The Biblical Roots of Thanksgiving

Unbeknownst to many Americans, Thanksgiving is yet another legacy of the Biblical heritage that shaped American law and culture over the centuries. 

There is at least some evidence that the deeply pious Pilgrims — who, as Puritans, believed the Old Testament law was binding on Gentiles as well as Jews — may have been partially inspired by the Jewish harvest festival of Booths (Sukkot). 

Sukkot is a week-long celebration, mandated in Leviticus 23, in which the Jewish people remember and give thanks for their deliverance from bondage in Egypt.  It is usually observed in October — as was the original Thanksgiving in 1621.

At the very least, the concept and duty of thanksgiving is deeply rooted in the Biblical tradition.  Indeed, you can actually see much of the Torah’s ceremonial commandments as being nothing less than institutionalized thanksgiving:  The Sabbath, Passover, the Festival of Weeks, The Festival of Booths, the entire sacrificial system, seeks to inculcate among the people the awareness of divine graciousness.

“He appointed some of the Levites to minister before the ark of the LORD, to make petition, to give thanks, and to praise the LORD, the God of Israel,” says Chronicles.  “Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known among the nations what he has done,” sang the Psalmist.

The apostle Paul, in the earliest book in the New Testament, makes thanksgiving a virtual commandment:  “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18)

It’s hardly surprising, then, that the Pilgrims set aside a special time to give thanks to God for his mercy. 

Thanks to contemporary accounts written by Edward Winslow (in his 1621 A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth) and Governor William Bradford himself (History Of Plymouth Plantation), we have a pretty good idea of what happened 386 years ago.

As most people know, the first winter was devastating:  Of the 110 Pilgrims and crew who left England, only about 50 survived the cold and hunger of that first winter. 

But then, on March 16, with freezing winds still blowing across the Atlantic ocean, a seeming miracle occurred.  An Abanki Indian named Samoset strolled right into the Pilgrim settlement and announced, in English, “Welcome!”   Samoset had learned English from British fishermen along the coast.  Samoset brought his friend, Squanto (Tisquantum), who not only spoke better English but had actually lived in England for nearly a decade.  He had been kidnapped from the Plymouth area in 1608 and had traveled back and forth.

It was Squanto who taught the Pilgrims how to grow corn, how to catch fish and eels, how to tap maple syrup — and basically how to survive in this harsh Massachusetts winter.

By the time fall arrived, the Pilgrims meager barley and wheat crops were offset by a bountiful supply of corn, fish and wild turkeys.  For that reason, the deeply pious Puritan Governor Bradford, reflecting on the ancient Israelites’ thanksgiving for their deliverance from Egypt, proclaimed a day of thanksgiving.

Squanto, the local chief Massasoit and 90 Indian braves came to the three-day celebration — and brought most of the food!

Thanksgiving has evolved into a secular holiday in the United States, shared by people of all faiths and no faith, but we should remember that our Pilgrim forefathers and foremothers looked to Biblical precedents for their inspiration.  Plus, it bears remembering whom the early Pilgrims were thanking as they enjoyed the unexpected bounties of nature and the equally unexpected kindnesses of America’s native people.