By Weylan Deaver
Celebrations of Thanksgiving in America trace back to an October 1621 banquet of the Pilgrims in Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts, along with about ninety Wampanoag Indians. After God had so richly blessed the colonists’ efforts, Governor William Bradford declared a day of public thanksgiving that stretched out over three days.
Governor Bradford proclaimed a second public thanksgiving c. July 30, 1623. After a twelve week summer drought that threatened disaster, the colonists held a day of fasting and prayer, after which, the very next day, a rain came that lasted two weeks. The life giving rain revived both crops and spirits and the colonists were more than happy to give God the credit.
During the Revolution, after the victory at Saratoga, the Continental Congress issued the First National Proclamation of Thanksgiving on November 1, 1777. It read, in part,
…That it may please Him, to prosper the trade and manufactures of the people, and the labour of the husbandman, that our land may yet yield its increase; to take school 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 righteous, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost’ (William J. Federer, America’s God and Country, p. 147).
After the discovery and thwarting of Benedict Arnold’s plot to deliver General Washington’s army to the British, the Continental Congress issued a Proclamation for a Day of Public Thanksgiving and Prayer on October 18, 1780.
…It is therefore recommended to the several states…a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, that all the people may assemble on that day to celebrate the praises of our Divine Benefactor; to confess our unworthiness of the least of his favours, and to offer our fervent supplications to the God of all grace…to cause the knowledge of Christianity to spread over all the earth (Ibid., p. 148).
To celebrate victory and the end of the Revolution, Massachusetts Governor John Hancock issued A Proclamation for a Day of Thanksgiving on November 8, 1783.
…I do by and with the Advice of the Council appoint Thursday the Eleventh Day of December next (the Day recommended by the Congress to all the States) to be religiously observed as a Day of Thanksgiving and Prayer, that all the People may then assemble to celebrate…that he hath been pleased to continue to us the Light of the Blessed Gospel; …That we also offer up fervent Supplications…to cause pure Religion and Virtue to flourish…and to fill the World with his glory (Ibid., p. 277).
On October 3, 1789 President George Washington proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving.
…And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions…to promote the knowledge and practice of the true religion and virtue… (Ibid., p. 165).
Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving for the last Thursday of November 1863.
No human counsel hath devised, nor hath 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, hath nevertheless remembered mercy…It has seemed to me fit and proper that God should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people (Ibid., p. 385).
Though Thanksgivings continued, it was not until 1941 that Congress ratified Public Law 77-379, whereby the President officially proclaims the fourth Thursday of November A National Day of Thanksgiving.
Reading over such pious declarations of American history, one cannot help but be impressed with the humility, sincerity, and religious devotion that characterized our presidents, governors, and legislators. To their credit, they were not embarrassed to discuss, in front of the world, their indebtedness to God, their acknowledgement of national sin, the need for virtue, their desire that God take America’s schools under “His nurturing hand,” their wish that Christianity spread the world over, and their praise and thanks for all the Lord had done for America.
We concur with President Lincoln that “…God should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people.” Anything less is too little.
As you gather with family to dine on a Thanksgiving feast, remember to “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to the which also ye were called in one body; and be ye thankful” (Colossians 3:15).