How the Pilgrims' Religion Inspired Thanksgiving

Learn about the unshakable faith of the Pilgrims

The Landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Massachusetts painting

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Details of the Pilgrims' religion are something we rarely hear about during stories of the first Thanksgiving. What did these hardy pioneers believe about God? Why did their ideas lead to persecution in England? And how did their faith make them risk their lives in America and celebrate a holiday which we still enjoy nearly 400 years later?

The Pilgrims' Religion in England

Persecution of the Pilgrims, or Puritan Separatists as they were called then, began in England under the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603). She was determined to stamp out any opposition to the Church of England, or Anglican Church.

The Pilgrims were part of that opposition. They were English Protestants influenced by John Calvin and wanted to "purify" the Anglican Church of its Roman Catholic influences. The Separatists objected strongly to church hierarchy and all of the sacraments except baptism and the Lord's Supper.

After Elizabeth's death, James I followed her on the throne. He was the monarch who commissioned the King James Bible. But James was so intolerant of the Pilgrims that they fled to Holland in 1609. They settled in Leiden, where there was more religious freedom.

What prompted the Pilgrims to travel to America in 1620 on the Mayflower was not mistreatment in Holland but lack of economic opportunities. The Calvinist Dutch restricted these immigrants to work as unskilled laborers. In addition, they were disappointed with the influences that living in Holland had on their children. They wanted to make a clean start, spread the gospel to the New World, and convert the Indians to Christianity.

The Pilgrims' Religion in America

In their colony at Plymouth, Massachusetts, the Pilgrims could practice their religion without hindrance. These were their key beliefs:

Sacraments: The Pilgrims' religion included only two sacraments: infant baptism and the Lord's Supper. They thought the sacraments practiced by the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches (confession, penance, confirmation, ordination, marriage, and last rites) had no foundation in Scripture and were, therefore, the inventions of theologians. They considered infant baptism to wipe away Original Sin and to be a pledge of faith, like circumcision. They considered marriage a civil rather than religious rite.

Unconditional Election: As Calvinists, the Pilgrims believed that God predestined, or chose who would go to heaven or hell before the creation of the world. Although the Pilgrims believed every person's fate had already been decided, they thought only the saved would engage in godly behavior. Hence, strict obedience to the law was demanded, and hard work was required. Slackers could be punished severely.

The Bible: The Pilgrims read the Geneva Bible, published in England in 1575. They had rebelled against the Roman Catholic Church and the Pope and the Church of England as well. Their religious practices and lifestyle were solely Bible-based. While the Anglican Church used a Book of Common Prayer, the Pilgrims read only from a psalm book, rejecting any prayers written by men.

Religious Holidays: The Pilgrims observed the commandment to "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy," (Exodus 20:8, KJV) yet they did not observe Christmas and Easter since they believed those religious holidays were invented by man and were not celebrated as holy days in the Bible. Work of any sort, even hunting for game, was forbidden on Sunday.

Idolatry: In their literal interpretation of the Bible, the Pilgrims rejected any church tradition or practice that did not have a Scripture verse to support it. They spurned crosses, statues, stained glass windows, elaborate church architecture, icons and relics as signs of idolatry. They kept their meetinghouses in the New World as plain and unadorned as their clothing.

Church Government: The Pilgrims' church had five officers: pastor, teacher, elderdeacon, and deaconess. Pastor and teacher were ordained ministers. Elder was a layperson who assisted the pastor and teacher with spiritual needs in the church and governing the body. Deacon and deaconess attended to the physical needs of the congregation. 

The Pilgrims' Religion and Thanksgiving

By the spring of 1621, half of the Pilgrims who went to America on the Mayflower had died. But the Indians befriended them and taught them how to fish and grow crops. Consistent with their single-minded faith, the Pilgrims gave God the credit for their survival, not themselves.

They celebrated the first Thanksgiving in autumn of 1621. No one knows the exact date. Among the Pilgrims' guests were 90 Indians and their chief, Massasoit. The feast lasted three days. In a letter about the celebration, Pilgrim Edward Winslow said, "And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty."

Ironically, Thanksgiving was not celebrated officially in the United States until 1863, when in the middle of the country's bloody Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday.