In the United States this last Thursday in November is our national day of Thanksgiving. This has been a national holiday since President Abraham made it so in 1863, in the midst of our Civil War. There had been, as Lee Edwards writes, national thanksgiving observances since George Washington declared a national day of thanksgiving in 1789. Between Washington and Lincoln, however, thanksgiving was observed by the several states. Of course, the roots of these observances are in the first thanksgiving held by the American colonists in the 1621. Wheaton historian Robert Tracy McKenzie notes that “the only surviving firsthand account of a celebration in 1621 comes from the pen of Edward Winslow, Bradford’s younger assistant.” Winslow wrote:
Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.1
Winslow wrote these 115 words as part of what McKenzie calls a “cover letter” accompanying reports back to London merchants assuring them that their investment was not being wasted. Many popular accounts have greatly embellished the rather plain, original account. We may suppose that they, as many of will do today, ate turkey. We do not know how the Wampanoag tribe came to be among them. As McKenzie notes, they likely gathered for the feast (for three days!) in late September or early October. Winslow gives no hint of any religious significance of the feast.
Of course, over time, the feast has taken on and then begun to lose religious significance. Think of a Bell Curve. To be sure, the pilgrims were Christian people. There had been, since about 1606 (per McKenzie) a gathering of dissenting Protestants, i.e., those who were dissatisfied with the English state church, in Scrooby (about 25 miles east of Sheffield, in the north of England). One the members of this dissenting congregation was a young William Bradford (c. 1590–1657), who would serve as governor of Plymouth Colony intermittently for 30 years. Their worship services were illegal. If discovered, as McKenzie notes, they faced fines or imprisonment. It would have been much easier for these dissenters to remain within the established church than to separate. The dissenting groups believed that God’s Word should norm Christian worship. They believed what the most ancient Christians and the Reformers called the “rule of faith” (regula fidei), which, as applied to worship, meant that the church may do in worship only what is commanded by God. The Anglican communion, the established church, had a different principle: the church may do whatever is not forbidden. Further, the Anglican church had a hierarchical (episcopal) structure, so that it was governed by bishops (regional managers) and an archbishop (CEO) and ultimately the King. When there are good bishops and archbishops, things are perhaps, not so bad. When there is a bad archbishop, things can get ugly quickly. Ironically, however, the Archbishop of Canterbury in the years leading up to the emigration of the dissenters from England, to the Netherlands, and finally to the New World, the ruling bishop in the church of England, had sympathies with the Reformed Reformation. George Abbot (1562–1633) opposed William Laud (1573–1645), who would succeed him as Archbishop. Laud anticipated some aspects of what would later become known as Anglo-Catholicism. He wanted to take the Anglican church in a Romanizing direction. He had sympathies with the Remonstrants. Abbot opposed the Remonstrants. He supported the orthodox Reformed and sent a delegation to the Synod of Dort (1618–19). His influence waned, however, after the death of James I and upon the accession to the throne of Charles I.
Like other dissenting groups. e.g., the Presbyterians such as Thomas Cartwright (1535–1603) and conforming “Puritans” such as William Perkins (1558–1602) and Richard Sibbes (1577–1635), the separatists thought that the established church needed a dramatic Reformation. The congregationalists tended to be a more radical in their eschatology, i.e., they had a more realized eschatology and were less patient for Reformation. They were also more willing to suffer for their convictions. Some of the Scrooby separatists were arrested for their faith and practice.2 One of their members was taken to court for holding “erroneous opinions” and for being “disobedient in matters of religion.” Their emigration to the New World would require much suffering. As McKenzie relates, by the fall of 1607, they had made their decision to seek religious freedom. This quest would first take them to the Netherlands. This small-town congregation struggled to get by in the big city of Amsterdam, where few people spoke English. As foreigners, who did not speak Dutch, they were betrayed repeatedly. It was in this period that the movement we know as the Baptists, developed in this period, among English pilgrims in the Netherlands. The more orthodox Reformed congregationalists left Amsterdam for Leiden, where they settled happily for several years.3
Over time, however, the growing congregation became convinced—though not without dissent— that they should leave Leiden for the American colonies. This was no light undertaking. One group lost 130 people (out of 180) to dysentery. What they wanted, however, was to worship God according to the Word of God alone. They had this liberty in Leiden, so it is not easy to say exactly why they left Leiden for the New World but we know with certainty that the pilgrims to the New World were deeply religious people who wanted religious liberty.4
As Americans gather for Thanksgiving today, we do so in what might seem like a very different time and place. Of course, in important ways, we do live in a different time and place. Our time is much more secularist than the world in which the Pilgrims lived. The prevailing assumptions of many of our neighbors are pagan and subjectivist (i.e., the denial of objective reality). In some ways, however, we might identify with the Pilgrims. Though the source of hostility to Christian conviction is different in our age than it was in the 17th century and it manifests itself in different ways, we do live in a time of increasing hostility to historic Christian theology, piety, and practice. Where the English separatists of Scrooby were fined (and even jailed) for dissenting from the state church, American Christians have been fined for refusing to cooperate with what has arguably become, under the Obama administration, a new American state-church. Some, who have refused to cooperate with the radical re-definition of marriage or other aspects of the sexual revolution imposed by the Obama administration and the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell decision, have faced serious fines and even the loss of their businesses.
Like the Pilgrims, we have much for which to give thanks today. Despite the social and religious tensions that we may experience we are still free, most of the time, in most states, to practice our faith according the Word of God as we confess it. We have no state-church, for which we should be thankful. Most of us enjoy a level of prosperity and comfort that the pilgrims could not possibly have imagined. The vast majority of Americans today enjoy a standard of living that greatly exceeds the standard of living enjoyed by the James I and Charles I. More fundamentally, our God is still gracious, kind, and patient with us. He forgives our sin for Christ’s sake alone. He is at work in his people by his Holy Spirit through his means of grace. We still have his Word. We still have his law and his gospel. We still have the sacraments. We still have the communion of the saints.
Happy Thanksgiving 2016.
1. Dwight B. Heath, ed., Mourt’s Relation (1622; repr. Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 1963), 82. Quoted in McKenzie, The First Thanksgiving.
2. McKenzie, The First Thanksgiving, Kindle loc. 816.
3. McKenzie, ibid., 865–80.
4. Ibid., 939.