How Thanksgiving Day Came to Be in America

Thanksgiving Day is a national holiday where Americans celebrate the Pilgrims and Indians sitting down and sharing a feast together. It’s a day set aside to give thanks to God, a yearly reminder of America’s Christian heritage.

Still for many, Thanksgiving Day has become more about watching the Macy’s Day Parade, eating turkey and pumpkin pie, watching football, and plotting and planning a Black Friday shopping strategy.

There are also those who have experienced great hardships, disappointments and losses during the year leaving them feeling less than thankful. Still, Psalm 50:23 explains how those who offer a sacrifice of thanks honor God.

How Thanksgiving Day came to be in America offers us food for thought on what it means to be truly grateful to God, no matter the circumstances we’re facing.

Where the Pilgrims Began

Historian Rod Gragg explains in his book The Pilgrim Chronicles, how the Pilgrims came to be in England around 1606, beginning as a group of Christian separatists seeking to worship Jesus in the purity of the Gospel, based on their understanding of the Geneva Bible.

However, religious meetings outside the Church of England were illegal, causing the Pilgrims to fall under severe persecution. Around 1609 they fled to Holland. But in the Netherlands, their children began to follow worldly Dutch ways, leading them to look for other options.

Hearing of the Jamestown settlement led the Pilgrims to borrow funds and request permission from King James to make the Mayflower voyage. His decision allowed them the opportunity to sail to the New World, offering their congregation the hope of a permanent place where they could worship Jesus in peace.

The Pilgrims’ Mayflower voyage serves as a reminder to Americans of their own family members, ones who were willing to risk everything to come to America, with the hope of a better life for themselves and their children.

Their Remarkable Journey to America

Jerry Newcombe, historian and author of American Amnesiaexplains how the Pilgrims’ journey to America was remarkable and a miracle in so many ways, directed by the hand of God.

During their trip, a main beam of the ship’s mast cracked, which could have meant certain death for all aboard. But they were able to engineer a solution to secure it.

Their voyage faced many difficulties including severe storms, causing some to consider turning back to England. These fierce storms blew their ship off course by 250 miles.

Astonishingly, they landed in an area where the few American Indians, who had survived a recent plague, were open to making friends with the Pilgrims.

The Making of a Yearly Thanksgiving Commitment

Before arriving in America, the Pilgrims committed to giving yearly thanks to God.

Newcombe explains how, “In 1619, a year before the Pilgrims even landed, Jamestown (the first permanent British settlement in North America) had the first Thanksgiving celebration. Captain John Woodlief declared on December 4, 1619: ‘We ordain that the day of our ship’s arrival at the place assigned for plantation in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.’”

With amazing forethought, the Pilgrims penned the Mayflower Compact, a Christian agreement for self-government. Signed November 11, 1620, it became a prequel to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, making it a real milestone in America’s history and a major step toward our nation’s birth.

The Pilgrims First Thanksgiving Feast

Newcombe describes the winter leading up to the 1621 first Thanksgiving as harsh, marked by illness, cold, and starvation. Of the eighteen women aboard the Mayflower, only four survived. Half the married men died and ten of the twenty-nine unmarried men died. Children faired better than the adults with seventeen of the twenty surviving the harsh conditions.

History reveals that in March 1621, with Spring’s new birth also came hope. As the death toll halted, two friendly English-speaking American Indians, an Abenaki Indian and Squanto of the Pawtuxet tribe, befriended the Pilgrims and helped them to make peace with the hostile American Indians in their area.

Through Squanto, who had been kidnapped by an English sea captain and sold into slavery, they learned how to plant corn, catch fish, and extract maple sugar for survival.

Because of the Pilgrims’ successful 1621 harvest, Governor William Bradford called a celebratory feast inviting Native American allies including the Wampanoag’s Chief Massasoit.

Although not officially called Thanksgiving Day at the time, the Pilgrims were able to kick off America’s tradition of giving thanks to God with a three-day feast with the Indians, demonstrating a faith that believes, And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).

Overall, very few Pilgrims survived the devastating “starving times” and sickness to celebrate the first Thanksgiving. Still they endured what 2 Corinthians 4:8 describes, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down but not destroyed.” 

Because the Pilgrims were devoted to the purity of the Gospel, they recognized the importance of thankfulness, understanding it as a sacrifice to God (Psalm 116:17).

Thanksgiving Day Becomes an Official Holiday in America

Throughout the American Revolution, the Continental Congress, in response to winning critical battles, called for national days of thanksgiving, asking colonists to express gratefulness to God for His divine protection over the troops.

The first official United States Thanksgiving proclamation was issued in 1789 by President George Washington, calling upon all Americans to demonstrate gratitude to God for the end of the war and the Constitution’s successful ratification.

President Washington said, “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.”

Following Washington’s example, Presidents John Adams and James Madison also set national days of thanksgiving aside during their presidential terms.

It formally became a national holiday during the Civil War due to one woman’s persistent campaign to have it proclaimed. History records how Sarah Josepha Hale, a magazine editor and author of “Mary Had A Little Lamb” nursery rhyme along with many other writings, began a campaign in 1827 to have a national Thanksgiving Day holiday officially established in the United States. Her efforts gained her the nickname of the “Godmother of Thanksgiving.”

As a widow and mother of five children, Hale wrote, “Thanksgiving Day is the national pledge of Christian faith in God, acknowledging Him as the dispenser of blessings.”

Over a 36-year time period she relentlessly pursued it through publishing editorials, along with writing newspaper editors, ministers, governors, and presidents requesting they set a day aside. On October 3,1863, in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln granted her request by proclaiming the last Thursday in November as a national day of thanksgiving.

Newcombe notes Lincoln’s words: “The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessing of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.”

Where to Start in Giving Thanks

For those who feel weary from the past year and nor sure where to start in giving thanks to God, Scripture encourages, “Let them give thanks to the Lord for His unfailing love and His wonderful deeds for mankind” (Psalm 107:31).

Gratefulness reveals the condition of our hearts more than it does what’s going on in our circumstances. David wrote I will give thanks to you, Lord, with all my heart; I will tell of all your wonderful deeds” (Psalm 9:1).

As well, Jeremiah 9:24 encourages, “But let the one who boasts, boasts about this: that they have the understanding to know Me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight.” 

During tough times, as well as in prosperous ones, we can choose to offer a sacrifice of thanks to God, so that He may be honored and glorified in our lives and in America, too.

Lynette Kittle is married with four daughters. She enjoys writing about faith, marriage, parenting, relationships, and life. Her writing has been published by Focus on the Family, Decision, Today’s Christian Woman,,,, and more. She has a M.A. in Communication from Regent University and serves as associate producer for Soul Check TV

Photo Credit: GettyImages

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