Is Thanksgiving Day a Christian Holiday?

by Luke Wayne
11/19/16

Yes, Thanksgiving is historically a Christian holiday, though like many holidays it has also developed many secular expressions. It originally goes back to the time of the early Puritan colonies that came to America from England, though not precisely in the way we often think. We normally think of the "first Thanksgiving" as the harvest celebration shared between the Plymouth Pilgrims and their Native American neighbors in the fall of 1671, but this is not actually where the holiday came from. While there really was such a celebration that year, it was a minor event in the colony's history that was not commemorated or even much remembered. In fact, the only first-hand account that exists is one small paragraph:

"Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. 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."1

This celebration probably took place in late September or early October rather than our traditional November dating.2 The truth is, however, that most of the pilgrims never even mentioned the event. It seems to have been entirely forgotten until the above paragraph was rediscovered in 1841, when a Unitarian minister in New England published a collection of writings from the Plymouth Pilgrims with his own explanatory notes. In these notes, he speculated that the paragraph described the "first Thanksgiving."3 This began a process that, over decades to come, would eventually lead to the association between this particular Pilgrim harvest celebration and the Thanksgiving holiday (an association entirely unknown before that time.)

Yet the practice of Thanksgiving holidays did already exist, and it does go back to the Pilgrims and other Puritan Christian settlers of those early days. Ironically, these Puritans did not believe in creating annual holidays and did not even celebrate Christmas or Easter. They did, however, call for "providential holy days." These days were not regular, annual events. They were special days called by ministers or magistrates in response to immediate circumstances.4 In times of trial and difficulty or to seek God's guidance regarding a difficult decision, they would call for days of "fasting and humiliation." In times of great blessing or especially favorable circumstances, they would call for special days of "thanksgiving" to express their gratitude to God. The harvest festival we typically think of as the "first Thanksgiving" was not, in the Pilgrim's mind, actually a Thanksgiving holiday. This does not mean that it was a secular event since, as one historian notes:

"From the Pilgrims’ perspective, no occasion was ever purely secular. To rejoice was to rejoice in the Lord; to be thankful was to celebrate the kindness of God."5

It was not, however, a formal Holy Day of Thanks. The first true "Day of Thanksgiving" celebrated at Plymouth colony came two years later. After a long drought in 1623 that threatened the colony's very survival, they called for "a solemn day of humiliation, to seek the Lord by humble and fervent prayer, in this great distress.”6 By the next morning it had begun to rain, and continued raining for 14 days. Overjoyed at this kind providence of God, they called for a day of Thanksgiving in prayer and praise to God. This was, in fact, the "first Thanksgiving" celebrated on American soil. Even this, however, was not made into an annual holiday. It was an expression of the broader Puritan tradition of providential holy days. This tradition became ingrained in New England culture and found a place in the later birth of the new American nation. As one writer explains:

 "By 1691—the year Plymouth was absorbed into Massachusetts Bay—they had adopted a pattern of annual springtime fast days and autumn thanksgivings. While the custom of springtime fasts never caught on elsewhere, the celebration of regular autumn thanksgivings spread across New England during the eighteenth century, expanded to the Old Northwest after the War of 1812 and began to invade the Upper South by the 1840s. Thanksgiving was becoming a beloved American holiday.7

Americans did attribute their Thanksgiving tradition to the New England Puritans, but they didn't think of it as a memorial of any particular historical event.8 Instead, it was a celebration of their present thanks for God's blessings here and now, often mixed with repentance of present sins. The first call for all Americans to share in one "Day of Thanksgiving" came during the Revolutionary War. Henry Laurens, then president of the Continental Congress, issued the formal proclamation on November 1, 1777:

"It is therefore recommended to the legislative or executive Powers of these United States to set apart Thursday, the eighteenth Day of December next, for SOLEMN THANKSGIVING and PRAISE: That at one Time and with one Voice, the good People may express the grateful Feelings of their Hearts, and consecrate themselves to the Service of their Divine Benefactor; and that, together with their sincere Acknowledgments and Offerings, they may join the penitent Confession of their manifold Sins, whereby they had forfeited every Favor; and their humble and earnest Supplication that it may please GOD through the Merits of JESUS CHRIST, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of Remembrance,"9

