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American Thanksgiving supposedly celebrated its 401st anniversary last week. In fact, as a national holiday, this was #160. It would help redeem the occasion if we noted the difference and changed the day’s iconography accordingly. 

You’ll pardon me for reverting to something a whole week old, but I was out of the country for most of the lead-up to the holiday. Plus, my date on this blog got bumped back so that my colleagues could put out their soft-sell, whimsical, but still heartfelt pleas for your monetary support of this space. Heed the same, please! 

Dwelling a little longer on Thanksgiving might also help deflect our minds from this month’s mandate to shop, shop, shop so as to sustain the economy, buy ourselves some happiness, and buy someone else’s love.

Sure, for Christians who observe the church year, Advent ought to do the job, what with its call to turn our eyes toward the ultimate end of days, toward judgment mixed with promise. But it’s hard, even when Advent is observed, to keep Cute Baby Jesus from taking over the scene, to keep the second coming in view before the first, and CBJ seems to have his own expectations of gifts, so it’s back to the shopping treadmill.

Born in 1863

Back to Thanksgiving, then.  

The day has a bad rap among the quick and the woke as celebrating settler-colonial genocide of indigenous Americans. Better, on this account, had the Wampanoag poisoned the Pilgrims rather than help them survive by supplying food and vital farming techniques.

High among the evidence of bad intent is Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop’s proclamation of a day of thanksgiving over the colonists’ triumph in the vicious Pequot War of 1637. On the other hand, Winthrop had called for such days before, and these turned out to be fasts more often than feasts. 

What happened at Plymouth on that autumn day in 1621 was a harvest festival of the sort long observed back in England by Roman Catholics, Church of England people, and outright pagans, as well as puritanical sorts. Celebrated also by indigenous North Americans, in colonial New Spain, at Jamestown, in the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, etc., etc. We can hear the theme echoed in the hymn “Come Ye Thankful People Come” with its call to “raise the song of harvest home.”

Thanksgiving days of this sort continued sporadically in colonial America and the early republic, but never by everyone all together and in many states hardly ever at all. New England was the exception. The old practices of the Holy Commonwealth lived on after disestablishment; feast days and fast days continued in their annual rhythm. Southern states, with their adamant separation of church and state, resisted such public mandates. Their secession from the Union in 1860-61 thus opened the way for a national declaration, and the costs of the Civil War made it compelling.

It was on 3 October 1863 that Abraham Lincoln issued a call for “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.” This was the true birth of American Thanksgiving Day. 

Feasting and Fasting

A strong New England current ran behind this scene. Lincoln apparently got the idea from Sarah Josepha Hale who, as editor of the most popular magazine in antebellum America, Godey’s Lady’s Book, exerted enormous influence on popular opinion. Hale was committed equally to the virtues of her native New England, to their potential for blessing the nation as a whole, and to communal rituals that would promote unity and loyalty. Lincoln the Romantic knew as much and parlayed Hale’s suggestion onto the national calendar. 

Lincoln’s proclamation brilliantly interwove the two types of New England holy days, the feast and the fast. Or perhaps that was the work of Secretary of State and Episcopal vestryman William Seward, from the heart of the New England diaspora in upstate New York, who apparently drafted the document.

In any case the proclamation opens in wonder at the remarkable prosperity of the United States despite all the ravages of war, at “bounties. . .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.” Humility was in order: “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.” 

Thus, repentance was on call as well as thanks: “while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings,” Americans should approach the day “with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience.” And charity too, “commend[ing] 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 implor[ing] 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….” A foreshadowing of Giving Tuesday, perhaps.   

The Puritan Woke

Even in the 1950s, with Thanksgiving still unsullied in reputation, Perry Miller, the great atheist restorer of the Puritans’ reputation, noted how Americans had totally dropped its counterpart of fasting and humiliation, turning the holiday into smug self-congratulation by the entitled.

Something of that insight might lie behind woke critiques of the holiday today. I encountered them up close on one of the voyages on which I taught for the Semester at Sea. The crew whipped up as close to a traditional feast as one could concoct halfway around the world, but the morning announcements duly proclaimed it to be a day of mourning, too, and a special talk circle was held after hours for those wanting clarification why.

I turned up to complicate things. I offered up the history laid out above and suggested that instead of erasing the day, one of the few common festivals our ragged body-politic retains, one ought to flip its iconography. Frederick Douglass shaking hands with Lincoln over the—N.B.—1863 Emancipation Proclamation. Black troops and white sweeping the slaveholders’ army off the fields of Gettysburg and Vicksburg (also 1863). Lincoln offering the Gettysburg Address exactly one week before that first Thanksgiving.

Lincoln at Gettysburg

The group was having none of it. The holiday’s roots being irredeemably tainted with genocide (well, near extinction in effect, if not in intent), it had to be expunged in toto. This was a collective evil too gross to leave unacknowledged. It required rage and reparation, now. 

It struck me how closely the assembled were imitating. . .Puritan behavior. The secularized prayer circle. The opening confession of sin and repentance — that is, of privilege and preferred pronouns.

The expungement of Thanksgiving would resemble nothing so much as the Puritan suppression of Christmas for its pagan roots and carnival-like behavior, which — per one Puritan divine — left Christ more blasphemed on that day than on all other 364 together. Above all, the sense that life is very, very serious, not to be leavened with levity or festivity, nor the righteous besmirched by anything wicked. Only critique would do, first of self, then the other. Especially the other.

It seemed all very Christian Reformed to me. Wisely or timidly, I left my observations unvoiced. Folks just wouldn’t have understood.  

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Thanks, Jim. Now we need someone to enlighten us on Canadian Thanksgiving.

  • Ron Calsbeek says:

    Thanks for this, Jim. I have a question: Lincoln’s original proclamation, as pictured here, calls for celebration on “Thursday, the sixth day of August …” but you point out that he wrote it in October to be celebrated in November. What am I missing?

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge and wit.

    • Jim Bratt says:

      Hi Ron:
      oops, ran the wrong pic! Lincoln had called an earlier day of Thanksgiving for Aug 6, to honor the recent triumphs at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. The November occasion meant to be annual, tucking in with existing harvest home celebrations.

      Good catch! but now here’s your question: who was James Hagerty?

      • Ron Calsbeek says:

        Nice try, old friend.

        I learned the answer to that question from an aspiring historian way back when you were young, and still innocent.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    Thanks for giving a different angle on maligning the Puritans. Marilynne Robinson would be smiling.

  • David Hoekema says:

    Puritans as the pioneers of wokeness. Interesting perspective.

    • Jeff Carpenter says:

      Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson and a host of Quakers and Natives aside . . .
      “Witches’ Lives Matter!”

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