The American Thanksgiving has undergone a shift since the Pilgrims’ 1623 celebration of the good harvest, which arose from abandoning the common-store system in favor of each man working his own property. Currently, most Americans primarily focus on big meals with families, football games and sales as early as Thanksgiving Eve. U.S. presidents, though, have proclaimed more transcendent perspectives of the holiday’s purpose.
Washington, quoted by many other presidents on this holiday, directed in his proclamation “that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions.”
Other presidential proclamations make clear the same intent. From Washington to the current president, leaders called on God to forgive America’s sins as a nation.
Democrat John F. Kennedy quoted Washington in his own proclamation and Republican Ronald Reagan also advocated “recognition of our shortcomings … and our dependence … on the forgiveness and forbearance of the Almighty.”
Leaders’ calls to repentance have a rich history even back to Revolutionary times. The Continental Congress issued the first Thanksgiving Proclamation in America November 1, 1777.
Samuel Adams authored the 360-word proclamation, which declares: “… it is the indispensable duty of all men to adore … Almighty God; to acknowledge with gratitude their obligation to him for benefits received … together with penitent confession of their sins, whereby they had forfeited every favor; and their humble and earnest supplications that it may please God through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive … it is therefore recommended … to set apart Thursday the eighteenth day of December, for solemn thanksgiving and praise.”
Though Adams suggested December 18 due to wartime conditions, the Pilgrims originally intended a date coinciding with harvest for these reasons. Governor Bradford’s implementation of property rights yielded a much more abundant harvest than incentive-destroying, socialistic common stores. Providence had granted favor with Native American tribes and fine weather conditions.
Also, England had long celebrated harvests with festivals. The English Puritans themselves celebrated Sabbaths on Sundays, and fasts and feasts, sometimes twice weekly They came to America because they refused to submit to the Bishop of Lincoln and the Archbishop of York, who unduly restricted Puritans’ right of conscience and persecuted them for their Separatist beliefs.
The Pilgrims’ quest for religious freedom was realized in America, but didn’t begin there. Their journey began in Holland, which offered them freedom to practice their faith conscientiously. They are believed to have interacted with many Sephardic Jews, who celebrated the Biblical feast of Sukkoth known as the “Feast of Tabernacles”.
As devout Calvinists and Puritans, Pilgrims regarded themselves as New Israel, saw America as the Promised Land, and perceived the bishops of Lincoln and York as types of Pharaoh. Since Sukkoth commemorates the sojourning time between the Exodus and the permanent dwellings of Israel, it was a fitting Biblical observance to commemorate safe arrival in the New World with a feast.
The Fast and the Proclamations
Pilgrims also fasted regularly. They may have kept Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), the introspective fast prior to Sukkoth. Since they did proclaim fast days, it would have been natural to incorporate both Scriptural injunctions at the harvest.
St. Luke calls Yom Kippur simply “The Fast”. All Jews, whether Messianic or rabbinical, observe it in some fashion. The ten days leading to Yom Kippur are known as the Days of Awe in Judaism: their purpose is to clear accounts with those you have offended. Both Jesus and the rabbis maintain one must settle offenses with one’s neighbor before coming with a sin offering to God.
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23).
Presidents have focused on the need to repent before God and request forgiveness for national and individual sins. Repenting before one’s neighbor–face-to-face–is a natural but overlooked corollary. Both national and personal repentance to those wronged have their place.
Individuals must take responsibility to confess offenses, both personally and on behalf of their cities and social classes when these have corporately offended others. Christians can lead America to spiritual and national renewal. All who prepare for Thanksgiving by the Biblical approach of self-examination and restitution will reap the benefits.
Penni Bulten is a homeschooling mom who is fascinated with the Founding Fathers and their faith. She can be reached at [email protected].