This did not establish a permanent, annual holiday. In keeping with the Puritan practice, this was called for as a one-time event in response to God's providential hand at the moment. Still, the Continental Congress proceeded to call for similar days of thanksgiving nearly every year throughout the rest of the war. It was not on the same day each year, but it set an early precedent for the idea of a nationwide pausing for thanksgiving to God coupled with repentance of sins. Not surprisingly, George Washington continued this tradition during his presidency, with proclamations like:

"Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be – That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks – for his kind care and protection of the People of this country,"10

Note that none of these proclamations tied the day back to any particular historical event. It was not meant to memorialize a festival the Pilgrims once held. It was, however, following their practice of pausing to thank God at various times when He had done particular good. There was still no set day (in 1795 Washington scheduled in Day of Thanksgiving for February 19th) and, while it had become popular to do so, there was no insistence that such a day be scheduled every single year. In fact, while John Adams would schedule several days of fasting and humiliation, he scheduled none for Thanksgiving. Thomas Jefferson would schedule no such holy days at all. Governors of individual States, however, continued to call for their own Thanksgiving Days “in accordance with a wise and Christian usage,” as a “time honored and pious” tradition, as a “long established custom”11, but it was not always a national practice. It wasn't until 1863 that there began to be an unbroken chain of national "Days of Thanksgiving" each fall. Abraham Lincoln opened his formal Thanksgiving proclamation that year by saying:

"The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings 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 can not fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever - watchful providence of Almighty God."12

And he went on to declare:

"No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. 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."13

The context was still thanksgiving to God, mixed with repentance, offered up because of recent events. In fact, if one simply reviews the Thanksgiving proclamations of U.S. presidents for the rest of the 19th century afterward, one finds biblical allusions and regular calls to gather at churches for corporate worship. It was still not a memorial of a historic event and there was no reference to the Pilgrims, but it was explicitly a religious holiday. Thanksgiving was understood to be God focused. It was the living out of an old Christian tradition, though not the recollection of a specific Christian event. Certainly by this time there were already secular expressions of the holiday emerging, but any study of the history of Thanksgiving Day makes it was abundantly clear that it was birthed and grew to maturity as an explicitly Christian idea. And this historical Christian notion is rooted in a biblical principle:

"In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus," (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

Obviously, today many celebrate Thanksgiving merely as a family day or in the name of some vague, civic religion. The Thanksgiving Holiday was, however, unquestionably forged as a day of special thanks to the Christian God for His ever present mercies. It is certainly not a mandatory Christian holiday, but if you are a Christian who celebrates the day, be sure that you celebrate it in honor and gratitude to God. If you are a Christian who does not celebrate it, nevertheless be sure to pause regularly and give special thanks to God. Whether with holidays or without, a heart of thanksgiving ought to define the Christian.

"Oh give thanks to the Lord, call upon His name; Make known His deeds among the peoples," (1 Chronicles 18:8).

  • 1. Robert Tracy McKenzie, The First Thanksgiving: Kindle Edition (InterVarsity Press, 2013) Kindle Locations 502-507
  • 2. ibid, Kindle Location 530
  • 3. Alexander Young, Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers of the Colony of Plymouth (Boston: Little, Brown, 1841), p. 231.
  • 4. Robert Tracy McKenzie, The First Thanksgiving: Kindle Edition (InterVarsity Press, 2013) Kindle Locations 2167-2171.
  • 5. ibid, Kindle Locations 2198-2199
  • 6. ibid, Kindle Locations 2243-2244
  • 7. ibid, Kindle Locations 2334-2338
  • 8. ibid, Kindle Locations 2343-2344
  • 9. http://www.pilgrimhallmuseum.org/pdf/TG_First_National_Thanksgiving_Proclamation_1777.pdf (accessed 11/19/16)
  • 10. http://www.pilgrimhallmuseum.org/pdf/TG_Presidential_Thanksgiving_Proclamations_1789_1815.pdf (accessed 11/19/16)
  • 11. ibid, Kindle Locations 2366-2367
  • 12. http://www.pilgrimhallmuseum.org/pdf/TG_Presidential_Thanksgiving_Proclamations_1862_1869.pdf (Accessed 11/19/16)
  • 13. ibid