As our school-children know, Thanksgiving extends all the way back to the very founding settlements of the English-speaking Christians in what is now New England and Virginia. Edward Winslow, for example, wrote in his journal about the first Thanksgiving in that first harvest season in the New World in 1621. These Thanksgiving worship services continued through those difficult founding years. Another journal-writer, William Bradford, attested to the new Americans gathering together to thank God for His blessings. On June 20 1676, the Plymouth Council issued a Proclamation that read, in part: “The Council has thought meet to appoint and set apart the 29th day of this instant June, as a day of Solemn Thanksgiving and praise to God for such his Goodness and Favour . . .” During those arduous days in which our present nation developed through unspeakable hardships, violent vicissitudes, and uncertainties without number, those now-famous colonies emerged, from Maine to Georgia, with each body politic creating thanksgiving days of their own. The Continental Congress governed the land from 1774-1789, during the terrible days of the American Revolution. It was Samuel Adams who drafted the wording for a Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1777 that gave the reason for the holy day:
“To inspire our Commanders, both by Land and Sea, and all under them, with that Wisdom and Fortitude which may render them fit Instruments, under the Providence of Almighty God, to secure for these United States, the greatest of all human Blessings, Independence and Peace: That it may please him, to prosper the Trade and Manufactures of the People, and the Labor of the Husbandman, that our Land may yield its Increase: To take Schools and Seminaries of Education, so necessary for cultivating the Principles of true Liberty, Virtue and Piety, under his nurturing Hand; and to prosper the Means of Religion, for the promotion and enlargement of that Kingdom, which consisteth ‘in Righteousness, Peace and Joy in the Holy Ghost.’”
General Washington, also, issued his own Proclamation of Thanksgiving. After the 1789 Presidential election, President Washington gave the first United States Proclamation of Thanksgiving on October 3, 1789. Successive presidents followed our first national leader in similar proclamations of Days of Prayer and Thanksgiving. Yet, with Abraham Lincoln, we have the framing of the National Day of Prayer that we know today. On October 3, 1863, with crisis of the American Civil War separating brother from brother, Abraham Lincoln called on the nation to set apart the last Thursday of the month of November to seek God in prayer and Thanksgiving: “I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” Politics got into the National Day of Thanksgiving during the days following the Great Depression. President F.D. Roosevelt, being urged by Fred R. Lazarus, Jr. (1884 – 1973), founder of what became Macy’s Department Store (then, Federated Department Stores) and a considerable donor to Democratic politicians, changed Thanksgiving from the last to the fourth Thursday in November. This was done in order to extend the shopping season. While Republicans decried the move as a “Democratic Thanksgiving” the country moved forward with the remnant of the Pilgrim’s prayers mixed in with Macy’s commercial interests. As television became more prominent in American homes football and, later, holiday specials like “Charlie Brown’s Christmas” added both sports and entertainment to the day’s festivities.
For Christians, Thanksgiving Day remains a vital connection to our founding heritage as a nation founded by Christians who sought a “city on a hill” to shine the light of the Gospel to the ends of the earth. God blessed that vision and that covenant made between our Pilgrim forebears and Himself. It remains for church, each family, each believer to take a stand on that Day granted unto us as a national day of thanksgiving to gather together and ask the Lord’s blessings and to return sincere thanksgiving to Him for His blessings to this People gathered from all over the world; this nation of pilgrims called America.
Therefore let us take a stand: Let every believer resist the temptations of this “secular age” that would draw us away from the covenants our spiritual forefathers in this country made with the Almighty and return unto Him with repentance, true faith, and hearts filled with thanksgiving.
I prefer to conclude this entry with the words of John Adams in his March 6, 1799 proclamation:
[T]hat [the citizen] shall call to mind our numerous offenses against the Most High God, confess them before Him with the sincerest penitence, implore His pardoning mercy, through the Great Mediator and Redeemer, for our past transgressions, and that through the grace of His Holy Spirit we may be disposed and enabled to yield a more suitable obedience to His righteous requisitions in time to come…
Bradford, William. Of Plimoth [sic] Plantation. Boston, MA: Wright and Potter, 1898. Accessed November 7, 2016. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/24950/24950-h/24950-h.htm.
Journals of the Continental Congress (1905) for June 12, 1775; March 16, 1776; December 11, 1776; November 1, 1777; March 7, 1778; November 17, 1778; March 20, 1779; October 20, 1779; March 11, 1780; October 18, 1780; March 20, 1781; October 26, 1781; March 19, 1782; October 11, 1782; October 18, 1783.
Journals of the Continental Congress (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1907), Vol. IX, p. 855, November 1, 1777.
Lincoln, Abraham. The Works of Abraham Lincoln, John H. Clifford & Marion M. Miller, editors (New York: University Society Inc., 1908), Vol. VI, pp. 160-161, Proclamation for Thanksgiving, October 3, 1863. See also, The American Presidency Project, “Abraham Lincoln: Proclamation – Thanksgiving Day, 1863” (at http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=69900&st=&st1=).
The National Archives, “Congress Establishes Thanksgiving” (at http://www.archives.gov/legislative/features/thanksgiving/); see also Pilgrim Hall Museum, “Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamations 1940-1949: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman” (at http://www.pilgrimhall.org/ThanxProc1940.htm), Proclamation 2571: Days of Prayer: Thanksgiving Day and New Year’s Day, November 11, 1942, referring to a “joint resolution of Congress approved December 26, 1941, which designates the fourth Thursday in November of each year as Thanksgiving Day.”.
Sickel, H.S.J. Thanksgiving: Its Source, Philosophy and History. Philadelphia: International Printing Co. p.158.
Suess, Jeff. “Lazarus to Thank for Thanksgiving Date.” Cincinnati.com. November 27, 2014. Accessed November 07, 2016. http://www.cincinnati.com/story/news/history/2014/11/27/lazarus-to-thank-for-thanksgiving-date/19573889/.
Winslow, Edward. Winslow’s Relation. London: George Morton, 1622.