Newsletter Volume XXXIII Number 3 – Late Fall 2012
by Canon Mark A. Pearson
Thanksgiving Day 1621
It was a crisp day in October, sunny, deep blue sky, pleasant but with that crispness that hints of the winter to come. It was that kind of day for which New England is noted.
It was a perfect day for a party and on that October day of 1621 one was held, one that turned into a three day feast for about 140 people. Fifty Pilgrims were present, the remnant of the larger band that had arrived the previous year. They were joined by ninety Wampanoag Indians led by their great king Massasoit.
They feasted on seafood, native wild fowl, venison, corn bread and other foods. They engaged in such athletic events as races and wrestling matches. (Remember this when someone thinks it’s inappropriate to watch football on a day of giving thanks!) And they prayed and gave thanks.
Not the First Thanksgiving
Although we often think of this event as “the first thanksgiving,” there were many antecedents.
Roots in Scripture
The Feast of Tabernacles, described in Leviticus 23:34 took place in October and involved seven days of feasting and giving thanks to God for His provision. It marked the completion of the harvest, and historically recalled the wanderings in the wilderness.
Roots in Europe
For centuries English villages have held Harvest Home festivals to celebrate the final harvest, to have a community-wide feast, and to and give thanks to God for His bounty. We commemorate this in the popular Thanksgiving hymn, “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come.” It was written in 1844 by Henry Alford, Dean of Canterbury Cathedral. The first half of the first verse reads:
Come, ye thankful people, come,
Raise the song of harvest home:
All is safely gathered in,
Ere the winter storms begin.
Prior Thanksgiving Celebrations in the New World
Scholars differ over precisely when earlier Thanksgiving celebrations in the New World occurred. Some note masses of Thanksgiving held in the 1500s celebrated by priests accompanying Spanish explorers and settlers in what today are Texas and Florida. Many cite services of Thanksgiving held by Anglicans in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, followed soon on by other such services.
Unrecorded, but assumed, are harvest thanksgiving festivals conducted by the native population long before Europeans set foot in North America.
How Could They Have Given Thanks?
It is difficult to imagine how the Pilgrims could give thanks. In September of 1620, 102 people had set sail for the New World. They had been blown off course far to the north. Their food was poor, their shelter was primitive, and that winter was severe. By the time Spring had arrived, nearly half of them had died. We would have understood had they taken to heart the counsel given to the suffering Job by his wife: “Curse God and die” (Job 2:9).
Not everyone who had sailed on the Mayflower was a Pilgrim, one who heard God’s call to establish what they thought was a more biblically ordered society than the one they knew in England.. Some were crewmembers, others were merely adventurers.
The captain of the Mayflower had decided to return to England in early April and invited anyone wishing to leave to accompany him. Not one of the Pilgrims did, despite what they had suffered. They knew they had been called of God and neither the calamities they had endured nor the loss of people dear to them would cause them to turn their backs, either on that call or on God Who had given it.
Some years later, William Bradford, one of their original leaders and later governor of Plymouth Colony for three decades, wrote an account of the early years.
Of the colonists and their hardships Bradford wrote, “But these things did not dismay them (though they did sometimes trouble them) for their desires were set on the ways of God, and to enjoy His ordinances; but they rested on His providence, and knew Whom they had believed” [William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647].
Some cynics — some who really do not understand our Christian faith but think they know all about psychology — may think the attitude expressed by Bradford and the others is just a denial of reality. Are the cynics kidding? These settlers knew reality only too well. In early New England it was a custom at harvest festival meals to place five kernels of corn at every plate as a reminder of that first winter when food was so scarce that the individual ration was often just five kernels to each person at a time.
No, they weren’t in denial. They had learned, as Scripture exhorts us, to give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18). As they reflected on their losses, they thanked God for their blessings. Not only was the native population willing to help them, two Indians, Samoset and Squanto both spoke English.
Why are we so negative? It seems the more we have the more we want. In my travels to third world countries I meet Christian believers who are grateful, and they have but a small percentage of what I have. Had they learned something we have forgotten or never learned — the “gratitude attitude”? The attitude of entitlement has poisoned us, I fear.
What Do We Give Thanks For?
We give thanks for things global, things specific, and everything in-between.
Global. One of my favorite prayers is The General Thanksgiving from The Book of Common Prayer. In it we are instructed to thank God for His “good-ness and loving-kindness…” and then for “our creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life….” While these statements can degenerate into mere platitudes unless they are fleshed out with specifics, they do remind us that God is the author of all that is good. Think and thank global. Think and thank big.
Specific. We thank God for things that are unique or particularly meaningful to us. While we would miss these things if they were taken from us, we often take them for granted.
“But Above All.” General things, specific things, but what’s most important? A Christian would say, again in the words of The General Thanksgiving, “but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.” Thanks, God, for redemption (made possible because Jesus shed His Precious Blood on the cross to pay the penalty price my sins deserved). Thanks, God, for the various means to access Your grace for daily life. And thanks, God, for assurance that I will be in glory when I die.
How Do We Give Thanks?
With Humility. The General Thanksgiving starts us off with the confession, “we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks. It is difficult to give thanks if you think you deserve everything that comes your way.
With God’s help. The General Thanksgiving has us ask God to “give us such an awareness of your mercies….” Ask God for that gratitude attitude we mentioned.
With Specific Actions. Thankful attitudes are nothing if they do not lead to thankful actions. Here are some actions:
1. In your prayers, discipline yourself to thank God for six things before you ask Him for anything.
2. Before each meal, thank God for things besides the meal itself. My father, before we started eating our Thanksgiving dinner, required each person at the table to speak two things for which he or she was thankful.
3. Before you worship, ask God to give to you a thankful attitude. With The General Thanksgiving we pray, “that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise….”
4. Enter into the service of others while pointing to God as your reason for serving. We pray, “…giving up our selves for your service.” Mother Teresa said the reason for her sacrificial service was thankfulness for what God did for her.
5. Do your part (with the grace of God and the help of others) to grow in authentic holiness. The General Thanksgiving speaks of our “walking before [God] in holiness and righteousness….” Holy lives are a way to thank God.
Sarah Hale Gets Her Holiday
For over two centuries colonies, and later states and the federal government, would hold days of Thanksgiving but they were sporadic. The Thanksgiving holiday as we now celebrate it is largely the work of Sarah Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, one of America’s first women’s magazines. She had spent over three decades tenaciously attempting to get a national, annual Thanksgiving Day declared by political leaders. With President Abraham Lincoln she found her man. Lincoln established the annual Thanksgiving celebration in 1863. +