As we approach Thanksgiving, most of us will be consumed with family, turkey, and football. If we were asked what it was we are celebrating, I’m sure most of the answers would reach for the grab bag of images of Pilgrims and Indians, and have some vague remembrance of a common feast, but the details would be kind of scant and sketchy. Not sure where the turkeys come in; the big hats, black robes and muskets have more to do with the Puritans than they do the Pilgrims; some might mention the Indian Squanto; others might know of a terrible drought that was ended by a time of fasting, followed by a 14-day rain; and perhaps a few might even reference the aftermath of some horrible massacre. All of those things wind their way into our remembrance and traditions surrounding Thanksgiving, but do any of us really know when it actually came to be celebrated as a national holiday in America… and more importantly, why? Thus the question “Thanksgiving – tradition or reality”
This image comes from one of the many unique illustrations found in the Founders’ Bible. This image is found on page 1699 in the article entitled, “The Macedonian Call – Massachusetts Style.”
The answer will likely surprise you, it may even challenge you, but what I’m hoping more than anything else is that it will cause you to take a moment, amidst all of the festivities, and draw you to your knees in thanks for the many blessings we do have, as well as invite you to pray for what this nation really needs. Above all else, Thanksgiving was meant to be a time to honor God, to express our gratitude but also to acknowledge our need for Him. The conditions in our nation that gave rise to Thanksgiving being instituted as a national holiday are prophetically striking when compared to the current state of our union, or more accurately the true lack there of. If ever we needed some wisdom and insight for the present day, much can be found in the paths this nation has already walked. It is said that those who fail to learn the lessons of history are destined to repeat them; I pray that this Thanksgiving, this is not one we have to repeat.
James Madison, the 4th President of the United States (1809-1817), wrote in his 1815 Thanksgiving Day proclamation: “No people ought to feel greater obligations to celebrate the goodness of the Great Disposer of Events of the destiny of Nations than the people of the United States. . . . And to the same Divine Author of Every Good and Perfect Gift we are indebted for all those privileges and advantages, religious, as well as civil, which are so richly enjoyed in this favored land.”
But, It was George Washington who issued the first presidential proclamation, on October 3, 1789, recommending all Americans to set aside November 26 as a “Day of National Thanksgiving.” Such practice came upon a recommendation from the first federal Congress who had just finished framing the Bill of Rights—the Capstone on the Constitution.
Taken from the official records of Congress, it reports that Founding Father Elias Boudinot (a framer of the Bill of Rights, president of Congress during the American Revolution, and the 1st president of the American Bible Society) said “he could not think of letting the session pass without offering an opportunity to all the citizens of the United States of joining with one voice in returning to the Almighty God their sincere thanks for the many blessings He had poured down upon them.”
Washington happily concurred with the recommendation, issuing America’s first federal proclamation for a Day of Prayer and Thanksgiving. That proclamation declared: “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 . . . Now, therefore, do I recommend . . . that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country. . . . And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplication 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 true religion and virtue.”
And while that is probably the birth point for when Thanksgiving became a “national” day of remembrance, as a Day of Prayer and Thanksgiving, the whole notion of setting aside a day for giving thanks, for prayer and fasting, and humiliation (humbling ourselves) was nothing new. In fact, official government proclamations to that effect throughout the colonies, and the various states that followed, were common. Acknowledging God and His hand in the affairs of this country was deeply engrained into the fabric of our founding and the generations that followed. Washington and his successors down through James Madison made similar proclamations; but what is interesting to note is that from 1815 to 1860, there were no national thanksgiving proclamations whatsoever—even though Washington clearly acknowledged that is was the duty of nations to do so. That’s a bit disturbing, especially when you consider what that period of time led up to: the Civil War, the bloodiest and most devastating war to have ever been fought on our soil, brother against brother, as our nation was so bitterly divided that it was nearly torn asunder. Hmmm? That possible correlation is certainly a cause for pause. I’ll leave that for you to consider and draw your own conclusions. As for me and my house, giving thanks to God, acknowledging His many blessing, repenting for our sins, asking for mercy and grace to change just seem like irrefutable wisdom if we really mean anything when we say “God Bless America.”
Not until October 3, 1863, on the very same day that Washington had done some 74 years earlier, did the annual tradition of Thanksgiving actually begin, when Abraham Lincoln renewed the declaration.
What is perhaps more fascinating is that arguably the individual most responsible for making “Thanksgiving” an officially recognized national holiday (holy day) in the United States was not Abraham Lincoln, but someone probably unknown to most all of us, Sarah Josepha Hale—an American schoolteacher, turned novelist, who then became an influential magazine editor. While few of us would know her by name, most all of us would be familiar with the famous nursery rhyme she penned, “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
Her effort to make Thanksgiving into an official recognized national holiday took some 17 years, with her appeals being written to five different Presidents of the United States (Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and Abraham Lincoln). Prior to 1863, with its origins found in the harvest festival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Plantation in 1621 (or 1623 as some scholars might argue), Thanksgiving was primarily celebrated up in New England and the surrounding individual colonies and states, where each scheduled its own holiday—some as early as October, others as last as January, but it was largely unknown in the American South. Hale’s initial letters failed, but after a series of editorials, the letter she wrote to Lincoln finally convinced him to support legislation establishing a national holiday of Thanksgiving in 1863—the new national holiday was seen as something that could help unify a bitterly divided nation, which was still reeling from the horrors of a yet unfinished Civil War. It was a move they hoped would help “heal the wounds of the nation.”
Lincoln’s proclamation, actually written by the then Secretary of State, William H. Seward, read as follows:
“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, 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 insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, 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; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. 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 had 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; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom.
