The First Thanksgiving

I listened to a great documentary on the pilgrims this morning. In it, a historian working at the Plymouth Plantation museum said the pilgrims brought over more books on the Mayflower than any other item. They were well-educated as well as adventurous.

What are your thoughts on the pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving? I’m both amused and distressed by the distaste some historians have for the pilgrims religious motives. They came to this land, sailing off the end of the known world in a sense, to worship the Lord in freedom. When the arrived, they did not disembark until a day later, staying on the Mayflower to thank the Lord for the success of their difficult voyage. The Mayflower Compact, you may remember, established civil government for the purpose of glorifying God, honoring King James I, and advancing the Christianity. A historian in the documentary described the governments role in that advancement as upholding justice and the law fairly and not forcing citizens to submit to a written creed which is what England was doing at the time. This is the atmosphere of the first Thanksgiving; but some writers want to label parts of the activities “secular.”

Like this from Pilgrim Hall: “Although the event of 1621 is known today as the ‘First Thanksgiving,’ that harvest feast had many secular elements and would not have been considered a religious day of thanksgiving by the Pilgrims.” On another page, Pilgrim Hall reports, “While both the Pilgrims and the Native Americans would have expressed their thanks to God on a daily basis, this festival was a secular celebration, albeit informed – as was every aspect of Pilgrim life – by their deep knowledge of, and regard for, Scripture.”

These statements work only if you accept a dichotomy of the secular and the sacred, which I believe most Americans and Europeans do. I suggest this isn’t true.

In a December 1621 letter, Edward Winslow describes some of the first Thanksgiving events:

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. 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.

If we asked Winslow which of these details were secular, that is apart from God, he would say none of them, if he understood our question. The pilgrims, even the natives, didn’t think within a secular/sacred dichotomy. Everything was sacred to them, and on this day of giving thanks to the Lord God who sustains the world and everyone in it, whether they follow him or hate him, I suggest that real life is thoroughly sacred.

The inner peace that many seek is found partly in this truth, that all of life is for the Creator’s glory. Everything was originally created good by him: food, family, homes. Everything “by the goodness of God.” Happy Thanksgiving.


  1. This author was interviewed on CNN yesterday. It is quite interesting. smc

    Squanto and the Miracle of Thanksgiving
    by Metaxas, Eric, and Stirnweis, Shannon (Illustrator)

    Describes how the Massachusetts Indian Squanto was captured by the British, sold into slavery in Spain, and ultimately returned to the New World to become a guide and friend for the Pilgrims.

  2. Squanto’s story is a great one, and Metaxas is an admirable writer. I’m sitting on some news about him. I’ll try to get to that today.

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