tradition of Thanksgiving as a time to focus on God and His blessings dates
back almost four centuries in America. While such celebrations occurred at Cape
Henry Virginia as early as 1607, it is from the Pilgrims that we derive the current
tradition of Thanksgiving.
Pilgrims set sail for America on September 6, 1620, and for two months braved
the harsh elements of a storm-tossed sea. After disembarking at Plymouth Rock,
they had a prayer service and began building hasty shelters, but unprepared for
a harsh New England winter, nearly half died before spring.
persevering in prayer, and assisted by helpful Indians, they reaped a bountiful harvest the following summer. The grateful Pilgrims then declared a three-day feast in
December 1621 to thank God and to celebrate with their Indian friends America's first Thanksgiving Festival. This began
an annual tradition in the New England Colonies that slowly spread into other
first national Thanksgiving occurred in 1789. According to the Congressional
Record for September 25 of that year,
immediately after approving the Bill of Rights:
[Elias] Boudinot said he could not think of letting the [congressional] session
pass without offering an opportunity to all the citizens of the United States
of joining with one voice in returning to Almighty God their sincere thanks for
the many blessings He had poured down upon them. With this view, therefore, he
would move the following resolution:
That a joint committee of both Houses be directed to wait upon the President of
the United States to request that he would recommend to the people of the
United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer. . . .
Roger Sherman justified the practice of thanksgiving, on any single event, not
only as a laudable one in itself but also as warranted by a number of
precedents in Holy Writ. . . . This example he thought worthy of a Christian
imitation on the present occasion.
resolution was delivered to President George Washington, who heartily concurred
with the congressional request, declaring:
it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to
obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His
protection and favor. . . . Now, therefore, I do appoint Thursday, the 26th day
of November 1789 . . . that we may all unite to render unto Him our sincere and
humble thanks for His kind care and protection.
Thanksgiving Proclamations occurred sporadically following this one, and most official Thanksgiving observances still occurred
only at the State level. Much of the credit for the adoption of an annual
national Thanksgiving may be attributed to Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor
of Godey's Lady's Book. For over twenty
years, she promoted the idea of a national Thanksgiving Day, contacting President after President until Abraham Lincoln
responded in 1863 by setting aside the last Thursday of November, declaring:
prone to forget the Source from which [the blessings of fruitful years and
healthful skies] come. . . . 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. . . . I do, therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United
States . . . to observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of
thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father Who dwelleth in the heavens.
next seventy-five years, Presidents followed LincolnĚs precedent, annually
declaring a national Thanksgiving Day. Then, in 1941, Congress permanently
established the fourth Thursday of each November as a national holiday.
celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday this year, remember to retain the original
gratefulness to God that has always been the spirit of this, the oldest of all
recommended [a day of] . . . thanksgiving and praise [so] that the good people
may express the grateful feelings of their hearts and join . . .
their supplication that it may please God, through the merits of Jesus
Christ to forgive [our sins] and . . .to enlarge [His] kingdom which consisteth
in righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost. (Continental Congress, 1777
- Written by Signers of the Declaration Samuel Adams and Richard Henry Lee)
appoint . . . a day of public Thanksgiving to Almighty God. . . to [ask] Him
that He would . . . pour out His Holy Spirit on all ministers of the Gospel;
that He would . . . spread the light of Christian knowledge through the
remotest corners of the earth; . . . and that He would establish these United
States upon the basis of religion and virtue. (Governor Thomas Jefferson, 1779)
appoint . . . a day of public thanksgiving and praise . . . to render to God
the tribute of praise for His unmerited goodness towards us . . . [by giving
to] us . . . the Holy Scriptures which are able to enlighten and make us wise
to eternal salvation. And [to] present our supplications...that He
would forgive our manifold sins and . . . cause the benign religion of our Lord
and Savior Jesus Christ to be known, understood, and practiced among all the inhabitants of the
earth.(Governor John Hancock,
[if?supportFoortnoes]> William Bradford, History of Plymouth
Plantation (Boston: Little, Brown & Co, 1856), pp. 74, 78, 80, 91.
William Bradford, History
of Plymouth Plantation (Boston:
Little, Brown & Co, 1856), p. 100.
William Bradford, History
of Plymouth Plantation (Boston:
Little, Brown & Co, 1856), p. 105.
 Ashbel Steele, Chief of the Pilgrims: Or the Life
and Time of William Brewster (Philadelphia:
J.B. Lippincott & Co, 1857), pp. 269-270.
 William DeLoss Love, Jr, The Fast and Thanksgiving
Days of New England (Boston:
Houghton,, Mifflin & Co, 1895), pp. 87-90.
The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the
United State (Washington: Gales & Seaton, 1834), Vol. I, pp. 949-950.
George Washington, Writings of George
Washington, Jared Sparks, editor (Boston: Russell, Odiorne and Metcalf,
1838), Vol. XII, p. 119, Proclamation for a National Thanksgiving on October 3,
 See, for example: H.S.J. Sickel, Thanksgiving: Its
Source, Philosophy and History With All National Proclamations (Philadelphia: International Printing Co, 1940), pp.
154-155, "Thanksgiving Day- 1795" by George Washington, pp. 156-157,
"Thanksgiving Day -1798" by John Adams, pp. 158-159, "Thanksgiving Day-1799" by
John Adams, p. 160, "Thanksgiving Day- 1814" by James Madison, p. 161,
"Thanksgiving Day-1815" by James Madison.
Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, James Grant Wilson & John Fiske, editors (New
York: D. Appleton & Co, 1888), Vol. III, p. 35.
 The Works of Abraham Lincoln, John H. Clifford & Marion M. Miller, editors (New
York: University Society Inc, 1908), Vol. VI, pp. 160-161, Proclamation for
Thanksgiving, October 3, 1863, The American Presidency Project, "Abraham
Lincoln: Proclamation- Thanksgiving Day, 1863" (at http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=69900&st=&st1=)
 The National Archives, "Congress Establishes
Thanksgiving" (at http://www.archives.gov/legislative/features/thanksgiving/);
see also Pilgrim Hall Museum, "Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamations
1940-1949: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman" (at http://www.pilgrimhall.org/ThanxProc1940.htm),
Proclamation 2571: Days of Prayer: Thanksgiving Day and New YearĚs Day,November 11, 1942, referring to a
Ďjoint resolution of Congress approved December 26, 1941, which designates the
fourth Thursday in November of each year as Thanksgiving Day.
Journals of the Continental
(Washington: Government Printing Office, 1907), Vol. IX, p. 855, November 1,
The Papers of
Thomas Jefferson, Julian P. Boyd,
editor (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1951), Vol. 3, p. 178,
Proclamation Appointing a Day of Thanksgiving and Prayer, November 11, 1779.
 John Hancock: Proclamation for a Day of Public
Thanksgiving (Boston, 1790), from an
original in possession of the author.