Revisionists have spent the last fifty years trying hard to excise Thanksgiving from among those few remaining holidays with expressly religious origins. We are told that the Founding Fathers were atheists, agnostics, or, at best Deists. A certain elementary school I know advised its students that the first Thanksgiving was the Pilgrims giving thanks to the Indians for their help and assistance.
While such historic perversions may lend a degree of false comfort to those who seek to deny our religious heritage but who don’t mind a heap o’turkey, pumpkin pie, and the Detroit-Chicago game, such narratives are just that, perversions.
This nation was and is unique in its circumstances of its founding–based expressly and to a degree exclusively upon religious belief, and the then-revolutionary idea that government, though established under God, derived its just powers from the consent of the governed. And that both these ideas, if they did not originate with the Pilgrims, certainly were germinated, nurtured, and given protection under their stewardship.
In 1534 Henry VIII, frustrated with the refusal of the Pope to declare his marriage to Catherine of Aragon invalid so he could marry Ann Boleyn, established the Church of England with himself as its head. Henry’s break with Rome had less to do with theological disputation than it did with political expediency and the urgent need for a male heir. Still, the Church of England was quick to exploit the schism with Rome and to torture and thence execute loyal Catholics, St. Thomas Moore being one of the more celebrated. Henry’s son, the short-lived Edward VI, allowed the nascent Church of England to become more distinctly Protestant, but Edward lasted only six years before his older sister, Mary, daughter of the humiliated Catherine of Aragon, ascended the throne. Bloody Mary shoved the pendulum back sharply in favor of Catholicism, seeking restoration of Rome as the only legitimate State religion. The lengthy, more equable reign of her half sister, Elizabeth, while clearly favoring Protestantism, at least for a time set at bay the more sanguinary excesses of the state-established Church.
That religious interregnum ended when Elizabeth died, leaving no heir, bringing James VI of Scotland to the throne. While James was in many ways irresolute, he was utterly persuaded of his divine right as king and firm in his antipathy for Puritanism and Separatism (of which the Pilgrims were a part). Under his reign, both suffered imprisonment, exile, torture, and death.
It was under James that the Pilgrims founded their own illegal church in Scrooby, a tiny village in Nottinghamshire. Quickly found out and imprisoned, they fled to the Netherlands, believing it to be a place of religious tolerance. For a few years at least it was, but soon even the Netherlands bowed to mounting British diplomatic pressure to oust the fledgling church, then headquartered in Leiden.
But it was while in Leiden that the seeds were planted. In a letter to the Pilgrims, their pastor, John Robinson, advised them to form a government by consent, appointing leaders from among the party who derived their authority from their selection by the people, with the concomitant assumption that God would act through His church to bless the formation.
So it was that William Brewster, Pastor Robinson’s First Elder, drafted the Mayflower Compact, signed November 11, 1620 with just that in mind, leaving no doubt as to the purposes of the Pilgrims themselves and their conviction that their undertaking was ordained by God.
In ye name of God Amen · We whose names are underwriten, the loyall subjects of our dread soueraigne Lord King James by ye grace of God, of great Britaine, franc, & Ireland king, defender of ye faith, &c Having undertaken, for ye glorie of God, and advancemente of ye christian faith and honour of our king & countrie, a voyage to plant ye first colonie in ye Northerne parts of Virginia · doe by these presents solemnly & mutualy in ye presence of God, and one of another, covenant, & combine our selves togeather into a civill body politick.
One would think that the savage conditions of the New England winter of 1620-21, where fully half the Pilgrims died, might have dimmed their religious ardor. If anything it intensified it. So much so, that in November of 1621, a feast was held with some ninety Patuxet tribe members in attendance. It was not expressly termed a thanksgiving, but its purpose was made clear by Edward Winslow, who wrote of the three-day event.
And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the Goodness of God, we are far from want.
Two years later, William Bradford, the duly-elected governor of the colony, issued his Thanksgiving Declaration:
Now I, your magistrate, do proclaim that all ye Pilgrims, with your wives and ye
little ones, do gather at ye meeting house, on ye hill, between the hours of 9 and 12 in the day time, on Thursday, November 29th, of the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred and twenty-three and the third year since ye Pilgrims landed on ye Pilgrim Rock, there to listen to ye pastor and render thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all His blessings.
In his Thanksgiving Declaration of 1789, George Washington also left no doubt as to who was to be credited, appointing the day “to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God.”
The national character of the holiday was established by Abraham Lincoln in November of 1863. This too had avowedly religious derivation, coming as it did after Lincoln had trod the blood-soaked earth of Gettysburg and then delivered his Gettysburg address. What few know is that this came at a pivotal point in Lincoln’s life. As he confided to a friend:
When I left Springfield [to assume the Presidency] I asked the people to pray for me. I was not a Christian. When I buried my son, the severest trial of my life, I was not a Christian. But when I went to Gettysburg and saw the graves of thousands of our soldiers, I then and there consecrated myself to Christ.
Lincoln, too, was incandescently clear as to the source of the Nation’s bounty, and the object of Thanksgiving, proclaiming:
I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.
No less positive was the Thanksgiving proclamation of John F. Kennedy in 1961, who concluded:
I urge all citizens to make this Thanksgiving not merely a holiday from their labors, but rather a day of contemplation. I ask the head of each family to recount to his children the story of the first New England thanksgiving, thus to impress upon future generations the heritage of this nation born in toil, in danger, in purpose, and in the conviction that right and justice and freedom can through man’s efforts persevere and come to fruition with the blessing of God.
The pull of secularism and commercialism is by no means recent. In 1936, Franklin Roosevelt sought to advance Thanksgiving from the fourth Thursday in November to the third, with the express purpose of stimulating the economy by adding another week for Christmas shopping. Overwhelming hue and cry caused him shortly to retreat, and the holiday was restored to the fourth Thursday, as Lincoln had designated. One wonders if there would be similar resistance to such a move today.
November, then, commemorates much. Much to be thankful for: the manifold blessings of our country– material, cultural, political, philosophical and spiritual–the revolutionary notion that our government owes its authority to us; generations of sacrifice and resolute courage that made this country possible and extended the blessings of liberty and self-determination across the planet; the list could go on and on. What might just be the most important legacy of all? The unabashed certainty of generations of Americans–from Brewster to Bradford to Washington to Lincoln to Kennedy–of Whom to thank