Art Toombs Ministries 

Online Bible Commentary

The True Meaning of Thanksgiving


Romans 1: 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, "The just shall live by faith." (NKJV)



The story of the first Thanksgiving starts with the Protestant Reformation, which began in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his protest to the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany. While a professor at the University of Wittenberg, Luther protested the Catholic Church’s practice of selling indulgences which began in 1190. The indulgence would supposedly help the payee or their loved one to get to Heaven. This was a practice of salvation by works. After a long struggle, Luther had become convinced by studying the book of Romans, specifically Romans 1:17, printed above, that salvation is by grace through faith, alone.  

Luther’s protest was in the form of a list of ninety-five theses that he nailed to the door of the church. His intention was to show the Catholic Church that the selling of indulgences was unbiblical, so that they would change this practice. The message of Luther’s ninety-five theses was carried throughout Europe. Eventually, Luther was excommunicated by the Catholic Church. The Protestant Reformation ultimately resulted in our Protestant Denominations. 

The spirit of the Protestant Reformation in Europe helped create a population of religious dissenters who rejected Catholicism and the Church of England and wanted to purify the church of corruption, thus the term Puritans was born. In the early 1600’s Puritans were being persecuted in England as religious non-conformists.

A group of Puritans led by William Brewster fled to Holland and then returned to England when some English merchants agreed to finance a voyage to America on the Mayflower, thus the term Pilgrims was born. The word pilgrim means wanderer, a person who travels to sacred places. Brewster’s group was the second group to travel to America. The first settlement was at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. 

Brewster’s group, which was also led by William Bradford, set sail from Plymouth, England for Virginia aboard the Mayflower on September 16, 1620. On board were 102 passengers, including 34 children and some pregnant women. The voyage was fraught with danger. Fierce storms shook the ship. It rolled like a cork, causing most passengers to be violently seasick. They were crowded into a limited space, between decks and with low ceilings, trying to find a space to sit or lie, for 61 days. They had no refrigeration and sanitary conditions were poor. 

Five days into the voyage they drafted the Mayflower Compact and the heads of all 42 households on board signed it. The Mayflower Compact stated “In the name of God, having undertaken for the glory of God and the advancement of the Christian faith…a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia…for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid….” On November 21, 1620 the Mayflower anchored in what is now Provincetown, Mass. and the Pilgrims settled in Plymouth Colony, Mass. The Pilgrims went ashore, fell on their knees, and blessed the God of Heaven. 

The winter of that year was dreadful. Within two or three months half of the Pilgrims died of scurvy and other diseases. In autumn of the next year, 1621, the Pilgrims gathered with the Indians at an autumn harvest feast to give thanks to God for their survival of the first year. Governor William Bradford decreed the feast a “Thanksgiving Celebration”. 

On October 3, 1789 President George Washington issued the Thanksgiving Proclamation beginning with the words “Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor…” That first Thanksgiving Holiday was November 26, 1789, 230 years ago.