Thanksgiving: Like No Other Holiday

Cutting Edge Magazine
November 1992
Tom Terry

Of the numerous holidays Americans celebrate each year, Thanksgiving is uniquely American, and uniquely Christian.

In the early l600’s, a small group of devoutly religious men and women sought to worship God according to the dictates of their consciences. They broke from the established church, and were persecuted from Holland to England, until they boarded the Mayflower and set sail for the New World.

After arriving in America, before leaving their vessel, the pilgrims signed an agreement. The document containing that agreement is known as The Mayflower CompactIncluded in its text was a vision
for a new government.

“Solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politick, for our better ordering and preservation, and furthering of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue to enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices, from time to time as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony; unto which we all promise all due submission and obedience.”

It was this band of pilgrims, after having lost half their population to an extreme winter, that stuck to the vision laid out in the Mayflower Compact. They were thankful for more than surviving harsh weather. They were also thankful that God preserved their society, and would see it to its conclusion.

What’s most interesting about the Mayflower Pilgrims is what they did considering who they were. Essentially, they were normal men and women, devoutly religious, who wanted more than to escape the religious persecution from the homes they left. They wanted to build a new home, a new society, and a new government founded upon the principles they themselves held dear. 

Those principles were uniquely Christian.

The Mayflower Compact stated the purpose for the new colony’s existence: the “advancement of the Christian faith” and formation of a “civil body politick.” If the Compact makes anything clear, it is that the new government of the colony proceeded from the religious convictions of the colonists—religious freedom giving birth to political freedom.

In the 20th century, we tend to turn things around. We view religious freedom as a guarantee of the state instead of a transformation of the heart. Even under formerly oppressive regimes like the old Soviet Union, effective missionary work was viewed as a limited possibility as long as the communists remained in power. When the Iron Curtain fell, American missionary activity in the old Evil Empire went through the roof. Yet, American Christians working in Russia discovered that the Russian Church was alive and well. Likewise, American churches have discovered that in communist China, a revival is taking place that will surely transform millions in that country.

The Mayflower Pilgrims did not develop their convictions about religion, society or government after they came to this continent. They first held them while under the heavy hand of religious persecution in their native lands. When they came to America, they could have refused self-government. Instead, they established their own for their preservation. And that government, and the ones that followed, built squarely upon the foundation laid in their shared convictions. More than the families lost during the winter, the boat they came on, or the hardships they endured, they shared Christian principles. Those that would follow in the wake of the Mayflower and the footsteps of William Bradford and the colony he led, would enact laws, and constitutions, guided by the same principles. Those founding documents included The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, and The (Massachusetts) Body of Liberties. Most of the first state constitutions contained language that placed the burden for the survival of America upon the backs of those who would live according to principles set down in the Bible.

The concept of liberty has changed in the last 200 years. What we think of as liberty today, is anathema to the colonists of the Mayflower. Their reasons for declaring a day of thanksgiving were quite different than the reasons most Americans celebrate it today. Each of us should reclaim that original meaning. On Thanksgiving, take time to read the account Bradford wrote of the Plymouth Plantation. For each day after, we should let the principles and truths those first Americans believed permeate our own lives.