Was the first Thanksgiving a religious celebration?

Scholars are starting to pick over that question with a large fork and carving knife.

Details, from Religious News Service:

Despite their reputation as buckle-belted killjoys, the Puritans and Pilgrims knew how to have a good time. They brewed beer, feasted on fowl and enjoyed sex — all in moderation, of course.

That’s why some historians believe the 1621 celebration that’s sometimes dubbed the “First Thanksgiving,” was not actually a “thanksgiving” day at all. In fact, some historians even call it a “secular event.”

“The 1621 gathering in Plymouth was not a religious gathering but most likely a harvest celebration much like those the English had known in farming communities back home,” write Catherine O’Neill Grace and Margaret M. Bruchac in their book, “1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving.”

The Pilgrims partied for almost a week in the fall of 1621, according to eyewitness accounts. They shot fowl, played games, feasted and entertained nearly 90 Native American neighbors with a gun, er, musket show.

The Pilgrims would never have thrown such a party on a proper day of thanksgiving, according to James W. Baker, a former senior historian at the Plimouth Plantation in Massachusetts.

“The very nature of a celebration, extending over several days or a week with secular ‘recreations’ and non-Christian guests,” Baker writes in the Encyclopedia of American Holidays and National Days, “is what pious Calvinists such as the Pilgrims would be first to protest had no place in any Christian holy day.”

But that doesn’t mean the “First Thanksgiving” was a secular celebration, argue some historians.

Jeremy Bangs, director of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum in the Netherlands, said the idea of a “thankless or secular harvest festival was unthinkable.”

“The Pilgrim leaders undeniably conceived of their lives in religious ways,” Bangs said.

Everything the Pilgrims and Puritans did was suffused with faith, Bremer agreed.

“Can we know for sure that they conceptualized it as a ‘thanksgiving’? Not in the way that we have it. But these are people who would have given thanks before every meal they had.”

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9 responses to “Was the first Thanksgiving a religious celebration?”

  1. I guess the question is still up in the air. But I’m surprised and disappointed the article didn’t quote whatever meager primary evidence there is about what happened in 1621.

  2. I think it would have been unthinkable also. You gather together in celebration and sit with the neighbors who helped you through some rough spots and you don’t thank God? They could not have been very religious if that were true. Of course it was religious.

  3. Oh for Pete’s sake. The first 6 words of the Mayflower Compact are “In the name of God,Amen”. And here’s another excerpt from the Mayflower Compact “Having undertaken, for the Glory of God, and advancements of the Christian faith and honor 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 another, covenant and combine ourselves together….” And I’m supposed to believe that the same people who wrote these words before they even step foot on dry land had a secular Thanksgiving celebration?

  4. This sort of thing crops up every few years. The Pilgrims are the very embodiment of all that is anathema to “enlightened” modern thinking– they were fundamentalist Christians with guns. If we can sponge away the religious component of the First Thanksgiving we can make them at least a tiny bit more palatable. Now to get rid of the guns…

  5. The full story seems to combine two elements: they were Christian and they remembered harvest festivals from the Old World which included prayer of thanksgiving and enjoying the harvest produce. They also had bad memories of “pagan Catholicism” which would include the English Reformation part of that which were “pagan” to them also since it involved feasting. November 11, feast of St Martin of Tours was one presumes a “baptism” of the the pre-Christian celebrations, in this case, autumn harvest days. The Church did that to “baptise” the Winter Solstice, Halloween for the dead and so on, throughout the year, Passover which became our Easter was originally a spring animal festival adapted by the Hebrew people, hence the lamb and eggs.

  6. Just another attempt to remove religion from our history as it is being tried with our present. As Greta said many times…we are One Nation Under God and we print our Money with In God we Trust and we open our federal Congress every day with a prayer from a chaplin on Federal payroll and we ask each person serving to take an oath to God as well as ask each person being sworn to testify in court to take an oath to God. We are surrounded by God and a lot of that goes back to our countries founding by those coming here seeking religious freedom to be able to establish their faith integral to their community and to God.

    love what these folks had to say in their compact the heart of the reason for their action…”Having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith”. But we should all doubt these same people might use the time of harvest to celebrate and give “thanksgiving” to God. RIGHT>..

  7. If it was a religious event—-did they try to convert the Native Americans? Relatively sure the Native Americans weren’t Christians. They had their own wonderful beliefs….at least until some of the invaders decided they were heathens and needed to be converted.

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