Dr. Francis Bremer

As grade schoolers many of us learned of the Pilgrim 1621 “First Thanksgiving” and many of us indeed dressed up as pilgrims or Indians for classroom pageants celebrating the event.  Let me try to put the event in perspective first and then return to focus on that occasion in particular.

All of the Europeans who came to America in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries made no distinction between the natural and supernatural orders and believed that God was an active force in everyday life.  In times of danger – the plague, the Spanish Armada, etc. – they commonly fasted and prayed to God to aid them in surmounting the threats they faced.  Frequently governments and church officials appointed special “fast days” for these purposes.  Likewise, when they were delivered from some particular trial they gave thanks to God, again on days specially appointed for the community to gather and offer thanks and prayer.  These days of thanksgiving were celebratory and in addition to religious observances often included feasting and games.

It is not surprising, therefore that Europeans who came to America carried these traditions with them.  Indeed, they were so common that many such fast and thanksgiving days were never recorded – they simply weren’t noteworthy enough.  In New England, however, we do have public records from the seventeenth century of scores of fast days called for a variety of reasons – to petition God to bring rain during drought, to relieve them of the burden of epidemic disease, to ask for blessings on the cause of the Protestant forces in Europe’s Thirty Year’s War and then for the victory of the puritan forces in England’s Civil Wars, and many other such needs.  And they also appointed special days of Thanksgiving when their prayers had been answered.

Despite spottier documentation, there were undoubtedly thanksgiving celebrations before the Pilgrim event in 1621.  It has been argued that the Catholic Spanish settlers in St. Augustine (in what became Florida) celebrated a thanksgiving service in 1565.  In 1578 the English explorer Martin Frobisher held a thanksgiving celebration that included a sermon and administration of the Lord’s Supper on Baffin Island (now part of Canada).   In 1598 a religious service of thanksgiving was held by Spanish settlers in what is now Texas.   In the early seventeenth century French settlers in Canada regularly celebrated successful harvests with feasting and giving thanks to God.  At the same time early English settlers in Virginia observed some form of thanksgiving events and we know that in 1619 there was a day of thanksgiving that involved colonists dropping to their knees and thanking God for delivering them from the dangers of the ocean passage and bringing them safely to America.  Given the challenges of emigration it is likely that it was pretty common, if unrecorded, from the first days of settlement for groups that made the journey successfully to drop to thank God profusely for their good fortune.

Petitioning and thanking God remained constants throughout the colonial period and beyond.  The Continental Congress (the governing body of the colonies during the Revolution) issued an official thanksgiving proclamation in the closing period of the Revolution, in 1782.  In 1789 President George Washington proclaimed “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”  Over the next decades such proclamations were regularly issued by the various individual states, with no consistency on the date to be observed.  In 1863 Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the final Thursday in November to be celebrated as a day of thanksgiving in all the states, though obviously those in rebellion at the time ignored the call.  In 1941 Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law a bill marking the fourth (and not always the last) Thursday in November as a national day of thanksgiving, which remains the date of observance today.

What makes the Pilgrim event in 1621 so iconic?  There are a variety of reasons.  First, many of the earlier occasions that I have referenced were not well known until in relatively recent times historians dug out the information, more often than not to challenge the primacy of the New England event.  In contrast to the obscurity that surrounded these events, the Pilgrim celebration was well known from the time it occurred.  One account of the event was published by the colonist Edward Winslow, who was there, in his account of the first years of the colony, Mourt’s Relation, published in England in 1622.  A slightly different and more complete account was compiled by William Bradford, the colony governor.  While his history Of Plymouth Plantation, was not printed in his lifetime but was used in manuscript form by others who wrote the history of the colony.  Between them, the two accounts tell of the first harvest, the success of which offered hope that the colony would survive, and a decision to celebrate that event with a feast and recreation.  The language they chose was derived from the scriptures (specifically John 4: 36 and Psalm 33), pointing to the fundamentally religious nature of the event.  The story of the event was incorporated in the country’s first history textbooks.  It was the Pilgrim story that Sarah Josepha Hale, the influential editor (and author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”) who campaigned for a national holiday of Thanksgiving in the mid-nineteenth century.

The founding fathers of our nation and t hose who shaped it thereafter – such as Washington, Lincoln, etc. – believed in the institutional separation of church and state, but at the same time believed that faith provided the moral foundations on which free institutions depended.  Because the Pilgrims and Puritans were the most clearly faith-directed of early Americans, those who wished to uphold that tradition found the 1621 Thanksgiving an important prop.  Today there are some individuals who are critical of the role religion has played in American life who therefore seek to categorize the 1621 event as a purely secular harvest feast, harkening back to some presumed irreligious events in “Merry England.”  While there were elements of irreligious belief and behavior in the early modern European world they were not common.  In England in particular the observation of an harvest feast was part of the national liturgy of the Church of England, enshrined in the Book of Common Prayer, and still part of the liturgical year today.  The Pilgrims, who had separated from the Church of England because it was not religiously reformed enough, used extemporaneous prayer in their worship but certainly followed the broader tradition of thanking God for blessings such as a good harvest.  The language used by Winslow and Bradford reinforces this.

One last point, and that is about the symbolic significance of the 1621 event.  As already stated, it is the early thanksgiving that we have the most description of.  But that description also involves the reference to  “many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest chief Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted.”  The English settlers of New England would have a mixed legacy in their dealings with Native Americans.  Thousands of natives would be converted to Christianity, but many were also killed in struggles such as the Pequot War and King Philip’s War.  By 1621 the Pilgrims themselves had experienced tense times with the natives.  But they had also signed a treaty with Massasoit.   By sharing the feast (to which the natives also contributed five deer) they provided future generations and example of how different cultures could come together by following the better angels of their nature.   If subsequent failures to continue in that spirit are to be condemned, the ideal of inclusiveness provided by the story of the “First Thanksgiving” is one that deserved to be commemorated.

About Dr. Bremer

Francis J. Bremer is professor emeritus of history at Millersville University and was for many years chairman of the history department there.  He has devoted most of his professional life to researching the complexities of puritan history in England and New England and has published fourteen books on the subject, most recently Puritanism: A Very Short Introduction (2009), First Founders: Puritans and Puritanism in an Atlantic World (2012), and Building A New Jerusalem: John Davenport, a Puritan in Three Worlds (2012).  He has also written numerous articles and served as a consultant on documentaries dealing with Pilgrims, Puritans, and early American history in general.

 

The Exchange welcomes op-eds from faculty and staff. Please send to Janet.Kacskos@millersville.edu.

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  1. Powerful. Thank you!

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