Studying all extant eyewitness accounts of the first Thanksgiving is not difficult. It requires reading just 152 words, written in late 1621 by Plymouth colony statesman Edward Winslow:
Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after have a 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. 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.
The celebration bore marked differences from some traditional portrayals. The 90 Wamponoags present were nearly double the 50 Englishmen still alive after their first grueling winter in Plymouth, down from 102 who arrived on the Mayflower. It probably took place outdoors, in September or October rather than November. They ate more venison and seafood than turkey, berries rather than pumpkin pies.
In some quarters, it has become popular to suggest even deeper differences between traditional American Thanksgiving celebrations and what occurred at Plymouth in 1621. Contrary to the traditional portrayal of families gathered around their tables with heads bowed in prayer, some historians question whether Christian spirituality should be associated with the first Thanksgiving.
James Deetz and Patricia Scott Deetz claimed, for example, that “Thanksgiving as we think of it today is largely a myth.” The original celebration was a “secular event,” which “transformed over time,” because America “needed a myth of epic proportion on which to found its history.”
Indeed, of the surviving Englishmen at the first Thanksgiving, only about half were Separatists, those who came to the New World in search of freedom to live out their Christian faith. The rest were “strangers,” who made the journey out of nonreligious motives.
New England historian Joseph Conforti described the first Thanksgiving feast as “disorderly,” not the mythologized “placid feast dominated by pious settlers.” American religious historian Sydney Ahlstrom described the Pilgrim Fathers as “not theologically minded, nor ... self-conscious in their churchmanship.”
Yet Americans long have assumed a spiritual heritage in their Thanksgiving celebrations, from President George Washington’s proclamation “rendering unto [God] our sincere and humble thanks” to Donald Trump’s last year, harkening back to the Pilgrims and saying, “we remember with reverence and gratitude the bountiful blessings afforded to us by our Creator.”
Conflicting interpretations of the 1621 Thanksgiving celebration may make us wonder whether it is reasonable to draw spiritual lessons from the first Thanksgiving. Was it merely a secular harvest festival, or did the Pilgrim Fathers celebrate in deep gratitude for God’s providential care? Even the most cursory reading of Pilgrim literature strongly favors the latter option.
Despite the relative scarcity of primary sources and the wave of historical revisionism, a wealth of spiritual instruction may be gleaned from the first Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims’ approach to providence, gratitude, and the priesthood of all believers.
Thankfulness Flows From a High View of Providence
The Pilgrim Fathers’ assessment of themselves as “partakers” of “plenty” on the first Thanksgiving comes into sharper focus when we consider the mediocrity of their first harvest. Though they brought in 20 acres of corn thanks to the help of their native friend Squanto (who showed them how to grow the strange North American crop), all the Pilgrims’ English crops failed. Yet amid that failure, the Separatists still deemed their first harvest “plentiful” by “the goodness of God” and worthy of a thanksgiving celebration.
The Pilgrim Fathers could be thankful for mixed success because they viewed every good thing in life—no matter how small—as the provision of a sovereign God. A True Confession, the 1596 creed adopted by the Separatists who set sail on the Mayflower, declared, “God hath decreed in himself from everlasting touching all things, and the very least circumstances of every thing, effectually to work and dispose them according to the counsell of his own will, to the prayse and glorie of his great name.”
This was the same doctrine of meticulous providence articulated by the Reformers and upheld in the Reformed tradition up to the present. As John Calvin put it, “God’s providence governs all” such that “nothing takes place without his deliberation.” A quarter century after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, the Westminster divines expressed the same doctrine: God “doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least.”
When the Pilgrims decided to leave the Netherlands for America—seeking better economic prospects, continued religious freedom, and a removal from the influence of poor Dutch morals on their children—they knew their journey would be difficult. Yet they believed many potential difficulties “by providente care and the use of good means might in a great measure be prevented.”
In hindsight, “endured” might have been a more appropriate word than “prevented.” The Mayflower encountered serious storms in the mid-Atlantic for days on end, growing so leaky that there was discussion of turning back. However, the captain declared his vessel seaworthy, and the Pilgrim Fathers “committed themselves to ye will of God.”
During their first winter in Plymouth, disease struck the Pilgrims hard. Over a span of three months, half the English settlers died. Of all the married couples among them, both husband and wife survived in just three instances. Still, the Separatists saw God’s providential care. “The Lord so upheld these persons,” Pilgrim statesman William Bradford wrote. After native people fell victim to illness too, the surviving tribes caused the Pilgrims no harm, which they also attributed to providence: “It has pleased God so to possess the Indians with a fear of us, and love unto us.”
