Thanksgiving Day in Colonial America

November 22, 2021


Thanksgiving Day is perhaps the most universally accepted holiday in America because every American President in our lifetime has issued a Thanksgiving Day Proclamation. Many of them refer to the earlier proclamations of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, which include giving thanks to Almighty God for His many blessings.

So with the Thanksgiving Day holiday approaching this week, let’s go back some 400 years to Colonial America and see if we can identify the original intent of Thanksgiving Day in America.

Our journey starts in the year 1607. The first permanent settlement in early America was the English colony at Jamestown, in what is now Virginia. The first thing these early settlers did was place a cross on the beach, signifying the intent of a Christian settlement. Chaplain Robert Hunt lifted his voice in public thanksgiving and prayer on April 29, 1607.

The First Charter of Virginia, also known as the Charter of 1606, is a document from King James of England assigning land rights to colonists for the stated purpose of propagating the Christian faith. Here’s how part of it reads:

“We, greatly commending and graciously accepting of their desires to the furtherance of so noble a work which may, by the providence of Almighty God, hereafter tend to the glory of His Divine Majesty in propagating of Christian religion to such people as yet live in darkness and miserable ignorance of the true knowledge and worship of God.”

Our journey continues in 1620 with the arrival of the Pilgrims. This group of separatists left England for Holland in their first attempt to pursue religious liberty. Their second attempt landed them at Plymouth, in what is now Massachusetts. The purpose of the Pilgrims was to establish a political commonwealth governed by biblical standards. The Mayflower Compact, their initial governing document, clearly stated that what they had undertaken was for “the glory of God and the advancement of the Christian faith.”

Next, in June 1630, John Winthrop landed in Massachusetts Bay with 700 people in 11 ships. Over the next 16 years more than 20,000 people set sail for New England. These puritans believed this new world would be a place to escape the corruptions in their church-state homeland. Governor Winthrop stated the aim of these early colonists:

“[The aim of the colonists] was to advance the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ and to enjoy the liberties of the gospel thereof in purities and peace.”

While these puritan separatists weren’t perfect, they often devoted their lives to public service out of a deep gratitude to the God of their salvation.

Now let’s travel from southeastern Massachusetts down to New Haven, Connecticut. John Davenport (a Puritan minister) and Theophilus Eaton (a wealthy merchant) established New Haven colony in 1638. A year later, the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut (a self-government constitution of sorts) was adopted. It reads in part:

“For as much as it hath pleased the Almighty God by the wise disposition of His Divine Providence so to order and dispose of things that we the inhabitants and residents of Windsor, Hartford and Wethersfield are now cohabiting and dwelling in and upon the River of Connecticut and the Lands thereunto adjoining; and well knowing where a people are gathered together the Word of God requires that to maintain the peace and union of such a people there should be an orderly and decent government established according to God, to order and dispose of the affairs of the people at all seasons as occasion shall require…enter into combination and confederation together, to maintain and preserve the liberty and purity of the gospel of our Lord Jesus which we now professes, as also the discipline of the Churches, which according to the truth of the said gospel is now practiced amongst us.”

In addition to these original colonies, other English colonies sprang up all along the Atlantic Coast, from New Hampshire in the north to Georgia in the south – totaling 13 American colonies.

Next, every one of the 13 colonies had a charter – a constitution of sorts that outlined the principles, functions, and organization of that particular colony. Here’s what’s interesting: every colony’s charter had a goal for its government – the goal of government was to be based on biblical principles found in Scripture being affirmed in the public sector. An example of this is seen in the Rhode Island Charter of 1683. It begins this way:

“We submit our persons, lives, and estates unto our Lord Jesus Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords, and to all those perfect and most absolute laws of His given us in His Holy Word.”

Even 170 years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and 181 years before the ratification of the Unites States Constitution in 1787, this country was beginning as a Christian nation – a nation that professed Jesus as its Lord.

Even though the First Amendment prohibits the government from establishing a state religion, the foundation of Christianity in the United States was already in place. This means that no judicial law should ever be made that violates biblical truth, such as laws that permit abortion and same-sex marriage. Any such law is a blatant violation of not only the First Amendment, but the Fourteenth Amendment as well.

The Fourteenth Amendment, adopted in 1868, extended religious freedom by preventing states from enacting laws that would advance or inhibit any one religion. This further confirms that the judicial branch of the federal government violated the Constitution on January 22, 1973 (when abortion was made legal) and on June 26, 2015 (when same-sex marriage was made legal). Why? Because it advanced one religion (secular humanism) and inhibited another (Christianity).

The reason the United States is the most prosperous nation in the world is because it has acknowledged Almighty God with thanksgiving and Jesus Christ as its Lord and Savior. Once that foundation goes by the wayside, our nation will eventually collapse, just like the Roman Empire did. This is just common sense, as evidenced by proven history.

Now let’s talk about the first unofficial Thanksgiving Day – it took place in the fall of 1621. The first English Puritans, known today as the Pilgrims, arrived from Plymouth, England aboard the Mayflower in 1620.

Most of what historians have learned about the first Thanksgiving comes from a single eyewitness report – a letter written in December 1621 by Edward Winslow, one of the 102 people who sailed from England aboard the Mayflower a year earlier in 1620.

His letter begins this way: “Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors.”

The first Thanksgiving was actually a harvest celebration. After a rough first year, the Pilgrims, aided by the Indians, finally experienced an abundant harvest. At the first Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims were likely outnumbered more than two to one by their Native American guests. Guests at the feast included at least 90 Wampanoag Indians, including their leader, Massasoit.

Edward Winslow continues: “Many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted.”

The preceding winter had been a harsh one for the Pilgrims. According to eyewitness accounts, only 52 were left to attend the first Thanksgiving – there were 22 men, just four women and 26 children and teenagers. Nearly half of the original 102 had died.

Here are Winslow’s concluding words: And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

Thanksgiving Day in America, the first of which was celebrated by the Pilgrims of Plymouth and the Wampanoag Indians, included giving thanks to Almighty God for His many blessings. So as we gather this week for our respective Thanksgiving meals, let’s remember to give thanks to Almighty God because He is the giver of all we have to be grateful for.


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