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 they should solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, 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 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, tranquility and Union.
In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.” — Proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln, October 3, 1863.
Up until the addition of Thanksgiving (to be celebrated each year the final Thursday of November), the only two national holidays celebrated in the United States were Washington’s Birthday and Independence Day. Since 1863, Thanksgiving has been observed annually throughout the nation in the UNITED States (… One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all).
This Thanksgiving, take a moment and consider why it is we actually celebrate this day and all that it entails. Indeed, God has richly and abundantly blessed this land and its people, perhaps like few others nation in all of history. Not because we have deserved it, but rather in His mercy, He has been working out a destiny that He has purposed for this nation. We would do well to honor that, to beseech Him afresh for renewed grace, favor, and needed wisdom for the days ahead. And while this may be a challenging thought to some, thankfully, He has even disciplined us, when it was needed—but I think all of that has been overwhelmingly covered in far greater Mercy! That would be the testimony and perspective of our Forefathers, Founders and past national leaders, who warned us beforehand, entreated us in our errors, and suffered along with us in the midst of calamity, which they understood as genuine judgments of God upon a nation in need of correction and disciplinary action.
Four years into the war, when Abraham Lincoln delivered his Second Inaugural Address, he specifically lingered on the principle of national accountability. He noted the irony that both proslavery and antislavery forces prayed to the same God to help their cause, but Lincoln believed that God was beyond responding to any of those prayers—that judgment had been pronounced on the nation and justice would be achieved. As he explained:
“Both read from the same Bible and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any man should dare ask a just God’s assistance in wringing the bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not that we be not judged [Matthew 7:1]. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. ‘Woe unto the world because of offenses! for it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh!’ [Matthew 18:7]. If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those Divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword; and until as was said three thousand years ago, so still must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether’ [Psalm 19:9].”
Notice that even after four years of war, Lincoln still did not believe it would end until “every drop of blood drawn from the lash” from the back of slaves had been matched by the same amount of blood shed “with the sword” in battle—the nation would pay for what it had done to the slaves; and it did: 600,000+ lives were lost, and countryside, towns and homes were ravaged. Lincoln personally witnessed the fulfillment of what so many Founding Fathers had warned: God would not bless a policy permitting slavery, and it would eventually result in national judgment being rendered.
Very sobering words and perhaps an even greater sobering reality if one considers how the principle of national accountability were to be applied to any number of our national policies today that the Bible makes clear are of direct concern to God, such as, abortion—the shedding of innocent blood by taking the lives of the unborn, or the attempt to redefine the natural order of marriage between a man and a woman, not to mention the treachery and injustice perpetrated against the Native Americans. If God addressed issues of national policy in the past, why do we suppose we would be exempt from His addressing them today?
As one would survey the condition of our nation today—it would seem as if we are seeing the resurgence of issues and events from the past, perhaps because we have not yet fully dealt with what is at the root of the weeds that keep resurfacing. You can attack the head and remove the current visible problem, but if we do not discern the root, and find healing there, sadly it seems that the same cycles and problems re-emerge, and sometimes in an even more aggressive and virulent form. The “Enemy” is my enemy, but the enemy is not my brother. The rift between us is something the Enemy of us all would seek to exploit to the destruction of us all. There is no “us” and “them” in “We the people.” A house divided against itself will not stand. The present bitter divide is something that only the grace of God is going to be able to heal.
The recommendation in both Washington’s and Lincoln’s Proclamation was that amidst our giving thanks for all the blessings God has bestowed, that we also take the time in prayer and supplication to ask God to pardon our transgressions, national and otherwise. There is no finger pointing at “them” in the Lord’s prayer. It is a “forgive us” first as we forgive those who have sinned against us. They are connected. You can’t ask God to forgive you, if you are unwilling to let go of your brother’s throat. It starts with me, us. Giving thanks needs to be mixed with our own confession and asking for forgiveness. The promise of God and context of 2 Chronicles 7:14 is that “If I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or if I command the locust to devour the land, or if I send pestilence among My people, and My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray, and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.”
It strikes me that there is a Divine parallel that could be drawn in regard to the soul of our nation today, and the one that was so desperately in need of healing then, when Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamation was given. At a time when they feared the division was so deep that the nation might be irreparably torn asunder, the response was a national call for a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise, whose foundation was one of prayer and fasting, and humbling ourselves before the Almighty Hand of God.
There is much to be thankful for, and it is only fitting and proper that we acknowledge from Whom those blessings flow, but we are also in a time of desperate need, and we need to humble ourselves and pray, seek God’s face and turn from our wicked ways. THEN He will hear from heaven, forgive our sin, and heal this land. Perhaps it is in that place, where “We the People” in order to form a more perfect union can indeed become the UNITED States, and make America great again – for everyone. So, let us join with ONE VOICE, as ONE NATION, desperately in need of being sheltered under His wings (UNDER GOD), desperately in need of healing so that we might stand together (INDIVISIBLE), whose hearts need be fused afresh WITH LIBERTY, and utterly committed to JUSTICE for ALL. Amen!
[Portions of this post were taken from several articles within The Founders’ Bible most notably: 2 Chronicles 5-7 – “The Heart of a Grateful Nation” pp.655-656 and Obadiah 1:15 – “Judgment of Nations: A Sobering Reality” pp.1340-1350. © The Founders’ Bible, reprinted by permission of Shiloh Road Publishers, LLC ]
I can think of no finer resource to suggest to you than The Founders’ Bible. If you have already purchased one, may I strongly encourage you to dig in and discover the riches of wisdom and insight that is there to be enjoyed. If you don’t yet have a copy, GET ONE! We can ill afford to remain ignorant of the lessons of history.