Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving to God – American Minute

American Minute with Bill Federer

On NOVEMBER 21, 1620 (NS), the Pilgrims signed the Mayflower Compact and began their Plymouth Colony.

Of the 102 Pilgrims, only 47 survived till Spring. At one point, only a half dozen were healthy enough to care for the rest.

In the Spring of 1621, the Indian Squanto came among them, and showed them how to catch fish, plant corn, trap beaver, and was their interpreter with the other Indian tribes.

Governor William Bradford described Squanto as “a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation.”

Bradford added:

“The settlers … began to plant their corn, in which service Squanto stood them in good stead, showing them how to plant it and cultivate it.

He also told them that unless they got fish to manure this exhausted old soil, it would come to nothing … In the middle of April plenty of fish would come up the brook … and (he) taught them how to catch it.”

Pilgrim Edward Winslow recorded in Mourt’s Relation that in the Fall of 1621:

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors.

“They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week.

“… At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted,

“and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others.

“And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time, with us, yet by goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

Bradford described the same event:

“And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion.”

The idea of a Fall day of thanksgiving may have come to the Pilgrims after they moved to Leiden, Holland, in 1609.

Dutch citizens there annually gave thanks to God for William of Orange, in 1574, ending the bloody Spanish Furies, where Spain’s “Iron Duke” of Alba had butchered tens of thousands.

Dutch historian Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs (Ph.D. Leiden, 1976), in his article “1621: A Historian Looks Anew at Thanksgiving,” documented that Jan Orlers, a friend of Pilgrim elder William Brewster, wrote of Leiden’s Thanksgiving:

“Every year throughout the city a General Day of Prayer and Thanksgiving … held and celebrated on the Third of October, to thank and praise God Almighty that he so mercifully had saved the city from her enemies.”

Also in Leiden was a community of Jews who had been driven out of Spain.

At the University of Leiden, a rabbi taught students Hebrew, Aramaic and Syriac , just as the Pilgrim elder William Brewster taught students English.

Pilgrims would have seen Jews celebrating the annual Thanksgiving Feast of Tabernacles or “Sukkot” in September–October.

Pilgrims identified with Jews, who fled from Pharaoh across the Red Sea in search of their Promised Land, as the Pilgrims fled from the King of England across the sea in search of their Promised Land.

When Harvard and Yale were founded in New England, Hebrew was taught.

Historian Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs explained how Pilgrims thank God:

“Our knowledge of the 1621 Thanksgiving comes from Winslow and Bradford.

Winslow’s choice of words, understood by his contemporaries, implies to us that the Pilgrims gave thanks to God for their preservation and for the plenty that gave hope for the future.

“Winslow specifically tells us that the colonists sat down with their Native neighbors and enjoyed several days of peaceful rejoicing together. It is a history with potent symbolism, and it needs neither apology nor distortion …”

Bangs added:

“When Winslow described the Pilgrims’ intention, ‘after a more special manner to rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labors,’ he was alluding to John 4: 36 and to Psalm 33.

“The first is, ‘And he that reapeth, receiveth wages, & gathereth fruit unto life eternal, that both he that soweth, & he that reapeth, might rejoice together.'”

On November 9, 1621, 37 more Pilgrims arrived on the ship Fortune.

The joy of greeting this second group of Pilgrims was quickly dampened when it was discovered they brought with them no food or supplies.

This resulted in the second winter having a “starving time,” where at one point, each person was rationed just five kernels of corn a day.

Attempting to repay the “merchant adventurers” who financed their trip, the Pilgrims filled the Fortune with £500 worth of furs, but tragically the ship was captured by French pirates, leaving the Pilgrims in greater debt.

In 1622, the friendly Indian Chief Massasoit became ill. Pilgrim leader Edward Winslow visited and doctored him. He thankfully regained health, which contributed to a peace which lasted over 50 years.

Edward Winslow was especially grateful, because the Indian tradition was, if a person doctored a chief and the chief died, that person died too.

Two years after the Pilgrim landing, there was a drought in 1623. Edward Winslow recorded in Alexander Young’s Chronicles of the Pilgrims (Boston, 1841):

Drought and the like considerations moved not only every good man privately to enter into examination with his own estate between God and his conscience, and so to humiliation before Him, but also to humble ourselves together before the Lord by Fasting and Prayer.”

After they prayed, Governor Bradford wrote:

Afterwards the Lord sent them such seasonable showers, with interchange of fair warm weather as, through His blessing, caused a fruitful and liberal harvest, to their no small comfort and rejoicing.

For which mercy, in time convenient, they also set apart a day of thanksgiving. By this time harvest was come, and instead of famine now God gave them plenty – for which they blessed God.

“And the effect of their particular planting was well seen, for all had – pretty well – so as any general want or famine had not been amongst them since to this day.”

