One-on-One with Tracy McKenzie on the Truth about Thanksgiving and What It Means for Us Today

The Pilgrims did not think of their autumn 1621 celebration as a Thanksgiving Day as much as a kind of harvest festival.


Ed: Several years ago, you wrote a great book called The First Thanksgiving, where you talk about what the Pilgrims were really like, that first Thanksgiving, and what we can learn as Christ-followers. What are 1-2 historical “facts” that you debunked?

Tracy McKenzie: The two most important misconceptions that most of us hold concern (1) how the Pilgrims conceived their 1621 celebration, and (2) what brought them to New England in the first place.

The Pilgrims followed a strict ‘regulative principle’ in their reading of Scripture. They believed that the Roman Catholic Church and, to a lesser extent, the Anglican Church, had added to Scripture by creating ‘holy days’ not commanded in the Bible, and they were determined not to commit the same offense.

As they understood it, God’s word commands only one regular holiday—the Sabbath. Apart from that, they believed that the Old Testament authorizes the irregular celebration of Days of Fasting and Humiliation in response to God’s extraordinary judgment, as well as the irregular celebration of Days of Thanksgiving in response to God’s extraordinary blessing.

They thought of both of these irregular holidays as solemn occasions marked by extensive prayer and worship. Because of the extensive feasting and games that took place, it’s almost certain that the Pilgrims did not think of their autumn 1621 celebration as a Thanksgiving Day as much as a kind of harvest festival. Nor would they have ever approved of regularly scheduling a Thanksgiving Day for the same time each year as Americans have done for the last century and a half.

With regard to the matter of why the Pilgrims came to be in New England in the first place, the ...

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