Such a high view of providence led naturally to thanksgiving. The smallest positive occurrence in life could not be overlooked because it was a gift of God no less than the major victories. That’s why the Pilgrim Fathers could pause for a thanksgiving holiday following their mediocre harvest and abominable first winter in Plymouth.
Celebrations Stem From a Life of Thankfulness
One of the Pilgrim Fathers’ most striking moments of thankfulness occurred the first Sunday after they reached North America. A scouting party of 16 men returned to the Mayflower with a good report about the land. The collective sense of relief spurred an impromptu worship service. As Bradford put it, “They fell upon their knees and blessed ye God of heaven.”
This scene was not an isolated incident. Bradford’s history of Plymouth references the giving of thanks no less than 30 times. The first Thanksgiving, rather than being an anomaly amid the drudgery of forging a new colony, fell within a rhythm of gratitude in the Pilgrims’ life.
Indeed, the first Thanksgiving may have been the 1621 observance of an annual English harvest festival known as Harvest Home. Some have noted this fact in attempt to deny the first Thanksgiving’s spiritual character. In actuality, it underscores the cyclical nature of thanksgiving in Plymouth colony.
Before the Pilgrims faced each day, they first turned to God in gratitude and intercession. The pattern persisted as half their company died that first winter and as crops failed the next year. Weekly, they took seriously observance of the Sabbath, making preparations each Saturday so Sunday could be spent in uninterrupted worship and rest.
By the time their first harvest was gathered, the Pilgrim Fathers’ response was predictable. Despite a winter of widespread death and a fall of crop failure, they gave thanks, confident of God’s providential care. Leaders of the colony doubled the weekly corn ration, and a holiday was declared so all could “after a more special manner, rejoyce together.”
Collective Thanksgiving Enhanced by Individual Theology
For the Pilgrim Fathers, every believer was responsible before God to apprehend biblical teaching and live it out. Neither theology nor ecclesiastical authority was limited to clergymen. Historically, this doctrine is known as the priesthood of all believers.
For the first nine years of Plymouth’s existence, the colony did not include a single ordained minister. The church, they said, is Christ’s “spirituall kingdome” on earth, which has been separated “from emongst unbelievers” as “a royall Priesthood.” Every believer in the congregation possesses equal worth and responsibility before God.
The concept of the priesthood of all believers predated the Pilgrim Fathers. Yet Separatists—especially the Pilgrim Fathers—lived out the doctrine with unique consistency. A comparison of Plymouth colony with its Puritan neighbors to the north in Massachusetts Bay Colony proves helpful in this regard.
While both groups believed the church should comprise only “visible saints” and that each believer bore individual responsibility before God, a Puritan could not “pursue the implications of his principles the way the Separatists did.” That was because Puritans never separated from the Church of England and its practice of regarding every Englishman as a church member. Only Separatists demanded a confession of faith as a prerequisite for church membership.
In light of that distinction between Pilgrims and Puritans, it is interesting that Plymouth became famous for its community-wide Thanksgiving celebration while Massachusetts Bay attained notoriety largely for the theological contributions of its individual ministers and the universities it founded to train them.
Their daily, weekly, and occasional expressions of thankful worship were communal, not decreed by clergy. Perhaps rigorous adherence to the priesthood of all believers is why the Pilgrims could, at the first Thanksgiving, “rejoice together” that “by the goodness of God, we are so far from want.”
‘Their Trust in Heaven, Their High Religious Faith’
Historians who characterize the first Thanksgiving as more legend than fact, more revelry than spirituality, have cited New England statesman Daniel Webster’s 1820 speech at Plymouth Rock as a key step in formulating the Pilgrim “myth.” While Webster took poetic license with some details (like the importance of Plymouth Rock itself), his characterization of the Pilgrim Fathers as thankful people of faith is borne out by the historical record.
Commemorating the 200th anniversary of Plymouth colony’s founding, he recalled “their conscious joy for dangers escaped; their deep solicitude about danger to come; their trust in Heaven; their high religious faith, full of confidence and anticipation; all of these seem to belong to this place, and to be present upon this occasion, to fill us with reverence and admiration.”
With the passing of 200 more years, we still have reason to celebrate the Pilgrim Fathers’ faith and look to them for enduring lessons on providence and gratitude.
David Roach is a writer, preacher, and professor in Nashville. He holds a PhD in church history from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Adapted from Strangers and Pilgrims on the Earth: Remembering the Mayflower Pilgrims, 1620–2020 (H&E Publishing). Used with permission.