In an effort to honor our gracious God during this special time of year, we desire to rightly remember the occasion that gave birth to what later became known as Thanksgiving Day. Thanksgiving Day is a holiday that should serve to remind us of the rich heritage of worship in America.

Thanksgiving is, above all else, a day of worship.

We all agree that giving thanks to God is something that we as Christians are called to do everyday, always, and without ceasing. There are over 550 references to thankfulness in the Bible. True worship to God is both always and at designated times and places.

Fruit of the Reformation

Once Martin Luther’s writings reached Oxford and Cambridge, an awakened interest was ignited in England to examine the recently published Greek New Testament in addition to its Latin translations.

Through the influence of William Tyndale, one scholar, Thomas Bilney, stated that he had come to an inward peace through his careful study of the New Testament after experiencing an “inner struggle of the soul.” As his spiritual impact was affecting others, he was promptly burned at Norwich in 1531, being pronounced a heretic. Instead of extinguishing such tendencies, this spurred on others and incited attention.

William Tyndale went on to complete his momentous contribution of translating the New Testament into English from the Greek instead of Latin. Under the reign of King Henry VIII, the English Reformation officially commenced by the King’s breach with Rome in 1534. After many detailed events, an “Act of Uniformity” was passed in 1559 under Queen Elizabeth: “requiring every minister to use none other than the established Liturgy, under pain, for the first offence, of forfeiting goods; for the second, of a year’s imprisonment; for the third, of imprisonment during life. To secure the conformity of the laity, absence from church without reasonable excuse was made punishable by fines.”[1]

Many responded with zealous resistance to the governing authority and practice of the Church of England, and earnestly desired to fully “reform” the Church of England to return to the Bible for its sufficiency, authority, and exclusivity. Such were called “Puritans” by the Anglican church, in an effort to cast contempt upon them by classifying them in a prideful manner. The Puritan, William Bradford, records their position in the matter:

Religion hath been disgraced, the godly grieved, afflicted, persecuted, and many exiled; sundry have lost their lives in prisons and other ways. On the other hand, sin hath been countenanced; ignorance, profaneness and atheism increased, and the papists encouraged to hope again for a day. They [the Puritans] viewed the imposed authority and hierarchy of man, the man-made rules and regulations of worship, and the ritualistic ceremonies detestable. How not only these base and beggarly ceremonies were unlawful, but also that the lordly and tyrannous power of the prelates ought not to be submitted unto; which thus, contrary to the freedom of the gospel, would load and burden men’s consciences and by their compulsive power make a profane mixture of persons and things in the worship of God. And that their offices and callings, courts and canons, etc. were unlawful and antichristian: being such as have no warrant in the Word of God, but the same that were used in popery and still retained.[2]

In the News

During this time, Sir Francis Bacon is breaking new ground in scientific methodology, Johannes Kepler is revolutionizing astronomy, and Galileo is discovering new planets and moons. The Age of Enlightenment is dawning, Shakespeare is writing Macbeth, and the Anglo-Spanish war is nearing its 20 year end. Queen Elizabeth dies in 1603 and is succeeded by Kings James I, who orders Roman Catholic priests to be banished from England, resulting in the pro-Catholic Gunpowder Plot to blow up the House of Lords (1604). The Book of Common prayer is revised in 1604 and Australia will soon be discovered (1606).

In Pursuit of Purity of Worship

The most insistent group of Puritans were later referred to as Separatists, and Non-Conformists. In 1607, as a result of religious persecution upon their persons, reputations, families, and livelihood, the “Separatists,” or Pilgrims, departed from England for Holland. Governor Bradford recorded:

They shook off this yoke of antichristian bondage, and as the Lord’s free people, joined themselves by a covenant of the Lord into a church estate in the fellowship of the gospel, to walk in all His ways, made known unto them, according to their best endeavours, whatsoever it should cost them, the Lord assisting them.[3]

They actively pressed on in pursuit of returning to a New Testament approach to worship, with full awareness and anticipation of persecution. Bradford reports that:

They were hunted and persecuted on every side, until their former afflictions were but as fleabitings in comparison. For some were taken and clapped up in prison, others had their houses beset and watched night and day, and hardly escaped their hands; and the most were fain to flee and leave their houses and habitations, and the means of their livelihood.[4]

In Pain of Persecution

They remained in this severe persecution for more than a year, finally resolving to flee from their native country to seek the freedom to worship God in a manner free from regulation and in their own words “molestation.” Their faith was staggering, being demonstrated in their continual reliance on God for both their temporal physical needs as well as their eternal spiritual security; trusting fully in God’s sovereignty and providence.

