I am grateful for a day in which we, as a people, pause to give thanks. And who do we have to thank for this holiday? Your answer is likely “The Pilgrims.” You would not be wrong, but then not completely correct, either. Certainly, Thanksgiving and the religious response of giving thanks to God is as old as time. When one considers enduring cultures, one always finds men and women working out their relationship to God. There is almost always a fourfold purpose to our acts of worship: adoration, petition, atonement, thanksgiving. Such worship is part and parcel of life. And yet, there is still a very human need to specially celebrate and offer thanksgiving on key occasions and anniversaries. Since medieval times, we have very detailed records of celebrations marking the end of an epidemic, liberation from sure and certain doom, the signing of a peace treaty, and more.
The Thanksgiving holiday’s history in North America is rooted in English harvest traditions but also in events dating from the Protestant Reformation of Henry VIII in England. Before 1536, there were 95 Church holidays, plus 52 Sundays, when people were required to attend church, forego work, and sometimes host elaborate celebrations. The 1536 reforms reduced the number of Church holidays to 27, but some Puritans wished to completely eliminate all Church holidays, including Christmas and Easter. The holidays were to be replaced by specially called Days of Fasting or Days of Thanksgiving.
The celebrations were not limited to the Puritans but became a national practice in England. A Day of Thanksgiving was called following the victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588. An unusual annual Day of Thanksgiving began in 1606 following the failure of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot (it developed into Guy Fawkes Day). Thanksgiving services were routine in what became the Commonwealth of Virginia as early as 1607. The first permanent settlement of Jamestown, Virginia, held a Thanksgiving in 1610, in response to events that the Puritans viewed as acts of special providence. Days of Fasting were called because of drought in 1611, floods in 1613, and plagues in 1604 and 1622.
Pilgrims and Puritans who began emigrating from England in the 1620s and 1630s carried the tradition of Days of Fasting and Days of Thanksgiving with them to New England. Several days of Thanksgiving were held in early New England history that have been identified as the “First Thanksgiving,” including Pilgrim holidays in Plymouth in 1621 and 1623, and a Puritan holiday in Boston in 1631. Researchers at the University of Florida argue that the earliest Thanksgiving service in the United States was celebrated by the Spanish on Sept. 8, 1565, in St. Augustine.
Thanksgiving proclamations were made mostly by church leaders in New England up until 1682, and then by both state and church leaders until after the American Revolution. As president of the United States, George Washington proclaimed the first nationwide thanksgiving celebration in America marking Nov. 26, 1789, “as a day of public thanksgiving.” There were some changes along the way, but we now celebrate the holiday on the fourth Thursday of November. And who do we have to thank for this holiday? George Washington got it right:
“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 signal favors of Almighty God….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” (Thanksgiving Proclamation, 3 October 1789).