Every November we come together to celebrate Thanksgiving with family and friends. Our national holiday appears to revolve around food, football, and, of course, the arrival of shopping season. Thanksgiving, sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly, has been hijacked. Thanksgiving has not simply lost its meaning, but it’s been so far removed from its original purpose that most Americans have no connection to its beginnings.
Despite what we’ve been led to believe with American mythology, there was no “First Thanksgiving.” “Thanksgiving,” as we know it, was created 200 years after the Pilgrims by Abraham Lincoln to act as a unifying national event at the close of the Civil War. This notion did draw upon the spirit of two Pilgrim events. First, a “harvest festival” to celebrate the Pilgrims’ initial crop of food after they survived the first winter on rations. Second, a “day of thanksgiving” to honor God for bringing miraculous, field-saving summer rains the following year. Neither event became an annual Pilgrim occurrence, nor did either take place in late November.
Out of these two one-time events, we have come to associate the Pilgrims with food and thanks. The food part has been embellished over the years, as we have no evidence that the Pilgrims had mashed potatoes and stuffing. In fact, they constantly flirted with starvation for at least the first three years. The thanks part has come to focus on family and patriotic themes as time marches farther from the miraculous rain event they witnessed.
What, then, should be the purpose of Thanksgiving? The Pilgrim spirit is one of thankfulness for God’s protection on a quest for the freedom to worship freely. They risked their lives for religious liberty. They felt God’s providence from the daring Mayflower voyage to the redemptive rains that saved them from starvation. They had a vision for a place in this world where they could worship without heavy hand of kings and bishops. While they often stumbled, their work and character inspired America’s Founding Fathers and charted a course for religious freedom as a cornerstone of the American enterprise.
Often overlooked, at the heart of the Pilgrims’ purpose is a translation of the Bible. Before their historical journey, this small band of would-be Pilgrims began meeting privately in homes to hold church services and Bible studies. They read the Geneva Bible and were so moved that they resolved to quietly break away from the Church of England.
The Geneva Bible irked the Church of England. First published in 1560, The Geneva Bible was written by scholars who fled England in fear of the Queen, “Bloody Mary.” In Switzerland, these scholars created a new, more accessible Bible and included study guides, summaries, and cross-references. Indeed, it brought theological study to the people. The Geneva Bible diminished the state church’s control of content and threatened its order. The church proceeded to ban the Geneva Bible. In its place, they commissioned the Bishop’s Bible and eventually the King James translation.
For the desire to worship freely, the Pilgrims gave of their lives, liberty, and fortunes. They risked near-certain death crossing the Atlantic to an uncharted, unknown place, for the ability to read the Bible translation of their choosing. Indeed, among the few, most prized possessions that these men and women could take aboard the Mayflower many brought their Geneva Bibles.
During my research for They Came for Freedom: The Forgotten, Epic Adventure of the Pilgrims, I regularly turned to the Geneva Bible (on Bible Gateway, no less). Admittedly, I do not believe I had previously read it, or given it much consideration. I found a new appreciation for it and the sacrifices made on its behalf. This is truly something for which to be thankful and, perhaps, should be part of our thankful reflection this November.
My answer to the question on the purpose of Thanksgiving? We should give thanks for the miraculous, heroic events that transpired to allow us the freedom to gather, worship, and believe as we wish.
I thought it fitting to end with a reading from the Geneva Bible with a verse the Pilgrims are alleged to have read on the deck of the Mayflower after their arduous trans-Atlantic crossing.
When David was delivered, from great danger, he rendered thanks to God, exhorting others to do the like, and to learn by his example, that God is rather merciful than severe and rigorous towards his children. And also that the fall from prosperity to adversity is sudden. This done, he returneth to prayer, promising to praise God forever.
A Psalm or song of the dedication of the house of David.
1 I will magnify thee, O Lord: thou hast exalted me, and hast not made my foes to rejoice over me.
2 O Lord my God, I cried unto thee, and thou hast restored me.
3 O Lord, thou hast brought up my soul out of the grave: thou hast revived me from them that go down into the pit.
4 Sing praises unto the Lord, ye his Saints, and give thanks before the remembrance of his Holiness.
5 For he endureth but a while in his anger: but in his favor is life: weeping may abide at evening, but joy cometh in the morning.
6 And in my prosperity I said, I shall never be moved.
7 For thou Lord of thy goodness hadst made my mountain to stand strong: but thou didst hide thy face, and I was troubled.
8 Then cried I unto thee, O Lord, and prayed to my Lord.
9 What profit is there in my blood, when I go down to the pit! shall the dust give thanks unto thee? or shall it declare thy truth?
10 Hear, O Lord, and have mercy upon me: Lord, be thou mine helper.
11 Thou hast turned my mourning into joy: thou hast loosed my sack, and girded me with gladness.
12 Therefore shall my tongue praise thee and not cease: O Lord my God, I will give thanks unto thee forever.
Jay Milbrandt is the author of They Came for Freedom: The Forgotten, Epic Adventure of the Pilgrims (Thomas Nelson, 2017). Learn more at TheyCameForFreedom.com and JayMilbrandt.com.