George Washington initiated it nationally, on November 26, 1789, and Abe Lincoln institutionalized it in 1863, but Thanksgiving began here in America much earlier.
Claims for the first one include San Elizario, Texas in 1598; San Augustine, Florida in 1565; Berkeley Hundred, Virginia in 1619, as well as the Pilgrims in 1621 at Plymouth, Massachusetts. The Pilgrims set theirs separate from Sabbath worship, held on a weekday, and ours is most like theirs.
But let’s step back even further, to Bible days. Let us consider Thanksgiving from the perspective of biblical festivals.
For a parallel to the Pilgrim festival of Thanksgiving, Deuteronomy 26:1-11 provides instructions for thanks to God as the Hebrews entered the promised land. The verses describe a harvest festival of first-fruits, probably celebrated in conjunction with the festival of weeks (called Pentecost in the New Testament.)
The ‘order of service’ in the text indicates several steps:
•A pilgrimage (vv.1-2)
•A declaration by the worshipper (v.3) that God has been faithful to his promise of land.
•A transference of the offering to the priest (v.4)
•A response by the worshipper that acknowledges the “fruit of the ground” comes from the “gift of the land.” (vv.5-10)
•A communal celebration (v.11)
Through this festival, the Israelites were bearing witness that bountiful blessings come from a promise-keeping God, not the fertility deities of their Canaanite neighbors.
Thanksgiving today calls us to the same confession.
--excerpt from an article written by Rich Israel, Religion Department Chair and Professor of Old Testament at Vanguard University