A Short History of Thanksgiving Day: Part 1 – Separatists in England


By T. V. Antony Raj


Thanksgiving Day is a national holiday in the United States and many people celebrate the day with religious significance. Traditionally, Thanksgiving Day is celebrated in the United States on the fourth Thursday of November.

Several instances of Thanksgiving that were held in early New England have been identified as the “First Thanksgiving.”

The modern Thanksgiving Day celebration is traced to the autumn celebration held in late 1621 at Plymouth in present-day Massachusetts. The feast known as “The First Thanksgiving” was not known as such to the Pilgrims. “Harvest festival” would be a more proper term because a bountiful harvest prompted the 1621 Plymouth feast.

Pilgrims and Puritans who emigrated from England in the 1620s carried the tradition of Thanksgiving with them to New England – a solemn ceremony of praise and thanks to God for the congregation’s good fortune.


The first Thanksgiving likely included wildfowl, corn, porridge and venison. (Bettmann / Corbis)
The first Thanksgiving likely included wildfowl, corn, porridge and venison. (Bettmann / Corbis)


The Pilgrim holidays celebrated in Plymouth in 1621 for a plentiful harvest, was probably held in early October 1621. It was celebrated by the 53 surviving Pilgrims, along with Massasoit Sachem the leader of the Wampanoag, and “Massasoit” of the Wampanoag Confederacy and 90 of his men. The celebration lasted three days and featured a feast that included waterfowl, wild turkey and fish brought by the colonists, and five deer brought by the natives.

Three contemporary accounts of the event survive: Of Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford, Mourt’s Relation probably written by Edward Winslow, and New England’s Memorial by Capt. Nathaniel Morton, Plymouth Colony Secretary and William Bradford’s nephew.

The Thanksgiving in 1623 was held in response to the good news of the arrival of additional colonists and supplies. The latter event probably occurred in July 1623 and consisted of a full day of prayer and worship and probably very little revelry.

The Pilgrims

The story of the Pilgrims seeking religious freedom has become the central theme of the history and culture of the United States and the Thanksgiving Day.

The Pilgrims were the early settlers of the Plymouth Colony in present-day Plymouth, Massachusetts, United States. Their leadership came from the religious congregations of Brownists” (named after Robert Browne), a common designation for early English Dissenters, and Separatists from the Church of England before 1620.

The Puritans were a significant group of English Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries, including English Calvinists. Puritanism was founded by some Marian exiles from the clergy shortly after the accession of Elizabeth I of England in 1558, as an activist movement within the Church of England and maintained their membership in and allegiance to the Church of England. The term “Puritan” was coined in the 1560s, as a term of abuse for those who found the Elizabethan Religious Settlement of 1559. Puritans did not originally use the term for themselves.

From the late 16th century onwards, the word “Puritan” was applied to a number of Protestant churches, and religious groups within the Anglican Church. However, the
members of churches that did not agree with the Puritans knew themselves as members of particular churches or movements.

In this essay, I use the term “Brownists” and “Separatists” for the English Dissenters who separated from the Church of England in the 16th and 17th century who were not “Puritans”.

Robert Browne of Lilford

Robert Browne of Lilford
Robert Browne of Lilford


Robert Browne (1550 – 1633) considered ‘The Father of the Pilgrims‘ is important in American history because his concept of separation of the Church from the State initiated the first step in American democracy. Hence, he is also known as ‘The Grandfather of the Nation‘.

He was born at Tolethorpe Hall in Rutland, England, into a wealthy, prominent Northamptonshire family, the Brownes (Elmes) of Lilford.

By 1580, Browne became a leader in the movement for a congregational form of organization for the Church of England. He rejected the puritan view of reform from within the Church and started to look outside the established Church. In 1581, Browne attempted to set up a separate Congregational Church in Norwich, outside the Church of England. In April 1581, while preaching in the Bury St. Edmund, Suffolk area, authorities arrested Browne for unlicensed preaching and imprisoned him by the order of Bishop Freake of Norwich. William Cecil, Baron Burghley, his kinsmen, interceded for his release.

Between May and August 1582, due to hostility from the local church authorities most of the congregation moved from the politically volatile England to the relatively calm and tolerant Middelburgh in Zeeland, Holland. On arriving in Holland, members of the congregation suffered from illness. There they formed a church on what they conceived to be the New Testament model. However, within two years the community in Holland broke up due to internal dissensions.

Robert Browne published at Middelburgh two of his most important works: “A Treatise of Reformation without Tarying for Anie” in which he asserted the right of the church to affect necessary reforms without the civil magistrate’s authorisation; and “A Booke which sheweth the life and manners of all True Christians” which set out the theory of Congregational independency.

