Some modern sages are even teaching children the first Thanksgiving was an occasion when the Pilgrims invited the Native Americans to come over so they could express thanks to the native Wampanoags for helping them get settled.
An elemental understanding of who the Pilgrims were and their spiritual orientation helps interpret the reason for that gathering. The Pilgrims were a spiritual body pious in their devotion to God.
Consider first the Wampanoag natives. They, like most Native American tribes, had a deity.
Giving thanks for the Creator’s gifts had always been a part of Wampanoag life. Customarily they had celebrations to express their thanks for such things as a birth or a good harvest. They did not know the god worshiped by the Pilgrims, but the custom of giving thanks was not strange to them.
Pilgrims were Puritans. In England under the rule of Catholic Mary Tudor, better known as “Bloody Mary,” many Protestants were executed. Others fled to other parts of Europe to escape her wrath. When Mary died in 1558 and her Protestant sister Elizabeth replaced her, the European exiles returned home.
Principally, under John Foxe, a vision emerged of what England could be if Bible principles were employed. They wanted to purify England and became known as Puritans who upon coming to America were called Pilgrims. The title “Puritan” was first used as a term of derision.
Pilgrims were pious people who had a predisposition toward giving thanks even amid adversity. Therefore, a common occasion of thanks was not unfamiliar to either group. Both Native Americans and Pilgrims had a heritage of giving thanks.
After years of adversity, the Pilgrims were blessed with a good harvest in 1621. This, coupled with less sickness and fewer deaths, heightened their gratitude and desire to formally express it. Spanish explorers and English settlers had engaged in special occasions of thanks on this continent long before the Pilgrims arrived. Those isolated events were not associated with the first Thanksgiving, but predated it.
Native Americans and Christians had different religions, but with similar practices. Both believed in propitiation, which is the act of doing something to accomplish conciliation or appease their god. A Native American example of this was their rain dance.
It was intended to please and satisfy their god. Parenthetically, the Cherokees were the only native tribe that had no rain dance. There was enough rain in the Smokies one was not thought to be needed.
The Christian concept of propitiation is described in I John 4: 10, “Here in is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
The convening of a festival of thanks by the Pilgrims was appealing to the Native Americans because of their native religious predisposition of giving thanks to their god.
A letter from the period by Edward Winslow written to a friend in England in part explains the original intent of the gathering. In it Winslow stated, “And God be praised, we had a good increase.”
Giving thanks on a day called Thanksgiving is commendable. Doing so daily is appropriate and admirable.
This statement by George Washington makes it expedient: “Abandon all hope of teaching morality on any other foundation than religion for the nation that forgot God has never been allowed to endure.”
The Rev. Dr. Nelson Price is pastor emeritus of Roswell Street Baptist Church in Marietta.