How Moses Created Thanksgiving: The Biblical Roots of America’s Holiday

By Bruce Feiler, Huffington Post

Hollywood is rediscovering the Bible.

Two rival films about Moses, both by established producers, are vying to become the next chapter of the century-long love affair between the merchants of sin in Tinsletown and the prophet of hope in Israel. But no matter how far the filmmakers stretch their story, there are unlikely to reach the least known but perhaps most influential impact of Moses today: He is the Patron Saint of Thanksgiving.

The real story of Thanksgiving has surprising biblical roots. A few years ago, I set out on a 10,000-mile journey through the hidden symbols of American life that became the basis for my book, America’s Prophet: How the Story of Moses Shaped America. My journey began on a visit to Plymouth, Mass., where I boarded a replica of The Mayflower. A re-enactor was reading from the Bible. “Exodus 14,” he explained. “The Israelites are trapped in front of the Red Sea, and the Egyptians are about to catch them. ‘Hold your peace!’ Moses says. The Lord shall fight for you.’ Our leader read us that passage during our crossing.”

I hadn’t ever associated the biblical prophet with this most American holidays, but his fingerprints are all over our turkeys. How did this happen? How did a 3,000-year-old story become the inspiration for a contemporary American national holiday?

The answer begins with the Protestant Reformation. All through the Middle Ages, Catholics were not allowed to read the Bible directly, but the Reformation, coupled with the printing press, brought vernacular Bibles into the hands of everyday believers. Many of those believers were Protestants who felt oppressed by the Church. They related to the story of the Israelites, the descendants of Abraham who were enslaved in Egypt around 1200 B.C., were set free by Moses, then set out for the Promised Land.

The Pilgrims, a band of Protestant outcasts, saw themselves as fulfilling this biblical story. In coming to the New World, they, too, had to cross a tumultuous sea, arrive in an untested wilderness and create a new “Promised Land.” As a result, when they set sail on The Mayflower in 1620, they described themselves as the chosen people fleeing their pharaoh, King James. On the Atlantic, their leader, William Bradford, proclaimed their journey to be as vital as “Moses and the Israelites when they went out of Egypt.” And when they got to Cape Cod, they thanked God for letting them pass through their fiery Red Sea.

The pilgrims were so enamored of Moses, the Bibles they brought with them were emblazoned with pictures of Moses on the title page, and they named their children biblical virtues like Fear, Patience and Wrestling, as in “Wrestling with God,” the English translation of Israel.

As Peter Gomes, the preacher of Harvard told me, “They weren’t trying to recreate the biblical narrative. They were trying to fulfill it.” Because of them, the story of Moses became the story of America.

And because of the biblical roots of this most secular of American holidays, if your gathering threatens to descend into a familiar fracas among different faiths, factions and political persuasions, Moses, precisely because he has been used by believers and non-believers alike, Republicans and Democrats, Jews, Catholics and Protestants, may be the one figure who can unite the family and allow them all to enjoy their pumpkin pie.

This entry is part of a series, “This Month in Moses,” chronicling the 400-year relationship between the United States and “America’s Prophet.” For more information, and to read the entire series, visit Bruce Feiler’s website, or follow him on Twitter.

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