Thanksgiving has been around for a long time; in America it started with an ocean voyage. We are all familiar with the Pilgrims coming to America on the Mayflower. It had been a long voyage across the ocean in 1620 when the Mayflower set sail on September 6, 1620 and arrived at Plymouth, Massachusetts on November 9, 1620. It's landing site was known as the Plymouth Colony since it had sailed from Plymouth, England. The 66 day voyage had taken its toll as it crossed the Atlantic ocean. With a crew of between 20 and 25, the ship carried 102 passengers, 37 were members of the separatist Leiden congregation seeking freedom of worship in the New World. Two people died during the voyage, and two babies were born on the ship during the trip.
About half of the individuals who were aboard the Mayflower died during the first winter of 1620-1621. At harvest time in 1621 those who survived, 53 in all, celebrated the harvest with what has been recognized as America's first Thanksgiving. Through the years the group aboard that ship and the settlement at Plymouth, Massachusetts, even though some were "strangers" while others were "saints" have all become known as "Pilgrims."
Through the years into modern America the celebration of Thanksgiving has not only endured, but flourished. It was Abraham Lincoln who began the tradition of a national Thanksgiving in 1863. Prior to that some state Governors proclaimed the day, and some Presidents encouraged a day of Thanksgiving; some did not. In modern times we celebrate Thanksgiving as a day to be grateful for all the blessings we have; not only nationally, but individually as well.
It is easy to reflect on the presence of Thanksgiving, especially since we can see a direct tie to the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony celebrating along with their Indian neighbors at the bountiful harvest experienced in 1621. Beside the great harvest, however, the Pilgrims would have known the true source of Thanksgiving. They were a God-fearing, loving people who would have been very familiar with the teachings of the Bible.
A Prayer of Thanksgiving
Beyond a doubt the Pilgrims would have been familiar with the passage in Psalms 100 that calls the people to give thanks.
Enter his presence with joyful singing!
He made us and we belong to him;
we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
and his courts with praise!
Give him thanks!
Praise his name!
His loyal love endures,
and he is faithful through all generations. (Psalms 100:1-5)
The psalmist saw the faithfulness of God directed to His children, the Jewish Nation, and called the people from all over the nation to celebrate with him. The Children of Israel had been blessed by God and the psalmist recognized the relationship between God and His people and wanted to praise God and give Him thanks. Likewise, the Pilgrims had seen the faithfulness of God to them, His grafted-in people, grafted by the shed blood of Jesus Christ and His work on the cross.
Emerging from a very difficult voyage from England, a very tough winter, with the loss of nearly half of their company through death, with each family having lost a loved one and touched by the harshness of the times, God had now come through with a bountiful harvest, much better health and the Pilgrims felt the blessings flow through their hearts. With those who took leadership, and those who were following, they collectively with one heart began to see the importance of remembering a custom they had practiced in their home country, and they planted a new custom in this new-found land that would bathe each of them in Thanksgiving to their Creator for delivering them into a new life of freedom and abundance.
Worship was not just an act of singing or raising hands to heaven. It meant serving God and each other. It meant serving those upon whose land they had rested. So along with the great Indian King Massasoit and approximately 90 of his men, the Pilgrims sat down to a meal and communed together giving thanks to God Who had see their struggles and had brought them through it, and now even with abundance.
It was a joyful acknowledgement that they entered into their worship of praise. They acknowledged that God had created them and had given them abundance of life. He was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and they, even now, as His servants, each belonged to Him. He was all-powerful and sustaining even in the face of adversity and hardship. It was His doing that their morning had come with joy and sunshine, even with the fruits of their labor He had blessed them with the harvest for which they were thankful. So they lifted their faces and hearts with praise and thanksgiving knowing that God loved them and He would endure forever. They set into motion on this new land that would ultimately be called America the precedent of worship because of the promise they knew to be true that God endures forever and to each of the generations that would follow in their footsteps.
With hearts full of thankfulness how could the Pilgrims not heed the call to worship and celebration? No doubt they continued with their freedom of beliefs in the Lord Jesus Christ as they rehearsed the psalmist's call to worship:
Sing for Joy
Let’s shout out praises to our protector who delivers us!
Let’s shout out to him in celebration! (Psalm 95:1-2)
The people remembered they were to sing for joy and remember the Lord Who made them. The admonition was to joyfully shout, praise and worship with service, but also never to rebel against the Lord. The first Thanksgiving was likely a fairly noisy celebration among those who had survived the harsh winter with God's hand of protection and deliverance and with those whom the Lord had introduced as Natives in a new land who joined in the celebration of a bountiful harvest.
The Practicing Christian
Finally, the Pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving no doubt understood that Christians must practice their faith. They must turn to God and allow Him to work through their hearts and think about His ways and worship Him as their Creator and Sustainer. With thankful hearts and the wisdom they found in their New Testament Scripture which had been translated by the Great King James of England just a few years (1611) prior to their Mayflower voyage, they knew the writings of the Apostle Paul through his letters recorded in their new Bible that Christians ought to always be thankful.
4:4 Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, rejoice! 4:5 Let everyone see your gentleness. The Lord is near! 4:6 Do not be anxious about anything. Instead, in every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God. 4:7 And the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
4:8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is worthy of respect, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if something is excellent or praiseworthy, think about these things. 4:9 And what you learned and received and heard and saw in me, do these things. And the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:4-9)
The first Thanksgiving was celebrated with people who were close to God. Their hearts were full of joy and they celebrated that joy, deliverance and protection from God. They exhibited the gentleness of spirit and leading of the Holy Spirit as those who came from this native land joined them in their celebration. They left their anxiety behind them with the fading of the past winter winds and moved forward into the spring and summer of the joy that comes in the morning. Now their harvest of plenty was reason to give praise and thanks. They yielded their spirits over to the God of plenty with their corporate thanksgiving and individual requests of blessings through personal prayers. They settled in to bask in the SON shine of peace and understanding that filled their hearts with the love of Jesus Christ.
As we look to our own 21st century Thanksgiving celebrations, may we first remember that we are the creation of God, and we are to celebrate by giving Him thanks and worship in spirit and truth reflecting on the vastness of Grace that He has given us through His work on the cross to secure the salvation He offers. To Him be Praise and Glory forever!