The First Thanksgiving

A priest friend of mine makes a point of preaching special holiday sermons—sermons that are myth-busters, in which he takes a popular idea or belief about that holiday and shows how those ideas or beliefs are false.  His reasoning is that holidays are the only times some people go to church, and so he may not get the opportunity to preach again to those people for several months—so he has to hit them while he can!

This is the season where, in America, everywhere you look you’ll see pilgrims and Indians and turkeys.  You’ll see specials on television about what is referred to as “the first Thanksgiving.”

The pilgrims must have had the best PR available, because they didn’t really have the first Thanksgiving!

Actually, I’m thankful that they didn’t.  The so-called pilgrims, were the enemy.  They hated us.  They hated our church, our Prayerbook, and our bishops.  They wanted to put as much distance between us and them as possible.  The puritan separatists were coming to North America not for freedom of religion, as their PR says, but for two reasons.  First, they wanted to get away from everything that makes Anglican Christianity what it is, such as tradition, liturgy, sacraments, even Christmas!  Second, they wanted the power to force everyone else to also.  No, I have no sympathy, no affection, no respect for those pseudo-Christians at all!

So, as I said, on this Thanksgiving Day, first of all I am thankful that those puritans did not have the first Thanksgiving that autumn of 1621!

If anything, the first Thanksgiving in the thirteen colonies was fourteen years earlier.  When the colonists (ten times as many as on the Mayflower) landed in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, the first official act of the colony was to rig a sail as a makeshift roof, and the Eucharist, that is, a service of Holy Communion from the Book of Common Prayer, was celebrated by the Rev. Robert Hunt.

In fact, the first Thanksgiving in North America was even earlier than that.  Sir Francis Drake, the explorer and privateer, sailed up the coast of California.  He put in at various locations, and in what is now called San Barnabasco Bay, his chaplain, the Rev. Francis Fletcher, celebrated Holy Communion from the prayer book.  This was in 1579, 28 years before Jamestown, and a full 42 years before the dissenters at Plimouth plantation!

What difference does that make, you may ask.  What does saying Holy Communion have to do with Thanksgiving Day?  The key is in the language.  The service of Holy Communion, which is commonly called “the Mass,” for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that it is one syllable long compared to eight, really has a more traditional and proper name than “Mass,” and that is the “Eucharist.”

“Eucharist” is a Greek word—a biblical word—that means “thanksgiving.” In the canon, the prayer of consecration, during the prayer for the benefits of the offering, the celebrant explicitly prays that the Father “accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.” Just before we repeat the words of our Lord at the consecration we recall that he took the bread, and gave thanks, and that he took the cup, and gave thanksGiving thanks was the common Hebrew way of performing a blessing—you blessed something by giving thanks for it.

Giving thanks keeps repeating.  In fact, the word “thanks” appears seven times in the Anglican Mass.  This is the heart of the service—er, the Eucharist. And this is what makes the Mass relevant to today.  More relevant than puritans and Indians stuffing themselves, is the giving of thanks the way the Lord commanded us to give thanks—in the Mass.

Whether it is remembering the first Thanksgiving in the thirteen colonies in 1607 or the first Thanksgiving in North America in 1579, it is the same celebration of thanksgiving our Lord commanded us when he said “do this in remembrance of me.”

Our Thanksgiving is the same celebration the rest of the Anglican world calls the “harvest home,” and in our modern prepackaged supermarket world, a celebration we need to remember, that all our lives are dependent on the fruits of the earth, the gifts of God.  The most appropriate thing we can do is give thanks, and the most appropriate way to give thanks is in the thanksgiving—the Eucharist.

So let us give thanks, offer to God the gifts he himself has given us, and by giving thanks bless these gifts and bless one another by giving thanks for the gifts of our loved ones that God has given us—and most especially for the gift of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ!

1 thought on “The First Thanksgiving

  1. Bp Edward J Ford, TOR Post author

    The following also predated the puritans:

    1492- Columbus (a Franciscan Teritiary) accompanied by priest Chaplains lands in the Bahamas and later Hispaniola where Mass is celebrated regularly and missions are set up.

    1511- The Diocese of Puerto Rico is established

    1519- Hernando Cortez accompanied by priest chaplains arrive and establish Spanish presence in Mexico, Masses celebrated regularly.

    1521- Pnce de Leon accompanied by priest chaplains explores Florida, Masses celebrated regularly

    1540- Franciscan priests Juan de Padilla and Marco de Niza establish missions in Texas, Kansas and New Mexico, also celebrate 1st Mass in territories of original 13 colonies.

    1540- Fr de Padilla martyred in Kansas (1st American martyr)

    1565- St Augustine, Florida established, first parish in US, Fr Martin Lopex de Mendoza Grajales 1st pastor

    1602- 1st Mass in California by Fr Anthony of the Ascension (Carmelite) celebrated in territory of now San Diego

    1606- 1st Episcopal Visitation of US by Bp Juan de Altamirano, OP

    1611- Fr Pierre Biard,SJ and Fr Ennemond Masse,SJ establish mission in Maine

    1612- The 1st Franciscan Province (Province of St Elena) established in georgia, South Carolina, Florida

    1613- 4 Jesuits establish mission on Kennebec River in Maine

    1619- French Franciscans work amoung Indians in New England, expelled by British in 1628

    1620- Chapel of Nombre de Dios changed to Nuestra Senora de la lEches y Buen Parto in Florida, oldest shrine to Our Lady in US

    1630- New England made a Prefecture Apostolic and placed in the charge of the French Capuchin Franciscan Friars

    I hope that this information is found helpful both for historical perspective and also as an acknowledgement of the overall religious activity of the Catholic Church (both Roman and Anglican) in the US long predating the coming of the Puritan separatists in Plymouth.


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