Both books were immediately banned in England by the English authorities. By the middle of 1583, they issued a Proclamation against buying, selling or possession of the works of Robert Browne. At Bury St Edmunds, the authorities arrested, tried, and hanged John Copping and Elias Thacker, former members of Browne’s Norwich congregation, for selling Browne’s seditious writings.

Browne was an active Separatist from 1579 to 1585 only. He returned to England and to the Church of England and got employed as a schoolmaster and parish priest. Browne’s companions and followers who hung on to his earlier separatist concepts now looked upon him as a renegade.

However, the term “Brownists” became a common designation for early Separatists from the Church of England before 1620. The Brownists are briefly mentioned in Shakespeare’s play, Twelfth Night written around 1600–02, where Sir Andrew Aguecheek says: “I had as lief be a Brownist as a politician‘ (III, ii). The Browne family seat, Tolethorpe Hall, is now home to the Stamford Shakespeare Company.

Richard Clyfton

Richard Clyfton was born around 1553 near the Nottinghamshire village of Babworth. Ordained as a minister in 1586, he was named pastor of All Saints’ Parish Church in Babworth, near East Retford, Nottinghamshire, England. He held this position from 1586 to1605.

In the 1590s, Clyfton started to preach dissenting religious views and conducted services using prayers that were not in the officially authorized Book of Prayers. He soon gathered followers from the surrounding towns and villages. His congregation held Separatist beliefs comparable to nonconforming movements led by Robert Browne, John Greenwood, and Henry Barrowe. In 1593, Barrowe and Greenwood were hung at Tyburn for sedition.

William Brewster of Scrooby and William Bradford of Austerfield who later launched the “Pilgrim adventure” were inspired by the preaching of Richard Clyfton.

Unlike the Puritan group who maintained their membership in and allegiance to the Church of England, Separatists held that their differences with the Church of England were irreconcilable and that their worship organized independently of the trappings, traditions and organization of a central church such as the Church of England.

In 1593, Barrowe and Greenwood were hung at Tyburn for sedition.

William Brewster

William Brewster

Scrooby is a small village, on the River Ryton and near Bawtry, in the northern part of the English county of Nottinghamshire. At the end of the sixteenth century, William Brewster, the Archbishop’s bailiff, who was also the postmaster of the village occupied the Manor House at Scrooby belonging to the Archbishops of York.


Part of William Brewster’s home, Scrooby Manor, still exists today
Part of William Brewster’s home, Scrooby Manor, still exists today


William Brewster, heard Clyfton preach. Impressed by Clyfton’s services, Brewster joined Clyfton’s Babworth congregation and participated in Separatist services.

Around 1602, young William Bradford, living in the Yorkshire village of Austerfield some ten miles from Babworth joined Brewster “to enjoy Mr. Richard Clifton’s illuminating ministry.”

From 1595 to 1606 Brewster served Archbishop Matthew Hutton who was sympathetic towards Puritans but not to the Separatists.

In 1604, the Hampton Court Conference denied substantially all the concessions requested by Puritans, save for an English translation of the Bible. In 1605, following the Conference, Clyfton declared a “nonconformist and nonsubscriber” was deprived of his position at Babworth. Brewster invited Clyfton to live at his home.

Services were held with Richard Clyfton as pastor, John Robinson as teacher and William Brewster as the presiding elder.

In 1606, Brewster arranged for a congregation of Separatists, led by John Smyth in Gainsborough, to meet privately at the Scrooby manor house. John Smyth, about 20 years younger than Richard Clyfton was an ordained minister and graduate of Cambridge University. In 1600, appointed as a preacher of the city of Lincoln, he lost the position soon afterwards because of his unorthodox views. Even though both the Scrooby group and the Gainsborough group were Separatists, their views were not entirely and necessarily the same.

Around this time in 1606, after Archbishop Matthew Hutton’s death, Tobias Matthew, one of King James’ chief supporters at the 1604 conference was elected as his replacement. Mathew promptly started a campaign to purge the archdiocese of nonconforming influences, both Separatists and those wishing to return to the Catholic faith.He replaced disobedient clergymen and confronted, fined, and imprisoned prominent Separatists.

Scrooby member William Bradford, who kept a journal of the congregation’s events that was later published as Of Plymouth Plantation wrote:

But after these things they could not long continue in any peaceable condition, but were hunted & persecuted on every side, so as their former afflictions were but as flea-bitings in comparison of these which now came upon them. For some were taken & clapt up in prison, others had their houses besett & watcht night and day, & hardly escaped their hands; and ye most were faine to flie & leave their howses & habitations, and the means of their livelehood.


Next → Part 2 – Life in Holland




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