A closer look at the Puritan origins of Thanksgiving, considered by many to be a secular American feast without religious significance, reveals that the roots of the holiday may have been part of a larger replacement theology agenda endorsed by the holiday’s founders.
The religious nature of Thanksgiving is discussed at length in Jewish law, which treats Thanksgiving exceptionally by allowing observant Jews to join in the celebrations despite a Torah prohibition against participating in non-Jewish traditions.
This special dispensation is due to rabbinic authorities recognizing Thanksgiving’s status as a secular national holiday rather than a religious one.
However, historians agree that the Puritans who first celebrated Thanksgiving did indeed have religious intent. Some scholars even identify it with the holiday of Sukkot.
“The origin of the harvest festival in England by the time the Pilgrims decided to leave was rooted in the Biblical practice of the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot),” Dr. Paul Jehle, Executive Director of the Plymouth Rock Foundation, wrote in his book “Plymouth in the Words of Her Founders”.
“Note that we do not know the original date of this event, though most suppose it to be in late October, which would correspond to the time of the Feast of Tabernacles.”
In fact, the Puritans are known to have modeled themselves after the Jews, considering their journey to America to be a reenactment of the Biblical Exodus. Historical documents show that the Puritans compared England, which oppressed them, to Egypt, and referred to the British King James I as ‘Pharaoh’. Their voyage across the Atlantic was compared to the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, after which they arrived at the Promised Land.
“No Christian community in history identified more with the People of the Book than did the early settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who believed their own lives to be a literal reenactment of the biblical drama of the Hebrew nation,” wrote noted scholar and chairman of the Jewish Bible Association Gabriel Sivan in his book “The Bible and Civilization.”
The Puritans were part of a Hebraist movement within Protestantism, learning the Bible in its original Hebrew. One of their ministers, Henry Ainsworth, studied Jewish Biblical interpretation with leading rabbis during the community’s sojourn in Amsterdam.
As such, they envisioned themselves as arriving in the New World to create a new society based on the ancient Hebrew Republic.
This fascination with the Jews was not akin to admiration. The Puritans were Calvinists, following the teachings of John Calvin, the 16th century French pastor who played a major role in the Protestant Reformation. Calvin clearly stated that the Jews were a rejected people who needed to embrace Jesus to re-enter the covenant, a basic belief of replacement theology.
There was also a heavy emphasis on conversion. Ian Murray, a British pastor and author, wrote in his book “The Puritan Hope” that as Calvinists, the Puritans believed in the ultimate conversion of the Jews.
“By claiming to be the ‘true Israel,’ the Puritans were not expressing a cute and harmless example of cultural appropriation, but rather another tragic example of replacement theology,” Rabbi Weisz wrote. “In fact, Puritans were convinced that their voyage was a final step in the messianic journey to the New Jerusalem.”
“Back then, if you loved the Bible then you necessarily had to hate the Jewish People,” Rabbi Weisz explained in an interview with Breaking Israel News. “For some reason, on Thanksgiving, Puritans get a pass on this and are portrayed as peace-loving tolerant people. The healthy Christian Zionism we have today rejects Replacement Theology.”
Through his organization, Rabbi Weisz works at strengthening relations between Israel and Christians, something he feels is timely.
“Today, we are in a marvelous golden-era of Jewish-Christian relations,” Rabbi Weisz said. “Now, non-Jews can appreciate the Jewish Bible and the Jewish People.”