By 1608, they sought to flee to Amsterdam because they heard that “there was freedom of religion for all” there. They sold most of all they had, left their farms and homes, and paid extraordinary rates to sail from England to Holland. After payment, they were often betrayed and either left without transportation or apprehended and brought before the English authorities and were imprisoned for a short time. In Bradford’s own words:

Being thus constrained to leave their native soil and country, their lands and livings, and all their friends and familiar acquaintance, it was much; and thought marvellous by many. But to go into a country they knew not but by hearsay, where they must learn a new language and get their livings they knew not how, it being a dear place and subject to the miseries of war, it was by many thought an adventure almost desperate; a case intolerable and a misery worse than death. Especially seeing they were not acquainted with trades nor traffic (by which that country cloth subsist) but had only been used to a plain country life and the innocent trade of husbandry. But these things did not dismay them, though they did sometimes trouble them; for their desires were set on the ways of God and to enjoy His ordinances; but they rested on His providence, and knew Whom they had believed. Yet this was not all, for though they could not stay, yet were they not suffered to go; but the ports and havens were shut against them, so as they were fain to seek secret means of conveyance, and to bribe and fee the mariners, and give extraordinary rates for their passages. 1 And yet were they often times betrayed, many of them; and both they and their goods intercepted and surprised, and thereby put to great trouble and charge, of which I will give an instance or two and omit the rest.

There was a large company of them purposed to get passage at Boston in Lincolnshire, and for that end had hired a ship wholly to themselves and made agreement with the master to be ready at a certain day, and take them and their goods in at a convenient place, where they accordingly would all attend in readiness. So after long waiting and large expenses, though he kept not day with them, yet he came at length and took them in, in the night. But when he had them and their goods abroad, he betrayed them, having before hand complotted with the searchers and other officers to do; who took them, and put them into open boats, and there rifled and ransacked them, searching to their shirts for money, yea even the women further than became modesty; and then carried them back into the town and made them a spectacle and wonder to the multitude which came flocking on all sides to behold them. Being thus first, by these catchpoll officers rifled and stripped of their money; books and much other goods, they were presented to the magistrates, and messengers sent to inform the Lords of the Council of them; and so they were committed to ward. Indeed the magistrates used them courteously and showed them what favour they could; but could not deliver them till order came from the Council table. But the issue was that after a month’s imprisonment the greatest part were dismissed and sent to the places from whence they came; but seven of the principal were still kept in prison and bound over to the assizes.

A Fellowship of Christians

On December 15, 1617, in their letter to Sir Edwin Sandys in London, John Robinson and William Brewster explained that the Pilgrims were:

Knit together as a body in a most strict and sacred bond and covenant of the Lord, of the violation whereof we make great conscience, and by virtue whereof we do hold ourselves straitly tied to all care of each other’s good, and of the whole by every one and so mutually.[5]

The culture was quite different, in many respects. They had to learn a new form of commerce and language. The following report reflects their testimony while in Holland:

it may be spoken to the honor of God and without prejudice to any, that such was the true piety, the humble zeal and fervent love of this people … towards God and His ways, and the singleheartedness and sincere affection one towards another, that they came as near the primitive pattern of the first churches as any other church of these later times have done, according to their rank and quality.[6]

One of the magistrates said in a public reproof of another group in the same city, “These English have lived amongst us now these twelve years, and yet we never had any suit or accusation come against any of them; but your strifes and quarrels are continual.”[7] After 12 years of dwelling in Holland, the Puritans could no longer endure the sinful influence and corruption of that society. In their own words:

But that which was more lamentable, and of all sorrows most heavy to be borne, was that many of [our] children, by these occasions and the great licentiousness of youth in that country, and the manifold temptations of the place, were drawn away by evil examples into extravagant and dangerous courses, getting the reins off their necks and departing from their parents. Some became soldiers, others took upon them far voyages by sea, and others some worse courses tending to dissoluteness and the danger of their souls, to the great grief of their parents and dishonour of God. So that they saw their posterity would be in danger to degenerate and be corrupted.[8]

At this, and by the hearing of the new found land, called New England, they sought legal approval to settle there. Though the King would not grant them freedom from his public authority, he did agree that he would not violate their practice of worship in New England. Contrary to what some purport today, their motives to settle in New England reflected a humble desire to worship the Lord in good conscience and purity.

The Virginia Colony

According to their own words, written to the King’s representative for the Virginia colony, regarding their departure to New England:

We verily believe and trust that the Lord is with us, unto Whom and Whose service we have given ourselves in many trials; …

We are not like some, whom small things discourage, or small discontents cause to wish themselves at home again. We know what we can expect both in England and in Holland, and that we shall not improve our material well-being by our departure; whereas, should we be forced to return, we could not hope to regain our present position, either here or elsewhere during our lives, which are now drawing towards their periods.[9]

Not for Personal Gain

They were not seeking personal gain, wealth, or power; they sought after the grace of God in their “simplicity of heart.”

True it was that such attempts were not to be made and undertaken without good ground and reason, not rashly or lightly as many have done for curiosity or hope of gain, etc.

Finally, after many delays and discouragements while attempting to depart, 102 of the Puritans from the Holland settlement (known as Pilgrims) set sail September 6, 1620, on a leaky and worn cargo ship named “Mayflower.”

