How the Pilgrims' Religion Inspired Thanksgiving

Learn about the unshakable faith of the Pilgrims

The Landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Massachusetts painting

American School / Getty Images

Details of the Pilgrims' religion are something we rarely hear about during stories of the first Thanksgiving. What did these colonists 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 many still enjoy nearly 400 years later?

The Pilgrims' Religion

  • The Pilgrims were Puritan Separatists who left Leiden, a city of South Holland, in 1620 aboard the Mayflower and colonized Plymouth, New England, home of the Wampanoag Nation.
  • The Pilgrims' mother church in Leiden was led by John Robinson (1575–1625), an English separatist minister who fled England for the Netherlands in 1609.
  • The Pilgrims came to North America with hopes of finding greater economic opportunities and dreams of creating a "model Christian society."

The Pilgrims 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. 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 North 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.

The colonists wanted to establish their own community and spread the gospel to the New World by way of forcibly converting Indigenous peoples to Christianity. Indeed, contrary to popular belief, the Separatists were well aware their destination was already inhabited before they set sail. With racist beliefs that Indigenous peoples were uncivilized and wild, the colonists felt justified in displacing them and stealing their lands.

The Pilgrims 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 as well as the Church of England. 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 modern people.

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 modern people 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 new meetinghouses 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

About 100 Pilgrims sailed to North America on the Mayflower. After a harsh winter, by the spring of 1621, nearly half of them had died. People of the Wampanoag Nation 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 or the Wampanoag.

They celebrated the first Thanksgiving in autumn of 1621. No one knows the exact date. Among the Pilgrims' guests were 90 people from various bands of the Wampanoag Nation 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.

Sources

  • “History of the Mayflower.” http://mayflowerhistory.com/history-of-the-mayflower.
  • Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics, reformed.org.
  • Dictionary of Christianity in America.
  • Quest for Pure Christianity. Christian History Magazine-Issue 41: The American Puritans.
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Zavada, Jack. "How the Pilgrims' Religion Inspired Thanksgiving." Learn Religions, Jun. 2, 2021, learnreligions.com/the-pilgrims-religion-701477. Zavada, Jack. (2021, June 2). How the Pilgrims' Religion Inspired Thanksgiving. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/the-pilgrims-religion-701477 Zavada, Jack. "How the Pilgrims' Religion Inspired Thanksgiving." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/the-pilgrims-religion-701477 (accessed July 24, 2021).