“O give thanks unto the LORD; for he is good; for his mercy endureth forever” ( 1 Chronicles 16:34).
In 1621 the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag Indians shared a three-day autumn harvest feast that is now known as the first Thanksgiving. The concept for a harvest feast was part of the European culture from which the Pilgrim’s came. In France, for example, it was a long custom to celebrate the harvest at Martimas or St. Martin’s Day, November 11th, by which time the crops were gathered and the first of the new wine from the September grape harvest could be sampled. The centerpiece of this feast was roast goose—known as Martin’s Goose. One of the more detailed descriptions of the first Thanksgiving in America comes from Edward Winslow who wrote of the celebration in a letter dated December 12, 1621. We have a list of the foods that were available to the colonists at the time of the feast.
SEAFOOD: cod, eel, clams, lobster
WILD FOWL: wild turkey, goose, duck, crane, swan, partridge, eagles
MEAT: venison, seal
GRAIN: wheat flour, Indian corn
VEGETABLES: pumpkin, peas, beans, onions, lettuce, radishes, carrots
FRUIT: plums, grapes
NUTS: walnuts, chestnuts, acorns
HERBS and SEASONINGS: olive oil, leeks, dried currants, parsnips
Surprisingly, many of the foods we enjoy eating at Thanksgiving time today did not appear on the pilgrim’s first feast table. There was none of the following.
HAM: There is no evidence that the colonists had butchered a pig by this time, though they had brought pigs with them from England.
SWEET POTATOES/POTATOES: These were not common.
CORN ON THE COB: Corn was kept dried out at this time of year.
CRANBERRY SAUCE: The colonists had cranberries but no sugar at this time.
PUMPKIN PIE: The recipe did not exists at this point, though the pilgrims had recipes for stewed pumpkin.
CHICKEN/EGGS: We know that the colonists brought hens with them from England, but it is unknown how many they had left at this point or whether the hens were still laying.
MILK: No cows had been aboard the Mayflower, though it’s possible that the colonists used goat milk to make cheese.
The only two items that historians know for sure were on the menu are venison and wild fowl, which are mentioned in primary sources. As far as the way the first Thanksgiving meal was consumed, well, it was different. The pilgrims did not use forks; they ate with spoons, knives, and their fingers. They wiped their hands on large cloth napkins, which they also used to pick up hot morsels of food. Salt would have been on the table at the harvest feast, and people would have sprinkled it on their food. Pepper, however, was something that they used for cooking but wasn’t available on the table.
In the seventeenth century, a person’s social standing determined what he or she ate. The best food was placed next to the most important people. In a Pilgrim’s household, the adults sat down to eat as the children and servants waited on them. While some of these items might be interesting, the motive for the Pilgrim’s calling together their Indian friends and giving thanks to the Lord for His bountifulness was an attitude of gratitude.
The Pilgrims were grateful that God had brought them through a starving period. The first months in the new colony proved to be difficult for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, ten months after their arrival at Plymouth, the Pilgrims had built seven houses, a common meeting place, and three storehouses for supplies and food from their first harvest. They had much to be thankful for. The Pilgrims were also grateful the Lord had given them friends from another culture to help them survive. Without the help of the Wampanoag people, and their leader Massasoit, the Pilgrim’s would not have survived. It was right that he and his men joined the Pilgrim’s feast. The Pilgrims were grateful for their Christian faith. In search of religious freedom from the oppressive policies of King James I, the Pilgrim’s had come to the shores of this nation. Felicia Hemans has captured the moment they stepped on land at Plymouth Rock in 1620.
“The breaking waves dashed high,
On a stern and rock-bound coast,
And the woods against a stormy sky,
Their giant branches tossed;
And the heavy night hung dark,
The hills and water o’er,
When a band of exiles moored their bark
On the wild New England shore.
Not as the conqueror comes,
They, the true-hearted came;
Not with the roll of the stirring drums,
And the trumpet that sings of fame;
Not as the flying come,
In silence and in fear—
They shook the depths of the desert gloom
With their hymns of lofty cheer.
Admist the storm they sang,
And the stars heard, and the sea;
And the sounding aisles of the dim woods rang
To the anthem of the free.
