Written by Dr. Bill Carroll
History of Thanksgiving
The first recorded celebration of Thanksgiving on the North American continent was in 1578 on Newfoundland. An English minister named John Wolfall presided; records indicate that in 1607, another similar celebration was held in Maine. In 1619, captain John Woodleaf and some 38 men landed safely on the banks of the James River near Jamestown, Virginia. Captain Woodleaf read from his charter declaring that on that day of their arrival, “shall be yearly and perpetually kept as a day of thanksgiving to God.”
But the celebration of Thanksgiving that gets the most credit comes from the Pilgrim settlement at Plymouth, Massachusetts. The original autumn festival celebration was held in October of 1621 during their second winter in North America. The first winter had killed 44 of the original 102 colonists. At one point their daily food ration was down to five kernels of corn apiece. The historical records report that around that time, an unexpected trading vessel arrived; the colonists swapped them beaver pelts for grain, providing for their severe need. The next summer’s crop brought hope, and Governor William Bradford decreed that a day be set aside as a day of feasting and prayer to show God their gratitude for His provision, giving thanks for Almighty God who blessed their harvest, for 20 acres of cleared land, for no hostile native Americans in their area, and that they were still alive.
At that celebration, Governor William Bradford and the surviving Plymouth colonists celebrated an autumn harvest feast with the Native American Wampanoag confederation of tribes. It is this festival that is acknowledged as the first Thanksgiving celebration in the colonies. But what started out as a one day celebration quickly stretched into three days. In addition to feasting, the celebrants enjoyed songs, sermons, and prayers together.
For more than two centuries, days of thanksgiving were celebrated by individual colonies and states (who determined their own days and customs). Thanksgiving has been has been celebrated as a time to give thanks to God for His gracious and sufficient provision.
During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress designated one or more days of thanksgiving a year, and in 1789 George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation by the national government of the United States; in it, he called upon Americans to express their gratitude for the happy conclusion to the country’s war of independence and the successful ratification of the U.S. Constitution. His successors John Adams and James Madison also designated days of thanks during their presidencies.
It wasn’t until 1863, in the midst of the American Civil War, that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day holiday to be held each November, specifically for the final Thursday in November. In a proclamation entreating all Americans to ask God to “commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife” and to “heal the wounds of the nation.”
In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week in an attempt to spur retail sales during the Great Depression. Roosevelt’s plan was mocked as “Franksgiving” for changing Lincoln’s established tradition. Undeterred, in 1941, Congress approvingly passed and Roosevelt signed a bill into law making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November.
The Bible is filled with commands to give thanks to God (Psalm 106:1; 107:1; 118:1; I Chronicles 16:34; I Thessalonians 5:18). Most verses go on to list reasons why we should thank Him, such as:
- “His mercy endures forever” (Psalm 107:1; 136:1b)
- “He is good” (Psalm; 106:1; 118:29; 136:1)
- “His mercy is everlasting” (Psalm 100:5)
Thanksgiving and praise always go together. We cannot adequately praise and worship God without also being thankful. And we cannot truly be thankful without also praising and worshipping God.
In the New Testament, there are repeated admonitions to give thanks to God. Thanksgiving is to always be a part of our prayers and especially important for a holiday such as the American Thanksgiving. Some of the most remembered passages on the giving of thanks include:
- “And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” (Ephesians 5:18-20).
- “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God;” (Philippians 4:6).
- “Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men,” (I Timothy 2:1).
Feeling the positive emotion of gratitude and expressing appreciation for favors done for us is a good, constructive response in any relationship. Like any wise parent, God wants us to learn to be thankful for all the gifts He has given us (James 1:17). Everything we have comes from God; to be reminded of how much we do have helps keep us humble. Without gratitude, we can easily become prideful, arrogant, and self-centered thinking all we have has come from our own efforts; we may delude ourselves into thinking that all we have has been achieved solely by our own efforts. But a thankful heart keeps us in right relationship with the God who provides all our good gifts.
But when we think of the American Thanksgiving national holiday, we often reflect on images of feasting, overindulgence, and even gluttony. How are we to reconcile these national traditions with the biblical perspective?
Feasting in the Bible
The Bible frequently discusses the goodness of food and the holiness of feasting. Consider that God, in His goodness, made His creation edible. We read in Genesis 2:9a, “And out of the ground the Lord God made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food….” We also read that God did this on purpose, “And God said, ‘See, I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be for food,’” (Genesis 1:29). And after the flood, God reminded Noah and his family about His provision, “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. I have given you all things, even as the green herbs,” (Genesis 9:3). Giving thanks for God’s provision of food was even practiced by Jesus in the New Testament: “And He took the seven loaves and the fish and gave thanks, broke them and gave them to His disciples; and the disciples gave to the multitude,” (Matthew 15:36).
