A Wise Thanksgiving Lesson

Friday, November 19, 2021

Few of us learned in school that the Thanksgiving celebration has roots in Wampanoag and other indigenous cultures of North America, or how, in 1621, the Wampanoag leader Massasoit formed an alliance with the pilgrims because his nation’s population had been greatly reduced by the ravages of disease brought to North America by Europeans and were in danger of being overtaken by the neighboring Narragansett nation. Massasoit needed European weaponry for defense; in return, the Wampanoag taught the pilgrims how to grow native food. The sharing of the traditional harvest feast was a celebration of this beneficial alliance. Instead, we were often taught a vague tale about friendly Indians who helped the pilgrims grow food and shared in the settlers’ harvest celebration. The deft political maneuvering on the part of Massasoit that ultimately saved the pilgrims from starvation became, in the American imagination, a milestone in the “Christianizing” of American soil.

Although the national Thanksgiving Holiday wasn’t declared until 1863, Thanksgiving celebrations were common throughout the colonial and early years of the United States, and several states officialized observances in the first half of the 19th century, often with annual proclamations about the Christian values to be celebrated. The representation of Christian pilgrims as emblematic of our national identity was not automatically met with consensus, however, and one of the most vocal critics of the “Christian Nation” narrative was Isaac Mayer Wise.

Wise founded the influential newspaper The Israelite in July of 1854, and in the December 15th issue of that same year, he published a lengthy editorial responding to sixteen gubernatorial Thanksgiving proclamations he said asserted “private religious opinions under the seal of their office.” Wise focused especially on the political leaders of New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine, cataloging and refuting their statements Christianizing the holiday of Thanksgiving. In a turn, Wise asked how the American people would respond if the personal religious opinions had been Catholic, Jewish, or Morman. He declared, “American State papers have no right to lean to any creed whatever, no matter how large the majority is who kneel at its alters.” This Thanksgiving editorial set Wise on course to be one of the most vociferous defenders of the separation of church and state in the 19th century.

In 1856, Governor Salmon P. Chase, an important friend and ally of Wise, proclaimed celebration of the Thanksgiving holiday in Ohio as “highly becoming [of] a Christian people.” Wise confronted Chase in the November 14th issue of The Israelite, questioning Chase’s right to assert religious authority over the people of Ohio, and saying Chase’s document read “like the bull of a Pope of the middle ages.” Although Wise ended his editorial with a conciliatory observation that the proclamation might have been written by a secretary for Chase, and not carefully examined by him, Wise acerbically poked that Chase must have considered the matter “immaterial and unimportant.” Indeed, Chase replied shortly thereafter, bemoaning the “icy barriers created between brethren of the same great family,” to which the November 21st issue of The Israelite responded and resolved that “the Governor of Ohio stands accused.” The November 21st editorial argued that, although the editors were “honestly tired of protesting every year against the illiberal and unconstitutional proclamations,” it was their duty to investigate “unconstitutional authority dangerous to a democratic community.” True to the cause, The Israelite continued to monitor and rail against incidences of mingling church and state throughout the 19th century. Wise was nationally recognized for his defense of the separation between church and state and served on the board of directors of the Free Religious Association.


Reform Judaism in America remains alert to the separation of church and state and other social justice issues to this day. As we sit down for what most of us perceive to be a secular American celebration, let’s remember to give thanks for the vigilance of Isaac Mayer Wise and other protectors of our right to participate as full citizens of the United States, whatever our religious beliefs or affiliations. Happy Thanksgiving.

Contributed by Alice Finkelstein, Head of Technical Services


“Editorial.” The Israelite, 15 Dec. 1854, p. 180.

May, Max B, A.M. Isaac Mayer Wise: The Founder of American Judaism. NY, Putnam & Sons 1916.

McVay, Lindsay. “Everyone’s History Matters: The Wampanoag Indian Thanksgiving Story Deserves to Be Known.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 22 Nov. 2017. Web.

Proceedings of the 1st Annual Meeting of the Free Religious Association Held in Boston, May 28th and 29th, 1868. Boston, Adams 1868.

“Proclamation by the Governor of Ohio.” The Israelite, 14 Nov. 1856, p. 148.

“Thanksgivings day and the Governor’s Proclamation.” The Israelite, 21 Nov. 1856, p. 154.