Decades later, a thanksgiving proclamation was issued by the Governing Council of Charlestown, Massachusetts, June 20, 1676:

“The Council has thought meet to appoint … day of solemn Thanksgiving and praise to God …

“that the Lord may behold us as a people offering praise and thereby glorifying Him;

“the Council doth commend it to the respective ministers, elders and people of this jurisdiction; solemnly and seriously to keep the same beseeching that being persuaded by the mercies of God we may all, even this whole people offer up our bodies and souls as a living and acceptable Service unto God by Jesus Christ.”

Ben Franklin wrote of the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving (The Compleated Autobiography by Benjamin Franklin, editors Mark & Jo Ann Skousen, Regnery, 2006, p. 331):

“There is a tradition that in the planting of New England, the first settlers met with many difficulties and hardships, as is generally the case when a civiliz’d people attempt to establish themselves in a wilderness country.

“Being so piously dispos’d, they sought relief from heaven by laying their wants and distresses before the Lord in frequent set days of fasting and prayer.

“Constant meditation and discourse on these subjects kept their minds gloomy and discontented, and like the children of Israel there were many dispos’d to return to the Egypt which persecution had induc’d them to abandon …”

Franklin continued:

“At length, when it was proposed in the Assembly to proclaim another fast, a farmer of plain sense rose and remark’d that the inconveniences they suffer’d,

“and concerning which they had so often weary’d heaven with their complaints, were not so great as they might have expected, and were diminishing every day as the colony strengthen’d; that the earth began to reward their labour and furnish liberally for their subsistence;

“that their seas and rivers were full of fish, the air sweet, the climate healthy, and above all, they were in the full enjoyment of liberty, civil and religious.

“… He therefore thought that reflecting and conversing on these subjects would be more comfortable and lead more to make them contented with their situation;

“and that it would be more becoming the gratitude they ow’d to the divine being, if instead of a fast they should proclaim a thanksgiving.

“His advice was taken, and from that day to this, they have in every year observ’d circumstances of public felicity sufficient to furnish employment for a Thanksgiving Day, which is therefore constantly ordered and religiously observed.”

Franklin Roosevelt stated in his Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, October 31, 1939:

“More than three centuries ago at the season of the gathering in of the harvest, the Pilgrims humbly paused in their work and gave thanks to God for the preservation of their community and for the abundant yield of the soil.”

President John F. Kennedy proclaimed a National Thanksgiving Day, October 28, 1961:

“More than three centuries ago, the Pilgrims, after a year of hardship and peril, humbly and reverently set aside a special day upon which to give thanks to God for their preservation and for the good harvest from the virgin soil upon which they had labored.

“Grave and unknown dangers remained. Yet by their faith and by their toil they had survived the rigors of the harsh New England winter.

“Hence they paused in their labors to give thanks for the blessings that had been bestowed upon them by Divine Providence.

“… We give thanks … for the heritage of liberty bequeathed by our ancestors which we are privileged to preserve for our children and our children’s children …

“I ask the head of each family to recount to his children the story of the first New England Thanksgiving,

“thus to impress upon future generations the heritage of this nation born in toil, in danger, in purpose, and in the conviction that right and justice and freedom can through man’s efforts persevere and come to fruition with the blessing of God.”

At the Bicentennial Celebration of the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, December 22, 1820, Daniel Webster declared:

“We have come to this Rock, to record here our homage for our Pilgrim Fathers; our sympathy in their sufferings; our gratitude for their labors … and our attachment to those principles of civil and religious liberty, for which they encountered the dangers of the ocean, the storms of heaven, the violence of savages, disease, exile, and famine …

“… We feel that we are on the spot where the first scene of our history was laid; where the hearths and altars of New England were first placed; where Christianity, and civilization … made their first lodgment, in a vast extent of country, covered with a wilderness.”

Governor William Bradford wrote of the Pilgrims:

“They shook off the yoke of anti-christian bondage, and as ye Lord’s free people, joined themselves (by a covenant of the Lord) into a church estate, in ye fellowship of ye Gospel, to walk in all his ways, made known or to be made known unto them, according to their best endeavors, whatsoever it should cost them, the Lord assisting them.”

On November 12, 1620, the first full day in the New World, Governor Bradford described the Pilgrims’ thankfulness:

“Being thus arrived in a good harbor, and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof, again to set their feet on the firm and stable earth, their proper element.”

William Brewster leads the Pilgrims in Thanksgiving Prayer.

Pilgrim elder William Brewster commented:

“The church that had been brought over the ocean now saw another church, the first-born in America, holding the same faith in the same simplicity of self-government under Christ alone.”


Self-Educated American Contributing Editor, William J. Federer, is the bestselling author of “Backfired: A Nation Born for Religious Tolerance no Longer Tolerates Religion,” and numerous other books. A frequent radio and television guest, his daily American Minute is broadcast nationally via radio, television, and Internet. Check out all of Bill’s books here.