That first Thanksgiving in the fall of 1621 saw about 50 Mayflower Pilgrims and 100 native Indians come together for a celebration feast consisting of a variety of homegrown vegetables--including corn, squash, beans, barley, and peas, along with wild turkey and venison. The precise date is not known, but it is believed to have taken place in late October or early November. Historians record that the Massachusetts weather was crisp, but not cold--and the fall foliage dazzled America's newcomers with a cornucopia of color.
These Pilgrims were mostly "Separatists," who had left Europe to seek a land of liberty, where men could be free to worship God according to the dictates of their own conscience--not according to the demands of a State church or an oppressive government. They made their intentions and motivations clear when they signed America's first covenant, a document called The Mayflower Compact:
"We whose names are underwritten . . . Having undertaken, for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian faith . . ."
This undertaking had prompted them to leave their homes, livelihoods, families, friends, and way of life, and face a dangerous voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. Many became ill and some did not survive to see the new world. But they all believed that they were doing God's will and that He would honor their faith. And He certainly did.
Although the original Pilgrims had a few confrontations with the American Indians--some were even violent--for the most part, the Indians were friendly and accommodating. They taught the Pilgrims what crops to grow and how best to grow them. They helped them understand American agriculture and the ways of the wild game endemic to that part of North America. And by the time they held their first Thanksgiving banquet, the relationship between those original Pilgrims and Massasoit and his small tribe of Indians was one of genuine trust and friendship.
God had, indeed, smiled upon the small band of Pilgrims. They had survived a long, treacherous journey across the ocean, had written the immortal Mayflower Compact, had built their homes and community, had established a civil body-politic, had successfully planted and harvested enough food to keep them through the winter, and had established peaceful relations with the native Indians.
The Pilgrim Thanksgiving may have been the first such celebration, but it was far from the last.
Not long after becoming America's first (and greatest) President, George Washington issued our country's first Thanksgiving Proclamation on October 3, 1789. In the proclamation, Washington wrote:
"Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor.
"Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be--That we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks--for His kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation--for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of His Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war--for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed--for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted--for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which He hath been pleased to confer upon us.
"And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions--to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually--to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed—to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord--To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us--and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best."
Presidents ever since have likewise issued proclamations of thanksgiving exhorting the American people to humbly acknowledge the protection and blessing of Heaven upon our land. It is particularly appropriate that they would do this. After all, we Americans--of all people--have sufficient reason to give corporate thanks to Almighty God, as our Christian forebears founded this land for the express purpose of seeking religious liberty.
The history of the world's nations is largely the story of one despot being replaced with another. Throughout the annals of human history, the story of human government is that of the rise and fall of one empire after another; one king or potentate after another. One dictatorship being replaced with another dictatorship. One form of monarchy replacing another form of monarchy. Some were kinder than others. Some were benevolent. Some were harsh. And some were downright cruel. But until July 4, 1776, there was no such thing as a nation founded on self-government, federalism, and religious liberty.
For the first time in world history, Christian people were granted a land of blessing and hope. In the human sense, America became to Christians what Canaan was to Old Testament Israel. In America, believers could live at peace with both their society and their government. They no longer had to choose between obeying their God and obeying their king. In America, there was no king, but King Jesus. In America, men could truly render unto God that which was God's, as Caesar did not demand for himself that which was God's alone. (In fact, in America, we have no Caesar.) Men no longer had to violate their conscience in order to stay out of jail. Believers were no longer required to worship at the altar of the State or the State Church. In America, men could live free.
I repeat: If anyone has a reason to give corporate thanksgiving unto God, it is the people of the United States.
I pray that this Thanksgiving season may be a time of both rejoicing and reflection, as well as a time of feasting and fellowship. But may it also be a time of rededication and renewal; a time of determination and decision, that we will each give our whole heart, mind, and strength to the restoration of the principles of freedom and federalism upon which our republic was built. Let us renew the Spirit of '76 in America once more. In the face of whatever danger and challenge that may oppose us, I pray that we will be the ones that will rise up to reclaim the blessings of liberty for our children and our children's children. So help us, Almighty God!