Thanksgiving Day USA – Calvin’s Elect in the New World
Thanksgiving Day in the United States is observed on the fourth Thursday of November. It is a time for family gatherings. The day before the holiday is the busiest travel day in the year. In keeping with its Puritan religious origins, it is not a liturgical holiday, but rather a celebration of a successful harvest and the group’s survival of the brutal winter and spring. Generally, there are no formal religious services. It is a holiday observed by people of all faiths and of no faith. The poor are fed and the rush and loneliness of contemporary life are abandoned for the day. It is a sabbath. Offices, banks, schools, and most stores are closed. The day embodies a vision of the Kingdom, without any of the overt religiosity of the country’s Calvinist social and cultural founders.
The Pilgrims were a group from Nottingham Shire in England and were part of the Puritan movement. Their religious beliefs were generally in line with those of John Calvin. The recognized only two sacraments – Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Marriage, as a civil contract, was the province of the magistrates. Marriage existed for the procreation of children and the prevention of adultery. There was no celebration of Christmas and Easter since these were the creations of human culture to honor Christ, who did not need them. They abandoned the liturgical cycle of seasons and holy days, to return to a “pure” Christianity of the very early Church. Their meeting places were not Churches in the traditional sense and had no decoration.
They believed that everyone was predestined to salvation or damnation. Due to the sin of Adam and the fall of the human race, humanity was seen as utterly corrupt. Some people would receive grace, which was irresistible. As a result they would come to faith and be saved. The Pilgrims – unlike the Anabaptists – emphasized the baptism of infants. God’s chosen or elect would probably come from the ranks of those people who led good lives, since they already manifested the sign of divine grace. Sobriety, industry, and the absence of adornment in one’s dress, home and public spaces was the norm. The English Puritans did not believe in the need for bishops or a formal hierarchy. Each group constituted its own church and elected its own officials.
When James I of England (James IV of Scotland) came to the throne, he supported the episcopal model of the Anglican Church, which maintained the hierarchical structure of the bishops. King James, who commissioned the English Bible that still bears his name, sought to bring Puritan groups like the Pilgrims into conformity with the Church of England. The Pilgrims used the Geneva (Calvinist) translation of the Bible and refused the English Book of Common Prayer because of their preference for one’s own prayers and their aversion to reading the prayers of others. King James feared that people who did not need bishops did not need a king. (The Puritan Revolution under Oliver Cromwell was to prove him right on this point.) The group’s escape from England to the Netherlands was as courageous as it was risky – not all of them made it. In the Netherlands they found whatever work they could to support themselves, but they realized that the continued influence of Spain in the area made their longer term presence untenable. The story of their arrangements for their voyage, the trip itself, and the first years is stunning in its complexity of politics, intrigue, and danger. The History Channel’s documentary, Desperate Crossings, presents the truly dramatic history of the group – a history which had been so obscured by myth and legend as to render the actors as two dimensional soul-less characters.
Thanksgiving is a day to give thanks for blessings and deliverance and a day to remember the country’s religious founders, whose beliefs have shaped and molded a secular state and a highly religious society.