Multnomah University history professor,
Dr. Daniel Scalberg, shares the history of Thanksgiving in the United States.
Prayers of thanks and special religious services of thanksgiving were common among all of the European Protestant and Roman Catholic colonizing nations. Like the early 17th century French Catholic settlers of New France (Canada), English colonists of the same time period were often led by their clergy to offer corporate “thanksgiving to Almighty God” for safe deliverance in time of war, famine, or any extreme hardship.
The first documented thanksgiving services in territory currently inside the boundaries of the United States were conducted by Spanish Roman Catholic explorers and colonists during the sixteenth century. Among English Anglican colonists, thanksgiving services were routinely observed in Virginia during the 17th century beginning with the colony of Jamestown holding a thanksgiving service in 1610.
Modern day Americans commonly, but not universally, trace the origins of Thanksgiving Day to a thanksgiving feast ordered in 1621 by Governor William Bradford of the Puritan separatist (English Dissenters) settlement in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The surviving seventeenth century accounts do not identify this feast as a religious service; rather, it followed the harvest. The First Nation Wampanoag supplemented the limited stores of the fledgling colony by adding local eel and corn, thus contributing to the abundance of the feast.
The Plymouth “Pilgrims” were dissenters from the established Church of England (Anglican) and are not to be confused with the English “Puritans” who established a colony in nearby Boston in 1630. Special days were often appointed in Puritan New England for thanksgiving or fasting. Beginning in Connecticut in 1649, the observance of an annual harvest festival spread throughout New England and by the end of the eighteenth century George Washington proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving in 1789.
The final Thursday in November had become the customary date in the United States by the beginning of the nineteenth century. Thanksgiving was first celebrated on the same day by all northern states in November of 1863 by a proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln hoped his proclamation would foster a sense of American unity between Northern and Southern states. Because of the Confederate States of America’s refusal to recognize Lincoln’s authority, a truly nationwide Thanksgiving date was not realized until the 1870’s.
In the late 1930’s, with the United States still in the midst of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt hoped an earlier Thanksgiving would give merchants a longer period of time to sell goods before Christmas. At the time, advertising goods for Christmas before Thanksgiving was considered inappropriate. By an Act of Congress in 1941, Thanksgiving Day is now the fourth Thursday of November. Although church services may be held, Thanksgiving is more typically celebrated today as a non-religious family festival more in harmony with America’s modern mass market consumer culture.
Much like Columbus Day, Thanksgiving Day is seen by some First Nations peoples as a celebration of conquest and genocide. Some Native Americans hold “Un-thanksgiving Day” celebrations in which they mourn the death of their ancestors. The perception of Thanksgiving among First Nations is not universally negative, though. Some Native American organizations seek to reconcile Thanksgiving with Native American traditions. In this context, President George Bush signed into law legislation to designate the Friday after Thanksgiving as Native American Heritage Day. The Bill was supported by 184 federally recognized tribes who hope the day will help pay tribute to Native Americans for their many contributions to the United States.
- James Baker, Thanksgiving: A Biography of an American holiday. New Hampshire University Press, 2009.
- Robert Tracy McKenzie, The First Thanksgiving: What The Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History. Downers Grove: IVP, 2013.
- Daniel Reid, Dictionary of Christianity in America. Downers Grove: IVP, 1990.