To an early American, a “thanksgiving” was not a day for feasting, singing and dancing. That kind of celebration was routinely associated with the end of a good harvest. Instead, a “thanksgiving” was a religious event that took place on a national basis, not just whenever the harvest was done. It was an officially declared religious holiday from which all people were exempt from work in order to go to church to thank God for a specific event, such as the winning of an important battle, bringing in a bountiful harvest, or the end of a drought.
This explains why the first Thanksgiving was declared – to give the people an opportunity to thank God for the first good harvest the pilgrims managed on New World soil.
This was how Governor William Bradford, the first governor of Plymouth Colony, declared it:
“ . . . In as much as the great Father has given us this year an abundant harvest of corn, wheat, peas, squashes, and garden vegetables, made the forest abound with game and the sea with fish and clams, and . . . granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience, I do proclaim that all ye Pilgrims, with your wives and little ones, do gather at ye meeting house, on ye hill, between the hours of nine and twelve in the daytime on Thursday, November 29, of the yea of Our Lord 1623, there to . . . render Thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all His blessings.”
Later, when war broke out in the 13 colonies, the Continental Congress declared national days of fasting to implore God’s help in upcoming battles as well as days of thanksgiving for their victories. In 1777, the Continental Congress declared a day of Thanksgiving after the Americans defeated the legendary British General John Burgoyne at Saratoga.
The Congress wrote, “ . . . For as much as it is the indispensable duty of all men to adore the superintending providence of Almighty God, to acknowledge with gratitude their obligation to Him for benefits received, and to implore such further blessings a they stand in need of . . .” all of the people were asked to refrain from “ . . . servile labor, and such recreations, although at other times innocent, but may be unbecoming the purpose of this appointment, and should be omitted on so solemn an occasion.”
An all-American “thanksgiving” was sacred stuff!
This practice continued into the time of the Civil War. For instance, a Sunday Thanksgiving Service was declared for July 28, 1861 to thank God after the Battle of Bull Run, and again on Sunday, April 13, 1862, to thank God for the union victory at Shiloh.
A year later, in 1863, that the tradition of an annual national Thanksgiving came into being.
In that year, our country actually enjoyed two thanksgivings. President Lincoln declared the first national thanksgiving to take place on August 6 to give thanks to God for the victory at Gettysburg. The second thanksgiving took place on the last Thursday in November for “general causes” rather than for “special providences” which had been the practice up until that time.
He wrote, “ . . . The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the Source from which they come, others have been added which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensitive to the ever-watchful Providence of Almighty God.
“In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity . . . the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well as the iron and coal of our precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield.
“ . . . No human counsel has devised, nor has any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, has nevertheless remembered mercy.
“I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States . . . to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwells in the heavens.”
So began the tradition of declaring an annual day of thanksgiving to be observed on the last Thursday in November, in order to give thanks to God for “general causes.” Every president from Abraham Lincoln to our present-day Donald J. Trump has issues this annual declaration of a national day of Thanksgiving to God even though our culture has eroded much of the original intent of this special day.
One of the most poignant declarations of Thanksgiving in recent history took place in the wake of the great tragedy of September 11, when President George Walker Bush wrote:
“As we recover from the terrible tragedies of September 11, Americans of every belief and heritage give thanks to God for the many blessings we enjoy as a free, faithful, and free-minded land. And let us give thanks for the millions of people of faith who have opened their hearts to those in need with love and prayer, bringing us a deeper unity and stronger resolve.
“On this day of Thanksgiving, let our thanksgiving be revealed in the compassionate support we render to our fellow citizens who are grieving unimaginable loss; and let us reach out with care to those in need of food, shelter, and words of hope. . .”
Although the times have changed, the true spirit of Thanksgiving remains intact.
“We are especially reminded on Thanksgiving of how the virtue of gratitude enables us to recognize, even in adverse situations, the love of God in every person, every creature, and throughout nature,” writes President Trump in this year’s proclamation.
“Let us be mindful of the reasons we are grateful for our lives, for those around us, and for our communities. We also commit to treating all with charity and mutual respect, spreading the spirit of Thanksgiving throughout our country and across the world.”
This year, let us put all of our divisions aside and return to the national heritage that made us what we are today – one nation under God.
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