The History of Thanksgiving

The Church of England was established during the 16th Century by Henry VIII, when he broke off from the Roman Catholic Church because they wouldn’t allow him to divorce his wife who was unable to give him a son. Yet he retained all of the doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. He made Parliament pass laws making the Roman Catholic doctrine the official belief of the Church of England. Henry VIII forced all England to recognize him as “the supreme head of the church.” What the Pope was to the Catholics, King Henry was to the Church of England. He had both absolute political power and absolute religious power. He ruthlessly suppressed any other form of religion. No one could preach unless he was licensed by the government and agreed with the king’s religious beliefs. To speak against the king or any of the doctrine of the Church of England was considered high treason. As the brutality of his reign increased, many were hung, disemboweled, and imprisoned.

By the 17th Century and the reign of James I, a group of Christians who called themselves Separatists, because they wanted to separate from the Church of England and have no part of it, said that God “had touched their hearts with Heavenly zeal for His truth.” They decided to form their own church and resolved, “whatever it might cost them, to shake off the anti-Christian bondage, and join themselves in the fellowship of the gospel.” By this time, persecution had become so severe they resolved to flee to Holland where they found religious freedom. However, Holland was a very worldly place, full of undesirable influences that could lead their children astray, so they resolved not to stay in Holland but to move to the New World where they might rear their children in freedom. These courageous people who left all to come to America, have long been remembered as the Pilgrims, because, in the words of William Bradford in his book Of Plymouth Plantation, they “knew they were PILGRIMS, and looked not much on [the things of this earth], but lifted up their eyes to Heaven, their dearest country.”

In September 1620, the Pilgrims boarded the Mayflower and set sail for the New World, America. Only 35 of the 102 passengers of the Mayflower were Separatists. The rest of their congregation had been forced to remain behind. After more than 2 months at sea, the Mayflower finally reached the shores of North America. In the words of William Bradford, “they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious sea.” Understanding man’s sinful nature, they knew they would need discipline among themselves. The Pilgrims drew up a document which 41 men signed, called the Mayflower Compact. This document was written in the name of God. It stated that they were coming to America for the glory of God and the advancement of the Christian faith. It said they were covenanting themselves together and presenting themselves in the presence of God, to establish a civil body politic for their better ordering and preservation and to establish laws and ordinances for the general good of the colony.

On December 21, 1620, the Pilgrims finally stepped ashore at a place they named Plymouth. Their first winter in the cold North American wilderness was difficult. Food and shelter were inadequate, and the settlers were plagued by illness. At one point, only seven of them were strong enough to care for the sick and bury the dead. By spring, half of the settlers had died. Yet in April 1621, when the Mayflower and its crew set sail back to England, none of the Pilgrims were on board, for they had determined, with God’s help, to make a home in America.

With the coming of spring, the Pilgrims’ situation began to improve. Squanto was an Indian who through divine providence, had lived and been educated in England for several years. On his return back to his tribe in America, he was kidnapped and sold as a slave. Many years later, he escaped and returned to his home to find that his entire tribe had died from a disease. Because he had not been there, he survived to be able to help the Pilgrims during their time of need. He lived with the Pilgrims at Plymouth and taught them how to hunt, fish, and plant crops. The Pilgrims got along well with the Indians. With their help, the Pilgrims caught much fish and game and had a good harvest of crops. In the fall of 1621, less than a year after their arrival, William Bradford, the colony’s governor, called for a three day feast, which is now remembered as the first Thanksgiving. Indians joined the Pilgrims as they celebrated, feasted, heard the Bible read publicly, and gave thanks to God for His many blessings. Years later, Abraham Lincoln helped establish Thanksgiving as a regular national holiday by proclaiming the last Thursday in November as “a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficial Father.”