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The Very First Thanksgiving

In the fall of 1621, just a few months after the Mayflower left to go back to England, Gov. William Bradford announced a time of Thanksgiving. For three days, the pilgrims rejoiced in the goodness of God. The celebration was a response of these godly people to the truth of the Word of God that had impacted their lives.


Then, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln set aside the last Thursday in November as a day of Thanksgiving and praise. When he announced the holiday he is quoted as saying, “for our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”[1] Lincoln’s intention was a day of religious observance. It was set aside as a day of prayer and praise.

Long before Bradford or Lincoln’s proclamations for a day of Thanksgiving Moses gave the Israelites instructions on a similar holiday that was to be held seven weeks after the beginning of the harvest. This holiday is referred to in the Old Testament as the Feast of Tabernacles because the Israelites, after the fall harvest, were to live for one full week in tabernacles or in booths, constructed from tree branches and foliage. This feast was also called the Feast of Ingathering, and it reminded the people of God’s provision for them during the wilderness journeys. They lived in these humble booths, as a visual reminder of God’s provision for them.

We find Moses’ instructions in Deuteronomy 16:9–17. As we read this, we can learn, not just about the holiday, but also about the true meaning of the day of Thanksgiving. God’s Word gives us several principles that should embody our celebration.

A time for relationships. Deuteronomy 16:11 says, “You shall rejoice before the Lord your God, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, the Levite who is within your gates, the stranger and the fatherless and the widow who are among you, at the place where the Lord your God chooses to make His name abide.” The people were to enjoy this feast as a nation, but they were also to enjoy the Feast of Tabernacles, family by family. It was a time of coming together in their families to rejoice over God’s provision for them during the past, and to remember His wonderful provision for them.

A time of remembering. Deuteronomy 16:12 says, “And you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and you shall be careful to observe these statutes.” One of the reasons God gave them the Feast of Tabernacles and many of the other Old Testament festivals was so they would remember from where they had come. We have to think about what God has done. We have to reflect upon His goodness to us in our lives.

A time of rejoicing. Look at verse 11. “Thou shalt rejoice before the Lord Thy God.” Verse 14, “Thou shalt rejoice in thy feast.” Verse 15, “Thou shalt surely rejoice.” The Feast of Tabernacles was a time of hilarity. It was a time of joy and a time of rejoicing.

A time of reaching out. I find it’s fascinating in light of our recent Gospel series to look at these verses and see this. In verse 11, it says that this celebration was to include not only the immediate family but also the “Levite that is within your gates, the stranger and the fatherless, and the widow who are among you.” And, it repeats this in verse 14. We are to reach out to other people and touch them.

Thanksgiving is a time to extend beyond our own families and our even our church family and demonstrate God’s goodness and Gospel message to other people. Wouldn’t it be awesome if this Thanksgiving we shared Jesus with strangers through our giving and through our testimony?


[1] Charles Francis, Wisdom Well Said, (El Prado, NM: Levine Mesa Press, 2009), 220

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