The ocean eagle soared
From his nest by the white wave’s foam;
And the rocking pines of the forest roared—
This was their welcome home.
There were men with hoary hair
Amidst that pilgrim band:
Why had they come to wither there,
Away from their childhood’s land?
There was a woman’s fearless eye,
Lit by her deep love’s truth;
There was manhood’s brow serenely high,
And the fiery heart of youth.
What sought they thus far?
Bright jewels of the mine?
The wealth of seas, the spoils of war?
They sought a faith’s pure shrine!
Aye, call it holy ground,
The soil where first they trod;
They have left unstained what they found—
Freedom to worship God.”
In the search for freedom to worship God, when the Lord is found through Scriptural revelation and by faith, the heart will be grateful as it discovers that God is good. Whatever else might be said about Him, in the final analysis God is good, which is why the Psalmist exhorts believers to “Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless His name” (Psalm. 100:4). The name of God can be blessed for the material benefits He gives. If you have food to eat, clothes to wear, a home to go to, and the breath of air, you can give thanks to the Lord for they are the gifts of Divine grace.
Many years ago, there was a king of Sodom who went forth to greet the patriarch Abraham who was returning from a military battle. Another king name Chedorlaomer had united with four other warlords to expand his territory. Caught up in the tribal conflicts for land and resources was Abraham’s nephew, Lot. ”When Abraham heard that his brother [i.e., his nephew Lot] was taken captive, he armed his trained servants, born in his own house, three hundred and eighteen, and pursued them unto Dan” (Gen. 14:14).
It was a courageous move Abraham made without hesitation. A family member was in trouble and he would help. Dividing his force of 318 servants and soldiers, Abraham took advantage of the night. When his enemy was asleep and felt secure, Abraham and his servants attacked and killed them. Chedorlaomer, the king of Elam, along with Tidal, and Amraphel and Arioch fled into the darkness leaving behind not only their prisoners, including Lot, but all of their possessions. The spoils of war belong to the victor and Abraham was the victor.
However, when the king of Sodom heard of the victory and saw Abraham with the tremendous booty, he wanted some of it. “And the king of Sodom said unto Abram, Give me the persons, and take the goods to thyself” (Gen. 14:20).“And Abram said unto the king of Sodom, I have lifted up mined hand unto the Lord, the most high God, the possessor of heaven and earth, That I will not take from a thread even to a shoe latchet, and that I will not take anything that is thine, lest thou shouldest say, I have made Abram rich” (Gen. 14:22,23).
When confronted with a situation where-by Abraham had something to glory in, namely his military success and his sudden wealth, Abraham was careful to move to protect the truth that “God makes men rich”. When confronted by someone who might imply that they were the source of Abraham’s wealth, this great giant of faith moved to protect the glory of God. He would give up everything for the good of God’s name and glory rather than have someone say that they were the source of his material prosperity.
Abraham reminds Christians that it is God who gives whatever material benefits in life are enjoyed.
It is not personal cleverness, physical might, strategic planning, willfulness, nor a forceful personality that is the ultimate source of prosperity. It is God.
Individuals might secretly think about being a self-made person until they are asked some basic questions.
“Who created your mind?”
“Who allowed you to be born in America?”
“Who gave you the resources to further your education?”
“Who placed you in this time period of history where there is economic opportunity?”
Abraham was careful that no one, not himself, and not the king of Sodom, would ever be credited with being the ultimate source for the blessings of time. Thanksgiving is to be given to God for His material blessings. Even Jesus was careful to give God the Father thanks for daily provisions. In the act of performing one of His greatest miracles, Christ took “seven loaves and the fishes, and gave thanks, and brake them, and gave to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude” (Matt. 15:36).
As thanksgiving is to be given for the material blessings of time, so the heart is to be thankful for the providential care of the Lord.
As a religious term the concept of God’s providential care is not as familiar as it was to our forefathers, but it should be. The Baptist Confession of 1689 speaks of Divine Providence in this way.
