The Origins of Thanksgiving

The origins of Thanksgiving are a bit different than you might think.

The First Thanksgiving

The original Thanksgiving Day goes all the way back to 1621, near Plymouth, Massachusetts, but it was not in November but in October. There is some historical evidence that Spanish explorers observed a Thanksgiving feast in 1655 while in Florida, however the date credited to the origin of Thanksgiving was in 1621 because of the colony’s first successful harvest, but they celebrated Thanksgiving in a much different way than we do today with sumptuous foods and plenty to eat. The pilgrims had it so much harder than we can even imagine. One little known fact is that in 1623, Thanksgiving Day included fasting and prayer for God’s provision. No, there wasn’t a turkey and cranberry sauce, or stuffing…but fasting and prayer, and really, that’s a great combination for giving thanks to God. These Thanksgivings were truly a more biblical than what we observe today because the whole day centered on God and His faithfulness in providing for them in great times of difficulty. Today, it focuses on turkeys, pies, football, and for some, even shopping.

Thanksgiving Fast

It’s hard for us to imagine fasting during Thanksgiving today but that’s what they did for the first true Thanksgiving so they were living out the actual name of that day by giving thanks to God, and giving thanks and fasting were common practices in pre-Colonial America. In fact, it was not uncommon for people to fast and pray a few times a month, so it wasn’t until the 1660’s that Thanksgiving became the feast that we know of today…and only later did it become an annual event for the entire nation. Prior to that, it was a feast of thanksgiving to God and not necessarily a large meal. They may have had a simple meal of vegetables and meat gathered from hunting, so why would these believers in Early America observe Thanksgiving without food, and later, or at least, without a banquet? By their giving thanks to God in such dire circumstances, they showed that they trusted God to provide for them, and He did, so today it seems ironic to contemporary Americans that the first Thanksgivings were not really feasts…but fasts. For most of the Early Americans, it was observed on dates that the states individually felt best for them. Thanksgiving Day may have varied due to the local crops and different harvest times across the nation, but it was not until 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln, under the influence of Sarah Josepha Hale, unified the nation by observing Thanksgiving on the final Thursday of each November. By then, it had become a real feast, similar to what we have today.

The Real Thanksgiving

When I used to teach Sunday school, I asked my students if Thanksgiving was in the Bible. They all said, “No, it was not ,” so I told them that thanksgiving, with a little “t”, was actually in the Bible, but it was not the same as the national holiday of course that America and Canada celebrate. Did you know that giving thanks is an offering? One of the offerings that were voluntary was the Peace Offering. You can find this in all of Leviticus chapter 3 and in Leviticus 7:11-34. This was a freewill offering of thanksgiving to God for all He had done for the nation of Israel, close to what pre-Colonial Americans did. This was one of the few offerings that was not commanded because it was to come from the heart. The New Testament and Old Testament both mention giving thanks to God. Psalm 106:1 says, “Praise you the Lord; for he is good: for his mercy endures forever” and in Psalm 140:1, it reads, “Surely the righteous shall give thanks unto Your name: the upright shall dwell in thy presence,” but we’re not done yet. Psalms 92:1 says, “It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord, and to sing praises unto Your name, O most High.” Even the Apostle Paul wrote in Colossians 3:17 that “whatsoever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him,” and why shouldn’t we? We have so many things to be thankful to God for, above all, the Lord Jesus Christ Who came to give His life as a ransom for us (Mark 10:45).

Freewill Offerings

Did you know that Christians are still giving freewill offerings? No, I don’t mean money or sacrificing animals, but we read in the Bible that giving thanks to God is a free will offering that is well pleasing to Him. It’s hard to grumble about your circumstances when you’re giving Him thanks for all He’s done, and giving thanks helps us resist worry and anxiety. The author of Hebrews wrote, “let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks” (Heb 13:15). Again, the psalmist writes, “Willingly I will sacrifice to You; I will give thanks to Your name, O Lord, for it is good” (Psalm 54:6), and other Psalms such as Psalm 86:12, Psalm 9:1, and Psalm 138:1. I will give thanks…with all my heart, so will you join me in thanksgiving? When you willingly give thanks to God, He receives it as a sacrifice that is well pleasing to Him, so I pray you will always be thankful to God, just as I thank God for all you all (Col. 3:15), and are all in my prayers


All of us have our own traditional Thanksgiving meals, and each one of us brings something unique to the table, but please don’t ever let Thanksgiving go by without thinking of those early pilgrims who had to endure so much, and often fasted and prayed in their thanksgiving. That should keep us humble as we look at all the food on our table and all the many blessings we’ve been given…all the more reason to give thanks to God. In fact, every day should be a thanksgiving day…giving thanks to God for all He has done. We have so many things to give thanks for that they’re just too numerous to mention, but mention them we should. You and I should have no trouble thinking of something to give thanks to God for, and really, every day should be a Thanksgiving Day, don’t you think?

May God richly bless you

Pastor Jack Wellman

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