Thanksgiving is here once again, and with only four weeks until Christmas, the mad rush to stuff stockings and fill the void under the Christmas tree will officially begin not on “Black Friday,” but on Thanksgiving Day this year. Wal-Mart will offer some of its best deals on Thanksgiving. Americans will surely be out in force to buy them. This, along with two football games, movie theater visits, and other shopping excursions will certainly be a large part of the Thanksgiving “festivities.” It seems the holiday season is no longer a time of rest and reflection, a period of thanks and prayer for the blessings and bounties Americans enjoy. This was not always the case, and as with other “secular” holidays such as “Spring Vacation” or “Winter Break,” Thanksgiving has been perverted by commercialization and the politically correct agenda. Revisiting the American spirit of the day may help correct this problem.
Contrary to what most Americans are taught in school, the first American Thanksgiving was held on 4 December 1619 at the Berkeley Hundred, Virginia. After two treacherous months at sea, the thirty-eight English colonists who arrived in Virginia that day thanked God for their safe passage, and when Captain John Woodlief opened his instructions, the London Company, proprietors of the Virginia colony, ordered that the day of arrival be “yearly and perpetually kept as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.” Just two years later, the Pilgrims celebrated a day of thanksgiving and prayer in honor of a bountiful fall harvest. Governor William Bradford officially marked the day in 1623 with a proclamation of thanksgiving. Giving thanks to God for the plenty that Americans enjoyed became a tradition, both North and South, in the seventeenth century.
One hundred years later, during the darkest days of the American War for Independence, the Continental Congress called on the States to observe annual days of thanksgiving, and often the States issued their own proclamations. The 1777 Congressional proclamation called on “Almighty God” to protect “these United States” and “smile upon us in the prosecution of a just and necessary war, for the defense and establishment of our unalienable rights and liberties….” Jesse Root of Connecticut, author of the 1779 thanksgiving proclamation, prayed that God “establish the independence of these United States upon the basis of religion and virtue, and support and protect them in the enjoyment of peace, liberty, and safety.” These yearly proclamations were both hopeful and reserved, and all asked God to continue to offer His grace and protection in a time of crisis. Most importantly, the Congress urged Americans to observe thanksgiving with religious piety. The 1777 proclamation concluded with the following: “And it is further recommended, that servile labor, and such recreation as, though at other times innocent, may be unbecoming the purpose of this appointment, be omitted on so solemn an occasion.”
George Washington issued the first Proclamation of Thanksgiving as President of the United States under the Constitution in 1789. The Proclamation began: “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; and whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me ‘to recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.’” Washington then designated 26 November 1789 as a day of Thanksgiving and asked God to protect the “people of these States” and to provide guidance for “good government” and continued peace and happiness.
Americans have been, from the earliest settlement in North America, predominantly Christian people. They have prayed for God to provide guidance, protection, and safety, and have routinely given Him thanks and praise for the blessings of liberty and bounty. Thanksgiving was intended as a day to recognize the role of God in American life and to ask for continued prosperity. There are dark days ahead in America, just as in 1777. Unemployment is on the rise and this will continue for the foreseeable future; government spending is out of control; Congress is poised to raise taxes; the dollar is in decline and will become worthless if the government does not shut down the printing presses; the federal debt is over 12 trillion dollars; and Americans are dying on the battlefield. If the founding generation were alive, they would certainly ask for the guiding hand of Divine Providence in such a crisis. Instead of worrying about Black Friday, shopping deals, and ballgames, Americans should follow their cue, pause on Thanksgiving, reflect on the founding principles of the United States, and pray for a return of frugal and limited government, liberty, bounty, and prosperity. The prayers will be needed in the coming months.