“God the good Creator of all things, in His infinite power and wisdom, doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures and things, from the greatest to the least, by His most wise and holy providence, to the end for the which they were created, according to His infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of His own will; to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, infinite goodness, and mercy.” In summary, whatever happens in life is according to Divine providence.
On August 29, 2005, the country endured one of the worst hurricanes on record in the form of Katrina. But what stopped the waters from doing more damage? The biblical answer is that God said to the waters, “Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further: and here shall thy proud waves be stayed?” (Job 38:11).
Why does the sun rise and set in a regular manner?
Why are there seasons for planting and harvest? Secular men say it is because of the Laws of Nature. But who made the Laws, and who keeps them operating? The right answer is this: there is the providence of God. In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
By recognizing God is in control of life and all things happen according to His will, His providence, His daily care will become more evident.
In the 5th century before Christ, a wave of Anti-Semitism broke out in the land of Persia. A king named Xerxes I ruled this mighty ancient empire (485-465 BC). Because of petty personal spite, and political intrigue by a leading political authority name Haman, a plot had been devised to rise up against the Jews of the land and kill them all in a single great slaughter (Est. 3:6).
However, one night King Xerxes could not sleep. He began to wander about the palace, looking for a way to occupy his mind (Est. 6:1). Perhaps he could be entertained by a story. Calling for the royal books to be read to him, it was discovered that a debt of gratitude was due a man named Mordecai (Est. 6:2, 3). The king would honor the man who had uncovered a plot against his life, even if he were a Jew.
Not only would Mordecai be honored in the presence of his enemies, but many of the lives of his countrymen would also be spared, for the new Queen of the Land, Esther was a relative of Mordecai. And in the providence of God, she would be able to intervene with the king on behalf of her people. For such a time as this she had been raised up (Est. 4:14). In great moments of history, and in the small details of life, the providence of God can be seen if it is looked for. When you see the providence of God in your life, give Him thanks.
Then third, God is to be thanked for the spiritual benefits He bestows upon individuals.
In particular God forgives men of their sins. “Thus, saith the LORD… I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:34b). Not only does God forgive our sins but also, He gives eternal life. The Bible says that while we were still His enemies, God had mercy upon us. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died” (Rom. 5:8). No wonder the apostle Paul exclaimed, “Thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift” (2 Cor. 9:15).
But the spiritual gifts of divine grace do not stop with forgiveness of sins and eternal life, there is a place in heaven for all who love Christ. Jesus said, “Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also” (John 14:1-3).
When we give thanks to the Lord, let us remember that God is good. The goodness of God is reflected in material, providential, and spiritual blessings. “O give thanks unto the LORD; for He is good; for His mercy endureth forever” (1 Chron. 16:34).
Characteristics of a Thankful Heart
We have mentioned that we should be grateful because the Bible exhorts that, and good manners demand it. We have also noted three areas in which we should be grateful. But what are the characteristics of a grateful heart? Are there any objective standards to consider? I offer these nine distinguishing characteristics of a thankful heart for consideration.
A thankful heart will focus attention on what it has, not what it does not have. It was Helen Keller (1880-1968) who wrote, “So much has been given to me, I have no time to ponder that which has been denied.”
A thankful heart is generous in its praise to God. There is a Greek proverb that says, “Swift gratitude is the sweetest.”
A thankful heart takes nothing for granted. G. K. Chesterton noted that, “When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.” There is an old parable about a man who complained that he had no shoes—until he met a man who had no feet.
A thankful heart is an emotional heart. “When the heart is full, the eyes overflow.” (Sholem Aleichem, 1859-1916)
A thankful heart continues to sing the praises of the Sovereign. “Thanksgiving was never meant to be shut up in a single day.” Robert Casper Linter
A thankful heart is a serious, reflective, and thinking heart. “If we pause to think, we will have cause to thank.” It is a bad moment for an atheist when he feels gratitude—whom does he thank?
A thankful heart remembers, or, to put it a little differently. “Thanksgiving is memory of the heart.”
A thankful heart is a joyful heart. “Thankfulness is the soil in which joy thrives.”
A thankful heart remembers others. Because God has been good to us, we remember to be good to others. When you carve the Thanksgiving turkey, give the first piece to the person who prepared it.