(This post originally published November 23, 2017.)
Thanksgiving Day is every day. “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you,” 1 Thessalonians 5:18.
Marilyn and I recently had a couple of interesting experiences related to Thanksgiving Day.
She was at a local department store after Halloween and noticed that the Halloween merchandising had been replaced with Christmas displays. When she asked about Thanksgiving Day the clerk replied to the effect, We do not do Thanksgiving any more.
The second experience was at a neighbor’s home where we saw a festive flag celebrating “Family, Friends and Football.”
I grew up with Norman Rockwell’s “Thanksgiving,” the delightful painting of a healthy, happy American family enjoying a turkey dinner with all the fixings. Apparently even in these bountiful times in the United States, giving thanks to God has been ignored or, at best, reduced to family and friends gathering around the TV to watch football.
Often we forget to thank God when things are good, while our forefathers gave thanks to God even in desperate times. Thanksgiving Day was launched in the midst of real hardship.
On September 6, 1620, 102 Pilgrims left Plymouth, England to begin a new life in the new world. After two months at sea, the Mayflower approached what is today Massachusetts. The Pilgrims stepped on shore December 11, 1620, to a beautiful, but undeveloped land. No hotel waited to shelter them, no restaurant to feed them.
Winter was beginning. It was too late to plant or build permanent shelter. They were ill prepared to withstand the cold and misery, and half the colonists died of scurvy and malnutrition. Only three families were untouched by death. Had it not been for the Wampanoag Indians teaching them how to hunt and fish, even more of the Pilgrims would have died.
The first Thanksgiving Day in America
Those still alive the next spring set about building shelter and planting crops. With prayer, hard work and the help of their Indian neighbors, the surviving Pilgrims reaped a fairly good harvest in the fall. With their Indian neighbors, they celebrated their traditional three-day harvest festival. This feast became the first American Thanksgiving.
William Bradford, governor of the colony, describes the circumstances of this first Thanksgiving Day.
They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck of meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.
So, in the midst of their suffering and the deaths of half the colony, the survivors paused to give thanks to God for His provision. They knew to “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
President Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day
The same dynamic of suffering framed President Lincoln’s declaration of a national Thanksgiving Day on October 3, 1863. This proclamation was made in the middle of the bloody civil war that took the lives of an estimated 750,000 Americans.
Lincoln decided to make the proclamation after the horrific Battle of Gettysburg, which resulted in 50,000 casualties from both sides of the conflict. Four months later, Lincoln traveled to the scene of the battle to deliver what would become his most famous speech, the Gettysburg Address. As he walked among the graves on the field of battle, his life was changed forever.
When I left Springfield [to become President] I asked the people to pray for me. I was not a Christian. When I buried my son, the severest trial of my life, I was not a Christian. But when I went to Gettysburg and saw the graves of thousands of our soldiers, I then and there consecrated myself to Christ.
At this moment of appalling strife in the United States, this turning point in his own life, President Lincoln issued a proclamation calling for a national Thanksgiving Day, excerpted and arranged below.
October 3, 1863
By the President of the United States of America.
The year that is drawing towards 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 … the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity … peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict … .
Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the 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 battle-field. …
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 [these gifts] should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States … 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. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union …
By the President: Abraham Lincoln
In the midst of a horrible war, there was still reason to give thanks to God for His provision. Lincoln acknowledged the reality of sin, the need for repentance, and the need to pray for anguished widows and orphans, as well as for the healing of the nation and the restoration of peace and union.
The Pilgrims and Lincoln remind us to give thanks in all circumstances. We can do nothing less!
- Darrow Miller