7 minutes

The Pilgrims and Thanksgiving

With Thanksgiving upon us, let’s take this week to remember those Pilgrims who first came over from Europe to this New Land.

However, to understand why the Pilgrims came to America in 1620, we first need to understand the religious situation during their times. In England, the state church was the Anglican Church. This church was birthed when King Henry VIII split from the Roman Catholic Church. To understand why this split occurred, we need to go back into history a little more.

In 1517, Martin Luther wrote what we today call his 95 Theses. These statements contained several practices that Luther believed the Catholic Church needed to reform. This began what we call the Protestant Reformation.

King Henry VIII

Before 1534, King Henry was a devout Roman Catholic. Pope Leo X gave King Henry the title, “Defender of the Faith.” This was in recognition of Henry’s denial of the Protestant Reformation. Henry called Luther, “a venomous serpent, a pernicious plague, infernal wolf, an infectious soul, a detestable trumpeter of pride, calumnies and schism.”

Yet, in 1534, King Henry separated from the Roman Catholic Church to create a new Anglican Church. He did this, not because he disagreed with the teachings of the Church as it related to the Bible. In this, Henry was staunchly Catholic.

However, Henry needed a son to be his heir and his wife, Katherine of Aragon, was unable to produce one for him. The king wanted to divorce his wife and marry another.

The Pope would not grant Henry his divorce. After years of trying, Henry finally decided that he would join in with the Protestant movement.

He did this not to reform the Church. The only reforms he would make would be to instruct clergy to preach against superstitious images, relics, miracles and pilgrimages, to remove almost all candles from religious settings, and to leave out the saints.

However, few of these changes were theological. His goal was not reform. His goal was to remove the authority of the Pope and replace that with himself. King Henry would now be the head of the Church of England.

Therefore, after 1534, the Church of England was now the Anglican Church, though they continued in almost every Catholic belief. Only after his death were some changes made to parallel the Reformation. Unfortunately, Queen Mary would overturn all those changes and make an effort to return England to Roman Catholicism.

The Church of England After Henry

In 1558, Queen Mary died and was replaced by her half sister, Elizabeth. Though Elizabeth returned the kingdom to Anglicanism, she did not fully reform the Church to the extent of the rest of the Reformation. After the death of Elizabeth, the Scottish King, James the VI became king over all of England. He became King James I.

Meanwhile, as the Protestant Reformation continued to spread, Christians in England began to read the Bible in English (it was previously only available in Latin, which most people could not read). As the British citizens began to read the Bible, they began to have the same problems with the Anglican Church as the earlier reformers had with the Catholic Church.

The Pilgrims

This led to many English Christians turning away from the teachings of the Church and towards the teachings of the Reformation. Two groups were formed: Separatists, which the Pilgrims were, and Reformers, which the Puritans were. As their names imply, the Separatists wanted to split from the Church of England while the Reformers wanted to change it.

The Pilgrims, in 1607, illegally broke from the Church of England and 125 of them went to Holland. They stayed in Amsterdam but found permanent residence in Leiden. However, after 12 years, they were struggling financially and were afraid that their children were being drawn away into a secular mindset. They determined that they really wanted to become examples to unbelievers by finding a better and easier place to live where they could be a great hope in propagating the gospel to all the world.

The answer was America.

So they returned to England in order to find passage to the New World. They found it on The Mayflower. The Mayflower was supposed to sail to Virginia. However, they ended up far north in what is now Massachusetts. Instead of sailing south to find the British colony, they decided to stay where they landed.

The Pilgrims in America

102 Pilgrims took the trip, though not everyone on the Mayflower was a Pilgrim. When they landed in America, they realized they would need some form of law to maintain a civil society. Hence, they wrote the Mayflower Compact, which was signed by almost every person on the ship, including those who were not Pilgrims. Here’s the Compact they signed:

In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God of Great Britain, France, and Ireland King, Defender of the Faith, etc.

Having undertaken for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith and Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the First Colony in the Northern Parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, Covenant and Combine ourselves together in a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape Cod, the 11th of November, in the year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France and Ireland the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini 1620.

Notice they still recognized the rule of the King (James I), but also that they would govern themselves. Note also that their goal did not change: they undertook the journey for the “Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith.”

Unfortunately, over the course of the next few months, the brutal winter brought much death. Half of their 102 members died. Ten of the seventeen male heads of households died. Only three of the seventeen wives survived. The Pilgrims saw this as God’s testing of their faith in Him. Would they continue to follow Him or would they turn from Him in anger, disappointment and confusion?

The God of Miracles

When the winter ended, the Pilgrims met Squanto. Squanto was one of the Natives of the Pawtuxet tribe. Amazingly, Squanto spoke English. Earlier, he had been kidnapped by an English explorer. He was meant to become a slave, but he somehow escaped to England. After several years, he was able to find a way to return to his home.

Squanto became an interpreter for the Pilgrims with the sachem (chief) of the Wampanoeg, Massasoit. Squanto also showed them where to fish, how to plant corn and to acquire other supplies. When the Fall harvest came, the Pilgrims understood God was watching over them.

Though they had lost half their original people, they saw God’s hand in everything that had happened. They saw God leading them to this new land, across the ocean in a dangerous voyage, surviving a brutal winter, bringing them Squanto, who himself was led by God to be captured in order to learn English then enabled to return back to America. In addition, Massasoit initiated a treaty with the Pilgrims, which they were more than happy to sign. The blessings of the harvest and the hunt were simply the final touches of God’s amazing grace to them.


Though that was the first and only Thanksgiving the Pilgrims had, their memory was revived when George Washington called for a national Thanksgiving celebration after the Constitution had been ratified.

President George Washington proclaimed Thursday the 26th of November 1789 a day of “public thanksgiving and prayer” devoted to “the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.”

The next time Thanksgiving would be celebrated would be 74 years later in 1863 when Abraham Lincoln called for the celebration. In his proclamation, he wrote:

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God… No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States…to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving this year, let’s remember how God miraculously upheld the Pilgrims. Let’s remember George Washington’s desire for national thanksgiving to God for miraculously bringing about this nation. Let’s remember Abraham Lincoln’s recognition of God’s hand working even in the midst of the most brutal war that had ever been fought on this continent.

And while we thank God for all He has done for us as individuals and as a nation, let’s not forget to pray to the Almighty God as Lincoln requested: “with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience… and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.”