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14. The Pilgrim leaders on religious anniversaries and holy days

We popularly perceive that everyone in the colonies was of the same mind religiously, but this was not so from the very beginning. It's commonly known that the Pilgrims and Puritans did not keep Christmas. But is there more to this story than we realize? What is their logic for not observing it? Does it apply to Thanksgiving Day? How pervasive was the desire in the early colonies to observe pagan holidays?

More than half the people that came on the Mayflower were “strangers,” this meant they held no stock in the religious beliefs of the Separatist Pilgrims from Holland. Therefore it is not certain whether or not they would observe Christmas or any other pagan holiday. But one thing that is made clear, is that some did keep Christmas. Within a month or so after the “first thanksgiving” on November 11,th 1621 a ship called the Fortune arrived in Plymouth colony. This ship added 35 more people to the colony, almost doubling the population.

William Bradford, the governor of Plymouth colony, wrote that “most of them were lusty young men, and many of them wild enough.”1 Here he describes a run in he had with some of these people over the issue of Christmas.

And herewith I shall end this year [1621]. Only I shall remember one passage more, rather of mirth then of waight. One ye day called Christmas-day, ye Govr [William Bradford] caled them out to worke, (as was used,) but ye most of this new-company excused them selves and said it wente against their consciences to work on ye day. So ye Govr tould them that if they made it mater of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed. So he led-away ye rest and left them; but when they came home at noone from their worke, he found them in ye streete at play, openly; somepitching ye barr, & some at stoole-ball, and shuch like sports. So he went to them, and tooke away their implements, and tould them that was against his conscience, that they should play & others worke. If they made ye keeping of it mater of devotion, let them kepe their houses, but ther should be no gameing or revelling in ye streets. Since which time nothing hath been atempted that way, at least openly
William Bradford, History of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647

Bradford writes that “most of this new-company” observed Christmas in 1621. That is at least 20 people, if not more, out of around 80 people. That is a full quarter or more of the population observing a known and recognized pagan holiday in the very first year of Plymouth colony. Our perceptions about the early American colonies should be reevaluated, as even the most devout colonies brought paganism with them directly from England from the very beginning.

Illustration 11: John Robinson, the leading preacher of the Pilgrims, taught that Christmas and Easter were "consecrated holy days" based on superstition.
Let's look farther back in Pilgrim history, more accurately, Separatist history. Pastor John Robinson was the leader of the Separatists that escaped to Leydan Holland and then later some of this same group took the Mayflower to America. Below is the writings from Robinson that discuss the issue of Christmas. He clarifies the principles they held that would cause them to reject Thanksgiving Day for the same reasons they rejected Christmas.

IT seemeth not without all leaven of superstition, that the Dutch reformed churches do observe certain days consecrated as holy to the nativity, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, and the same also (as it commonly comes to pass where human devices are reared up by the side of Divine institutions) much more holy than the Lord's-day, by him himself appointed.

And for this, first we are taught by Moses, thus speaking unto the people of Israel in the name of the Lord: "Verily, my Sabbaths ye shall keep; for it is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that ye may know that I am the Lord that doth sanctify you,"Exod. xxxi. 13, that it appertains unto God alone (and to no man, or angel) as to sanctify whether person, or thing,so to institute the signs, or means of sanctification, of which number holy days are. I add, if the Lord as Jehovah,and the God of his people Israel, Exod. xx. 8, and supreme lawgiver, do ordain the sanctification of a day in the decalogue, how far should God's servants be, either magistrates from taking this honour of God unto themselves by commanding a holy day ; or subjects by observing it, to give the same unto any other save God alone ?

2. It was not the least part of Israel's defection, first in the wilderness, afterwards under Jeroboam, that they ordained a feast to Jehovah, whom they represented to themselves by the golden calves which they had made.

3. Seeing that every first day of the week, called by John,the Lord's-day, is consecrated by Christ himself and his apostles to the memorial of Christ's resurrection, and God's solemn worship ; it seems too much for any mortal man to appoint, or make an anniversary memorial, and the same most solemn and sacred, of the same resurrection, or so to observe it.

Lastly. That you may see it was a man, from whom this device came, and so erred, as one saith, (not to meddle with the uncertainty either of the day of the month, or month of the year in which Christ was born, as it is most certain on the contrary that this twenty-fifth of December cannot be the time), what good reason, I would know, can be rendered.-why a day should be consecrated rather to tho birth, circumcision, and ascension of Christ, limn to his death, seeing that tho Scriptures everywhere do ascribe our redemption and salvation to his death, and passion in special manner?
The Works of John Robinson, Pastor of the Pilgrim Fathers Vol 3
By John Robinson, Robert Ashton- Chapt: 5, page 43,44

The beliefs expressed by John Robinson above are why the Pilgrims, or Separatists, did not observe Christmas or Easter. The same reasoning applies to our modern anniversary of Thanksgiving Day.
  • He recognizes that Christmas is not on the right day and that it's not possible to know the correct day.
  • That if something is declared by man to be holy or sacred, we are not to observe it.
  • It is considered a holy day by our society but in reality is based on superstition.
  • Man can not make “an anniversary memorial” or make anything holy. God alone is the lawgiver and only he can make a holy day.
  • When man makes something “holy” they are taking “honor” from God.
  • God was angry with Israel when Jeroboam made his own holy day.
  • The day it's commemorating is disputable and the purpose for the observance itself is misconceived.
This is the perspective of the most revered religious leader of the Pilgrims. All of these points apply to Christmas, Halloween, Easter, do they also apply to Thanksgiving?