America, A Legacy of Thanksgiving

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An almost instinctive urge to express thanksgiving to God is as American as the pilgrims.  In fact, celebrating a day of thanksgiving to God for safe passage, provision and protection was recorded in America as early as April 30, 1598 in El Paso.  A Spanish expedition of 500 people had miraculously survived a 50 day trek through the Chihuahuan Desert to find the Rio Grande.  Having no food or water for the last five days of the journey, they arrived near death but were revived by the water of the river and provisions waiting there for them.  Juan de Oñate, their leader, declared a celebration of thanksgiving to God.  One survivor wrote: “We built a great bonfire and roasted the meat and fish…We were happy that our trials were over; as happy as were the passengers in the Ark when they saw the dove returning with the olive branch in his beak…”

The earliest English settlers established a tradition of giving thanks on the day of their first landing in the New World.

It was spring in Virginia, April 29, 1607 and Reverend Robert Hunt led a group of sea-weary settlers and sailors in a prayer of thanksgiving to God for a safe voyage through sometimes turbulent seas. One hundred and five settlers and 40 sailors had sailed from England on December 20, 1606 in three small ships: the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery.  After four months on the sea they had nearly given up hope of finding the New World.  Finally, after days of enduring an awful storm, land was spotted on April 26, 1607.  The three ships dropped anchor where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Chesapeake Bay near present day Fort Story, Virginia.  Reverend Hunt insisted that the group remain on the ships for three days for a time of repentance for the in-fighting that had occurred on the long, arduous journey.  On April 29, 1607 they left the ships carrying the pieces of a rough-hewn, seven-foot wooden cross that had accompanied them on the trip. The cross was erected and the group knelt in the sand as Reverend Hunt prayed “from these shores the Gospel shall go forth to not only this New World, but the entire world.” They named the spot Cape Henry for King James’ son.  A few days later this group would sail further inland and establish the Jamestown colony.

About this same time in England, a devout group of people “separated” themselves from the Church of England, thinking it corrupt.  They were called Separatists for their religious differences and were persecuted for not conforming to the dictates of the Church of England.  After much conflict and difficulty, many of the Separatists decided to leave England and prepared to seek peace and freedom in the New World.  In September of 1620, 102 passengers boarded The Mayflower and set sail for the New World.   They would spend 65 days at sea. Passengers included leader William Brewster, William Bradford (an early governor of Plymouth Colony), and Myles Standish, a professional soldier and military advisor. The Mayflower dropped anchor near Cape Cod on November 11, 1620. That same day William Bradford and 41 male passengers, before leaving the ship, signed the Mayflower Compact, an agreement and pledge to enact “just and equal laws for the general good of the colony.” In the Compact, they acknowledged God’s sovereignty and their obedience to Him. The Mayflower Compact is America’s first great “constitutional document” and is often called “The American Covenant.”  The Pilgrims finally landed at the site of present-day Plymouth, Massachusetts on Dec. 26, 1620.

Surely, the time of the Pilgrim’s arrival in the New World was God-ordained.  For, had they arrived just a few years earlier, they would have been attacked and destroyed by the Patuxets, a strong and fierce tribe living in that region. But, three years earlier (in 1617), the Patuxet tribe had been wiped out by a plague. Thus, the Pilgrims had landed in one of the few places where they had a chance to survive.

God’s hand is seen again in providing help for these Pilgrims years before their arrival.  There was one survivor of the Patuxet tribe: Squanto. Squanto had been kidnapped twelve years earlier, in 1605, by Captain Weymouth and taken to England.  He was rescued from slavery by a priest who taught him English and saw that he was educated. Squanto eventually returned to his homeland and, finding his tribe had been wiped out by the plague, he lived with a neighboring tribe. When Squanto learned of the group of English settlers at Plymouth, he went to them and showed them how to plant corn and fertilize with fish. Squanto later converted to Christianity. William Bradford said that Squanto “was a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation.” With Squanto’s help, the settlers had a good relationship with the Indians.  To celebrate their first harvest in 1621 the settlers invited the Indians to join them for a feast and a time of thanksgiving for God’s provision.

On November 29, 1623 Governor William Bradford made this annual celebration official and issued a Proclamation of Thanksgiving for the Pilgrims:

“Inasmuch as the great Father has given us this year an abundant harvest of Indian corn, wheat, peas, beans, squashes, and garden vegetables, and has made the forests to abound with game and the sea with fish and clams, and inasmuch as he has protected us from the ravages of the savages, has spared us from pestilence and disease, has granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience; now I, your magistrate, do proclaim that all Pilgrims, with your wives and little ones, do gather at the meeting house, on the hill, between the hours of 9 and 12 in the day time, on Thursday, November the 29th, of the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred and twenty-three, and the third year since Pilgrims landed on ye Pilgrim Rock, there to listen to the pastor and render thanksgiving to Almighty God for all His blessings.”

During the 1700’s and 1800’s it was common practice for individual colonies to observe “days of thanksgiving” following a military victory or some other important accomplishment, not necessarily after harvest, and often it was a day set aside for prayer and fasting.

As our first president, George Washington, presented the first national Proclamation of Thanksgiving on October 3, 1789.  You can read it in its entirety at:

Since that first national proclamation nearly every president has led the nation in observing a day for giving thanks by issuing a Proclamation of Thanksgiving each year to “recommend” the citizens set aside a day of “public thanksgiving and prayer”.  After a break in the early 1800’s, Abraham Lincoln issued a Proclamation and every president since has continued the tradition.

May this instinctive response to give thanks to, as Abraham Lincoln said, “the God who created us” remain deeply rooted as a part of America’s heritage and evident in the daily lives of her citizens.

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