We’re told time and again that America was founded as a secular society, and that our Founding Fathers were deists. Yet, the history of Thanksgiving Day shows precisely the opposite. Early Americans, and great presidents like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln all celebrated Thanksgiving in some form with the purpose of expressing gratitude to Almighty God. Let’s examine more of the Christian threads that weave through the history of Thanksgiving.
The First Thanksgiving
Most Americans are at least vaguely familiar with the story of Squanto, the Wampanoag Indians and the Pilgrims celebrating the first Thanksgiving in the fall of 1621. After a long journey on the Mayflower and arriving on the shores of Plymouth Bay, the colonists suffered a particularly harsh winter. These two events left only 53 of the 102 that had sailed across the Atlantic alive.
One Wampanoag Indian, Squanto, spoke fluent English and served as a translator between the two groups. After the Indian tribe helped the Pilgrims reap a bountiful harvest of food, enough to last through their second winter, they decided to celebrate with what became the first Thanksgiving.
The First Thanksgiving Proclamation
On October 3, 1789, newly-elected President George Washington declared a day of Thanksgiving in the first ever Thanksgiving Day Proclamation.
In his pronouncement, Washington entreated the new nation to give thanks to God for the blessings he had given to the new nation.
Washington proclaimed, “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.”
Therefore, Washington continued, “I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States 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 also asked the nation to request the Lord to forgive their sins.
“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 enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually—to render our national government a blessing to all the people,” Washington wrote.
Every Thanksgiving, I take several minutes to read Washington’s Proclamation to my family around our dinner table. It has become something of an annual tradition which serves to remind my family of our national religious heritage while also giving God our thanks.
Thanksgiving During Crisis
On October 3, 1863 President Abraham Lincoln also penned a Thanksgiving Day Proclamation during the midst of the Civil War.
What’s remarkable about this short, 520-word declaration is Lincoln’s focus on gratitude despite his country being torn apart from within. He thanks God for “fruitful fields” and “healthful skies” as well as for peace with other nations and harmony among those not involved with the war.
“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,” Lincoln wrote.
Lincoln then asked the nation to pray that as soon as God desired, he might bring back peace to the nation. “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, tranquility and union.”
Can you imagine a president saying things like this today?
As Edwin Feulner, founder of The Heritage Foundation, joked, “Somebody get the American Civil Liberties Union. How politically incorrect can a president get? Wasn’t Lincoln worried that he might offend some of his listeners? Hardly. He was following in the hallowed footsteps of George Washington.”
Our nation, rich with a Christian heritage, would do well to take this Thanksgiving Day to express gratitude towards God, and pray that he may heal the deep divisions in our nation.
I’d encourage you, take time to read either Washington or Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Day Proclamation after your feast today. It will help you give thanks to God for his many blessings, for Scripture tells us that, “every good and perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17 ESV).