Happy Thanksgiving! This morning I was paging through my copy of The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning From History by Robert Tracy McKenzie (read my brief review here). I found the section where McKenzie concludes that what we remember traditionally as “the first Thanksgiving” was more like an autumn harvest festival in Plymouth. The Pilgrims themselves would never have deemed that festival as an actual holy day devoted to Thanksgiving and public worship. McKenzie notes: “That contemporary Americans are disposed to see this as a distinction without a difference says a lot about our values, not the Pilgrims’.” (pg. 141)
Following this observation, McKenzie’s next section title is the title of my post: “he First Thanksgiving We Don’t Remember.” I want to share some selections from this section and encourage you to pick up McKenzie’s book.
From the Pilgrims’ perspective, their first formal celebration of a day of thanksgiving in Plymouth came nearly two years later, in July 1623. [We don’t remember that occasion because we] condense their story to three key events — the Mayflower Compact, the landing at Plymouth Rock and the First Thanksgiving — and quickly lose interest thereafter. In reality, the Pilgrims’ struggle for survival continued another two years…. Only weeks after their 1621 harvest celebration, the Pilgrims were surprised by the arrival of the ship Fortune. The thirty-five new settlers on board would nearly double their depleted ranks.
The good news was that several of the newcomers were loved ones from Leiden…. The bad news was… they had arrived with few clothes, no bedding or pots or pans, and “not so much as biscuit cake or any other victuals,” as [colony governor William] Bradford bitterly recalled…. rather than having “good plenty” for the winter [following the traditional “First Thanksgiving” (in Autumn 1621)], the Pilgrims, who had to provide food for the Fortune‘s return voyage and feed an additional thirty-five mouths throughout the winter, once again faced the prospect of starvation….
The harvest of 1622 provided a temporary reprieve from hunger, but it fell far short of their needs for the coming year, and by the spring of 1623 the Pilgrims’ situation was again dire. As Bradford remembered their trial, it was typical for the colonists to go to bed at night not knowing where the next day’s nourishment would come from. For two to three months they had no bread or beer at all, and “God fed them” almost wholly “out of the sea.”
Adding to their plight… for nearly two months it rained hardly at all. The ground became parched, the corn began to wither, and hopes for the future began dying as well. When another boatload of settlers arrived that July, they were “much daunted and dismayed” by their first sight of the Plymouth colonists, many of whom were “ragged in apparel and some little better than half naked.” The Pilgrims, for their part, could offer the newcomers nothing more than a piece of fish and a cup of water.
In the depths of this trial, the Pilgrims were sure of this much: it was God who had sent this great drought; it was the Lord who was frustrating their “great hopes of a large crop.” This was not the caprice of nature, but the handiwork of the Creator who worked “all things according to the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11). Suspecting that he had done this thing for their chastisement, the community agreed to set apart “a solemn day of humiliation, to seek the Lord by humble and fervent prayer, in this great distress.”
As [Edward] Winslow [Bradford’s assistant] explained, their hope was that God “would be moved hereby in mercy to look down upon us, and grant the request of our dejected souls.” He exulted, “But oh the mercy of our God, who was as ready to hear, as we to ask.” The colonists awoke on the appointed day to a cloudless sky, but by the end of the prayer service — which lasted eight to nine hours — it had become overcast, and by morning it had begun to rain. It would continue to do so for the next fourteen days. Bradford marveled at the “sweet and gentle showers… which did so apparently revive and quicken the decayed corn….”
Overwhelmed by God’s gracious intervention, the Pilgrims immediately called for another providential holiday. “We thought it would be great ingratitude,” Winslow explained, “[if we should]* content ourselves with private thanksgiving for that which by private prayer could not be obtained. And therefore another solemn day was set apart and appointed for that end; wherein we returned glory, honor, and praise, with all thankfulness, to our good God.” This occasion, likely held at the end of July 1623, perfectly matches the Pilgrims’ definition of a thanksgiving holy day….
Although we remember the Pilgrims’ 1621 celebration as the origin, at least symbolically, of our own Thanksgiving tradition, there is no evidence that they themselves ever repeated the observance… of a public, colony-wide harvest festival…
[But] In 1636 the Plymouth General Court authorized the governor to proclaim days of thanksgiving “as occasion shall be offered.”
~ quoted from, Robert Tracy McKenzie, The First Thanksgiving, p. 140-144. Words in brackets are added for clarity. Words in brackets with an asterisk are original.
McKenzie notes that “the celebration of days of thanksgiving never evolved into an annual holiday” in Pilgrim-led Plymouth Colony. And this was due partly to “their longstanding general aversion to the numerous holy days imposed (they believed) without scriptural warrant by the Catholic and Anglican churches” (p. 144-145). Yet as Christians we can learn much from their heart-felt observance of true days of thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving as an annual feast of giving thanks, as celebrated by our culture, is a helpful corrective to our secular age. But sadly, this day is no “solemn holy day” of true thanks giving to God, such as the Pilgrims (first in 1623, and at other times) celebrated. We can enjoy the harvest-festival nature of modern Thanksgiving, but may we carve out adequate time to follow our Pilgrim forefathers and truly thank and worship our God who protected the Pilgrims and who cares for us as well.