spread to different colonies which became annual traditions. (DeLoss Love, Jr, The Fast and Thanksgiving Days of New England (Boston: Houghton,, Mifflin & Co, 1895), pp. 87-90)

David Barton wrote, “And just as the Pilgrims’ example of calling for days of thanksgiving, with prayer and fasting, so, too, did the all New England Colonies develop a practice of calling for a day of prayer and fasting in the spring, and a day of prayer and thanksgiving in the fall.”

National Proclamations of Thanksgiving

The Thanksgiving celebrations were so common – during the time of the American Revolution, Congress issued eight separate National Thanksgiving Proclamations.  Congress also issued seven separate proclamations for prayer and fasting during the time of the American Revolution. (See the Journals of the Continental Congress (1905) for June 12, 1775; March 16, 1776; December 11, 1776; November 1, 1777; March 7, 1778; November 17, 1778; March 20, 1779; October 20, 1779; March 11, 1780; October 18, 1780; March 20, 1781; October 26, 1781; March 19, 1782; October 11, 1782; October 18, 1783)

Proclamations like:

George Washington, “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. . . . Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November [1789] . . . that we may all unite to render unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection.” (George Washington, Writings of George Washington, Jared Sparks, editor ((Boston: Russell, Odiorne and Metcalf, 1838), Vol. XII, p. 119, Proclamation for a National Thanksgiving on October 3, 1789.)

Abraham Lincoln, in 1863 set aside the last Thursday of that November with this Thanksgiving proclamation which had strong spiritual content and came about at a pivotal point in his life.  Just three months earlier, the Battle of Gettysburg had occurred, resulting in the loss of 60,000 American lives. It was during that walk Mr. Lincoln became a Christian. (Abraham Lincoln, The Lincoln Memorial: Album-Immortelles. Osborn H. Oldroyd, editor (New York: G.W. Carleton & Co, 1882) p. 366, Reply to an Illinois Clergyman.)

During his proclamation he said, “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 even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God . . . 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” (Abraham Lincoln, The Works of Abraham Lincoln, John H. Clifford & Marion M. Miller, editors (New York: University Society Inc, 1908), Vol. VI, pp. 160-161, Proclamation for Thanksgiving, October 3, 1863. See also, The American Presidency Project, “Abraham Lincoln: Proclamation – Thanksgiving Day, 1863”)

As we celebrate Thanksgiving with our families, let us remember the heart-beat of our founding fathers and keep God and Christ at the focal point of the remembrance from Whom all blessings flow.  May we be like Samuel Adams and Richard Henry Lee, signers of the Declaration, “[Congress] recommended [a day of] …thanksgiving and praise [so] that… the good people may express the grateful feelings of their hearts and …join.. their humble and earnest supplication that it may please God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive [our sins] and… [to] enlarge [His] Kingdom with consistent righteousness, peace and enjoy the Holy Ghost.” (Journals of the Continental Congress (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1907), Vol. IX, p. 855, November 1, 1777)

Here in America, in our Thanksgiving celebrations and proclamations, we have passed away from understanding the relationship with God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, to religious redirect.  May the Lord return our hearts to Psalm 107:21, “Let them thank the Lord for His unfailing love and His wonderful deeds for mankind.”