Imagine a Thanksgiving Day without Pilgrims. No turkey, no cranberries, no happy celebrations with family and friends crammed around the extended dining-room table. Picture this instead: a solemn day of fasting, meditation and introspection, followed by a light meal of roasted oysters or Virginia ham.
That, according to some Virginians, was how the real “first” Christian Thanksgiving in the New World was held on December 4, 1619 by 38 English settlers at what is now Berkeley Plantation in Charles City by the banks of the James River.1
Upon landing there, they opened their charter and found out that their first order of business was to thank God, “Wee ordaine that the Day of our [ship’s] arrival at the place assigned for the plantation in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.”
Several other “first” Christian Thanksgiving days are vying for their place in history:
- May 23, 1541: Texas Panhandle. Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and his men held a service of thanksgiving after finding food, water, and pasture.
- June 30, 1564: Jacksonville, Florida. Huguenot (French Reformers) colonists led by René de Laudonniere celebrated their new settlement, singing “a psalm of Thanksgiving unto God.”
- August 9, 1607: Maine. English settlers led by Captain George Popham joined Abnaki Indians along the Kennebec River for a harvest feast and prayer meeting.
- June 10, 1610: Jamestown, Virginia. During the harsh winter of 1609-10, called “the starving time” by John Smith, 60 surviving colonists (out of the original 500) held a service of thanksgiving after help finally arrived from England. A settler wrote, “the tenth of Iune (being Sunday) his Lordship [Thomas De la Warr] came with all his Fleete, went ashore in the afternoone, heard a Sermon, read his Commission, and entred into consultation for the good of the Colony.”
- October 1621: Plimouth Colony, Massachusetts. Fifty surviving Pilgrims, together with 90 Wampanoag Indians, had a 3-day harvest festival of wild turkey, duck, geese, venison, lobsters, clams, bass, corn, vegetables, and dried fruits.
- July 8, 1630: New England. Governor John Winthrop and members of the Massachusetts Bay colony observed a day of prayer and thanksgiving. Winthrop wanted this Puritan settlement to be a model Christian “City upon a Hill”:
wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us; soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our god in this worke wee have undertaken and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us. Therefore lett us choose life, that wee, and our Seede, may live; by obeyeing his voyce…
But it was only on October 3, 1863 that President Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November as an annual nationwide celebration of thanksgiving (changed later to the 3rd Thursday by President Franklin Roosevelt).
(Here’s an interesting sidelight in the Philippines: Thanksgiving Day was formerly celebrated in the Philippines on the same day as in the U.S. However, in 1974, then President Marcos changed it to September 21, in honor of the declaration of martial law in the country! I don’t know if this is still considered as Thanksgiving Day here.)
All praise and thanks to God
The Father now be given,
The Son, and him who reigns
With them in highest heav’n
The one eternal God,
Whom earth and heav’n adore;
For thus it was, is now,
And shall be evermore. (From “Now Thank We All Our God” by Martin Rinkart, 1648. Sing along here.)
1 Thanks to Diane of Third Presbyterian Church in Richmond, VA, who first pointed this historical insight to me back in 2005.