As Thanksgiving approaches, it can be easy to forget its patriotic roots and, more importantly, its deeply religious meaning. We all know, of course, that the “First Thanksgiving” took place among the brave pilgrims who sailed to this New World on the Mayflower, seeking the freedom to practice their religion the way they believed was right. It was not until much later, however, that Thanksgiving began to gain traction as a legitimate holiday.
In 1789, our modern Constitution had just been ratified, we had recently unanimously elected our first president under that Constitution, and there was still much uncertainty surrounding this experiment of a free country. It was definitely a time of skepticism, and as those first American citizens prepared for a cold winter, President Washington issued a proclamation calling for a holiday in which we reflect on our blessings and, most importantly, thank God for those blessings. This day was to be called Thanksgiving.
In this first Thanksgiving Proclamation, he strongly emphasized God’s importance in this holiday; it begins with, “Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor…” Washington then got to the point, assigning November 26th of that year as a day to be devoted to “the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.” He finishes the proclamation by reminding us that it is the job of the government to, among other things, “grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows best.”
That proclamation, however, did not make Thanksgiving an official holiday; it was only a presidential recommendation for how that particular day should be spent. There were other Thanksgiving Proclamations following Washington’s but it did not become a federal holiday until 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, during a time when there was much speculation that the aforementioned American experiment had ultimately failed.
President Lincoln, in an attempt at some healing, tried to unify the divided states by issuing a proclamation in which he conceded that the Civil War had done much damage, but then laid out several things that we should be thankful for, saying that these things “are gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.” He continued, saying that we should observe the last Thursday of November “as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” He finishes his proclamation by saying that we should all ask for “the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and Union.”
Fast forward 138 years. We survived the Civil War and made it through two World Wars, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and avoided nuclear disaster in the Cold War. But we were now in the aftermath of one of the darkest days in American history—9/11. That November, in what had become an annual Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamation, President George W. Bush once again reaffirmed our nation’s trust in and thankfulness for God. The 2001 proclamation read, “During these extraordinary times, we find particular assurance from our Thanksgiving tradition, which reminds us that we, as a people and individually, always have reason to hope and trust in God, despite great adversity.” Bush also stated that after 9/11, “Americans of every belief and heritage give thanks to God for the many blessings we enjoy as a free, faithful, and fair-minded land.” He concluded his proclamation by asking God to “watch over our homeland, protect us, and grant us patience, resolve, and wisdom in all that is to come.”
Throughout our history, we have turned to God in times of uncertainty, when our country’s destiny was unclear during its early years; divisiveness, when our country was literally being torn apart by the Civil War; and terror, when nearly 3,000 innocent people were slaughtered in the attacks on September 11. Our first president, in addition to most presidents since Lincoln, have called on us to set aside a specific day—now the fourth Thursday in November—to look past these types of horrible occurrences and focus on the good, both in our personal lives and in the events happening across the nation, and, above all else, to thank God for the good.
Today, there is much uncertainty, even fear in some cases, regarding the current direction of our country; there is divisiveness—black vs. white, Republican vs. Democrat, and so on—that we still need to overcome; there is still a very real threat of terror as the occurrences of 9/11 still strike fear into many Americans’ hearts. With all these factors, the Thanksgiving message still holds relevance, and we must not forget to trust God and remember that He is always good. This Thanksgiving, look past anything that worries you, focus on the good, and thank God for that good.