The Joy Of Thanksgiving

A letter from the president of Solutions From Science:

The First Thanksgiving

We do know some things about the first Thanksgiving. But William Bradford, Plymouth’s perennial governor, and his assistant, Edward Winslow, are the only contemporary writers who mention it. They described the celebration briefly. The occasion was a successful harvest after months of extreme hardship and deprivation. The Mayflower survivors invited the Indian king Massasoit to their celebration, and he came with ninety-some of his men. The Pilgrims provided waterfowl and turkey; the Indians added five deer. There were games and athletic contests (William Brewster would probably watch the Lions-Packers game if he were alive today!), and even a joint militia drill. The celebration lasted three days. But neither Bradford nor Winslow actually called the feast “Thanksgiving,” and neither mentioned prayers of thanks or any kind of worship service. This has given occasion for some historians to question whether this “first Thanksgiving” was a religious celebration at all. But that’s because they don’t know the Pilgrims and what they really believed.

Grace and Thankfulness

The Pilgrims were children of the Reformation. Like the 16th century Reformers, they were fully committed to the biblical doctrine of justification by faith. They understood that God graciously declares guilty sinners righteous on the basis of Christ’s perfect obedience and substitutionary death, that this gift of legally transferred righteousness is received by faith alone and that such faith is itself the gift of a sovereign God. But they also knew that grace doesn’t end there. They, no less than the Reformers, had faced the obvious questions: “Why then should believers do good works? Doesn’t the doctrine of justification by faith lead to antinomianism and lawlessness?”

The Pilgrim answer, and the answer of Scripture, involves the nature of saving faith and the work of the Spirit who grants it. In bringing us sinners to faith, the Holy Spirit changes our hearts. He implants joy and a spirit of thankfulness. He gives the converted sinner a delight in serving God. And this thankfulness then, becomes itself a great comfort.

Comfort and Joy

The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) is one the oldest Reformed confessions and one the Pilgrims ran into when in Holland. (John Robinson even participated in the theological debates at the University in Leiden.) The questions and answers of the Heidelberg Catechism were framed in terms of comfort and joy, which no doubt shaped Pilgrim thought. In fact, its first question is, “What is thy only comfort in life and in death?” The answer is this:

That I, with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ, who, with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready henceforth to live unto him.

The Catechism’s second question introduces the issue of happiness: What must we know to live and die happily in this comfort? The answer is threefold and for the Pilgrims, a constant reminder: 1) we must know the greatness of our sin and misery; 2) we must know the means of our redemption; and 3) we must know the proper way to be thankful to God. In other words, in order to “live and die happily,” we must not only know how to be saved, but we must also know how to be “thankful to God” for our salvation. The Pilgrims believed happiness grows and is completed in thankfulness. Thankfulness enables the forgiven sinner to enjoy the comfort of the gospel happily, that is, with true joy.

Why Thanksgiving?

But a question arises. Is God being selfish in wanting a thankful people? Not at all. First, as the Source of all life, joy, and blessedness, He knows Himself to be our highest good. Second, He knows that we can’t fully enjoy Him or His gifts apart from true thankfulness. After all, this is the very nature of joy. When we enjoy a thing, we are thankful for it. We praise the gift to the giver and so enjoy both.

“Thank you for this ring! It’s magnificent!”
“What a fantastic dinner! It was the best ever. Thank you.”
“Thank you! Thank you so much! I never thought I’d see Wittenberg.”

When we find joy in another human being, we show our joy and gratitude with words and actions. We praise and magnify the one we love. We are thankful to love and to be loved.

“I’m proud of you, son. You’re the best.”
“I thank God for you every day. My life wouldn’t be the same without you.”
“There’s no one else like you! I love you so much!”

Joy finds its fulfillment in thankfulness, in praise and thanksgiving. Silent joy is a contradiction. Mute appreciation isn’t really thanks. God requires our thanksgiving so that our joy may be full.

The Joy of the Lord

It seems odd that when theologians list the attributes of God, they rarely include joy. A few speak of His “blessedness.” But joy isn’t one we use much. An older writer, William Wisheart (1716), defined God’s blessedness as that attribute, whereby “having all fullness of perfection and sufficiency in himself, he doth most perfectly and unchangeably enjoy himself.” God is wholly blessed in that He fully understands, loves, and delights in His own infinite perfections. For He is absolute life, perfectly good, and wholly glorious. There is nothing we can add to His joy. There is nothing we can give Him that He has not first given us. And so He does not thank us. But He does rejoice over us. He rejoices over His covenant people (Zeph. 3:17). He rejoices in the works of His hands (Ps. 104:31).

The Father loves and delights in His Son (Matt. 17:5). He honors and glorifies Him (John 17:5). The Son rejoices in His Father (Prov. 8:30-31). He seeks His honor, rather than His own (John 17:4). The Spirit brings glory to the Son and not to Himself (John 16:14). From eternity, God is overflowing joy and delight. Furthermore, Jesus in His humanity regularly gave thanks to His Father. He did so before every meal (John 6:11). He gave thanks when He sang songs of praise, whether in the synagogue or in private worship (Mark 14:26). And on more than one occasion, He stopped in the middle of a public conversation or discourse and said, “I thank thee, O Father…” (Matt. 11:25; John 11:41). The joy of the Triune God overflows in the thankfulness of the divine Messiah. It overflows in the praises of all those who call themselves Christians.


The Pilgrims, Puritans, and Reformers are almost always portrayed as obsessive killjoys and miserable downers. There’s little truth in that image. Joy wasn’t an afterthought for our Pilgrim forefathers. For them, joy stood at the beginning, in the center, and at the end. For them, God was joy, even when they were hungry and that same joy expressed itself in thankfulness. For the Pilgrims, a day of rejoicing is necessarily a day of thanksgiving. And throughout Scripture that sort of rejoicing means feasting, fellowship, and worship. The Pilgrims were deeply committed Christians who had braved an ocean and a wilderness to seek and serve God. When they rejoiced together, it would not–could not–be other than a time of thanksgiving to their Lord and Savior. Yes, the Pilgrims gave thanks to God and so should all of us.


Bill Heid
Founder Off The Grid News
President Solutions From Science