The voyage was quite treacherous, appearing doubtful that they would survive, let alone reach their intended destination. After the death of a crewman and many trials on the voyage, the Pilgrims came upon the land of Cape Cod on November 11, 1620.

William Bradford records their praise upon arrival to New England:

What, then, could now sustain them but the spirit of God, and His grace? Ought not the children of their fathers rightly to say: Our fathers were Englishmen who came over the great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wilderness; but they cried unto the Lord, and He heard their voice and looked on their adversity … Let them therefore praise the Lord, because He is good, and His mercies endure forever…Let them confess before the Lord His loving kindness, and His wonderful works before the sons of men![10]

The Mayflower Compact

On December 11, prior to disembarking the ship, they signed the “Mayflower Compact,” America’s original document of civil government and the first to introduce self-government. The deed opened with the words “In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are underwritten, … having undertaken for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith … etc.” They disembarked the Mayflower in late December, officially setting foot on what was later called Plymouth Rock.

Upon their landing, the Pilgrims conducted a prayer service and then began building shelters. Starvation and sickness afflicted them for the next 3 months, to the point of losing 51 men, women, and children (half of their congregation). With the assistance of some friendly Native Americans, in particular an English speaking Indian named Squanto, their 1621 harvest provided more than they needed. Bradford records, “And they found the Lord to be with them in all their ways, and to bless their outgoings and incomings, for which let His holy name have the praise forever, to all posterity.”

The First Thanksgiving

It was from the 1621 harvest that the Pilgrims celebrated the harvest bounty with the Indians, in the form of an English-style feast. This is what is commonly referred to as the “First Thanksgiving” (though it was not yet repeated annually).

The friendship shared between the two peoples is captured in Bradford’s own recounting of Squanto’s death:

Here Squanto fell ill of Indian fever, bleeding much at the nose,—which the Indians take for a symptom of death,—and within a few days he died. He begged the Governor to pray for him, that he might go to the Englishmen’s God in Heaven, and bequeathed several of his things to some of his English friends, as remembrances. His death was a great loss.[11]

On November 29, 1623, three years after the Pilgrims’ arrival and two years after the first Thanksgiving, Governor William Bradford made an official proclamation for a Day of Thanksgiving:

To all ye Pilgrims:

In as much as the great Father has given us this year an abundant harvest of Indian corn, wheat, peas, beans, squashes, and garden vegetable, and has made the forests to abound with game and the sea with fish and clams, and inasmuch as he has protected us from the ravages of the savages, has spared us from pestilence and disease, has granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience;

now I, your magistrate, do proclaim that all ye Pilgrims, with your wives and ye little ones, do gather at ye meeting house, on ye hill, between the hours of 9 and 12 in the day time, on Thursday, November ye 29th, of the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred and twenty-three, and the third year since ye Pilgrims landed on ye Pilgrim Rock, there to listen to ye pastor and render thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all His blessings. William Bradford, Ye Governor of Ye Colony.[12]

Thanksgiving is ultimately about worship. A 1918 history text book states the following:

It is the special glory of the Pilgrim Fathers that through scenes of gloom and misery they showed the way to those who were willing to brave the dangers of the wilderness in order to win the right to worship God as they pleased.[13]

A small Puritan poem portrays this same sentiment:

What sought they thus afar?
Bright jewels of the mine?
The wealth of seas, the spoils of war?
They sought a faith’s pure shrine!

Ay, call it holy ground,
The soil where first they trod:
They have left unstained what there they found—
Freedom to worship God.[14]

May we remember the rich heritage of worship in America on this Thanksgiving Day holiday (“holy-day”). Thanksgiving is, above all else, a day of worship.


[1] Henry C. Sheldon, History of the Christian Church (Boston, MA: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1894), 804.
[2] William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 33.
[3] Marshall Foster and Mary-Elaine Swanson, The American Covenant—The Untold Story (Thousand Oaks, CA: The Mayflower Institute, 1992), 62.
[4] Bradford, 5.
[5] Peter Marshall and David Manuel, The Glory of America, 16th ed. vol. 11 (Bloomington, MN: Garborg’s Heart’N Home, Inc., 1991), 16.
[6] Bradford, 50.
[7] Bradford, 51.
[8] Thomas Winthrop Coit, Puritanism (New England: D. Appleton & Company, 1845), 114.
[9] Bradford, 17.
[10] Bradford, 27.
[11] Bradford, 72.
[12] William Joseph Federer, America’s God and Country: Encyclopedia of Quotations (Amerisearch, 1994), 66.
[13] Smith Burnham, Our Beginnings in Europe and America: How Civilization Grew in the Old World and Came to the New (John C. Winston Company, 1918), 297.
[14] Felicia Dorothea Hemans, Patriotic Songs: For School and Home (Oliver Ditson Company, 1899), 169.