God established several feast days in the Old Testament. They were accompanied by God’s people re-establishing their right relationship with God and celebrating His goodness. These feasts and festivals included:
- Passover (Leviticus 23:4-8)
- Unleavened Bread (Leviticus 23:6)
- First Fruits (Leviticus 23:10)
- Feast of Weeks (ie. “Pentecost”) (Leviticus 23:16)
- Feast of Trumpets (Leviticus 23:24)
- Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16; 23:26-32)
- Feast of Tabernacles (ie. “Booths”) (Leviticus 23:34)
Clearly, if God established not one, but several feasting holidays, then He must have a good reason and considers these events important for His people. The Cambridge dictionary defines a “feast” as “a special meal with very good food or a large meal for many people.” The idea behind this term is ‘the enjoyment of abundance.’ However, when we examine these feasts in the Bible, they don’t all imply abundance, but rather ‘a communal sharing of a celebrated meal with a focus on some remembrance and thankfulness of some event of God’s mercy’. So biblically speaking, a “feast” can include abundance, but not necessarily in every case; it more important to remember God and His loving-kindness. That’s the focus of these holiday.
Biblical feasting is not primarily about the good food. Rather, biblical feasting is about celebrating God and food, drink, and people (such as friends and family) are the means through which that celebration occurs. These means merely highlight the gratitude and delight in God’s love and kindness. Thus, the true biblical feast occurs in the heart of the participants, not in the food and drink provided. That’s what makes a holiday special – for God’s people, it’s a truly spiritual event with God as the focus.
Making the National Holiday a Spiritual Event
We’ve looked at the historical event on how Thanksgiving was established in the United States. We’ve seen how the date changed until it was settled now for the fourth Thursday of November. We’ve looked at the important of giving thanks to God and how He established feasts for His people. So, how do we transform this national holiday celebrated by many Americans of many different faith backgrounds into a truly, spiritual feast day that honors our God?
1. Center the Celebration Around God
The purpose of the entire event should not be around football, family, or even food. Instead, the focus of the celebration should be centered around God Himself, His provision, His loving-kindness, and the many good gifts He has given. Yes, it is good to include means through which one can enjoy Him such as food, family, friends, or even football, but don’t make your holiday into a “donut” that’s missing the important center of everything. Giving thanks to God should be of paramount importance.
2. Speak God-Honoring Truth
Have someone designated to lead the celebration of giving thanks to God. Some families appoint the head of the family to speak on everyone’s behalf; some families allow the returning college student the opportunity to speak; some families take turns each expressing their appreciation for God and His provision in their life. How your family expresses thanks to God is not nearly as important as actually expressing thanks to God.
Whoever speaks to lead the celebration, focus on what the Bible says about God, His attributes, and the riches He has given. As James 1:17 states, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.” Therefore it is right and proper to speak God’s truth back to Him as part of the celebration. You may consider reading a short passage of Scripture as part of your expression of thanks.
That being said, the articulation of thanks does not need to long nor a lecture to family members. And it certainly doesn’t need to be polished speech with long-winded, fancy words or a sermonette on everything the Bible has to say on the matter. Keep it clear, but keep it short and respectful of everyone at the table.
Speaking God’s truth in your celebration is the moment when the grace of God through Christ is made explicit. This outward expression of gratitude, and the prayer that often follows, is what transforms the event from being mere eating, drinking, and fellowship into a spiritual event. As the apostle Paul was inspired to write in I Corinthians 10:31, “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” God’s word nourishes the soul while the wonderful food nourishes the body.
3. Thank God Together
Once the time of giving explicit thanks to God has been completed, then everyone should pray together. According to I Timothy 4:4-5, it is through prayer that the food of the feast is sanctified and made holy: “For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.”
Thus, when your celebration is planned out and spoken plainly, through expressions of gratitude, reading biblical passages, and prayer together, the event won’t feel like someone is faking their holiness or trying to be something they’re not. Feasting is made holy by the purpose of expressing thanks to God, His divine word, and earnest prayer shared together.
4. Enjoy the Festivity Together
Then comes the eating and enjoying fellowship together. Express your thanks for the food to the ones who prepared it; express your appreciation for those at your table. Let this be a time of happiness and festivity.
Like the Pilgrims, though, we have a choice. In life, there will always be those things that we can complain about; after all, the Pilgrims watched many of their family and friends die of disease and starvation that first year in Plymouth colony. But we can have thankful hearts toward God even when we do not feel thankful for the circumstance.
- We can grieve and still be thankful.
- We can hurt and still be thankful.
- We can be angry at sin and still be thankful toward God.
That is what the Bible calls a “sacrifice of praise” (Hebrews 13:15). Giving thanks to God keeps our hearts in right relationship with Him and saves us from a host of harmful emotions and attitudes that will rob us of the peace God wants us to experience (Philippians 4:6-7).
As American society continues down its increasingly secular path, the actual “giving of thanks to God” is being overlooked; its reducing the tradition that once started out as a spiritual event into a simple day of food, family, friends, football, and just time off from work.
Don’t let the secular worldly values crowd God out of your celebration. Make a deliberate choice to give thanks to Him. Lead your families to remember God and His rich blessings. And may He find us all, grateful sons and daughters, when He returns.
Blackman, Jessie and Susha Roberts. “7 Feasts that Point to Christ” accessed from https://www.wycliffe.org/feast/7-feasts-that-point-to-christ
Matthas, David. “The Lost Art of Feasting” accessed from
Piper, John. “Ingredients for a Theology of Feasting” accessed from https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/ingredients-for-a-theology-of-feasting
Zimmerman, Martha. Celebrating the Christian Year. (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1993).