Many practices and rituals which have become nearly routine, or profane, in the United States have very solid and deep roots in Christianity. Christmas, Easter and while not on the Christian Calendar, Thanksgiving have all been Christian observances that look back to the work of God in the world. However, we have seen over the last several decades a “secular” version of these holidays become widespread among people living in the United States to the point that there is almost a denial of any Christian roots in them at all.
I am not suggesting that only Christians can celebrate these and other Christian holidays meaningfully, but I do contend that in an effort to be “politically correct” or inoffensive to non-Christians that we should not deny their origin or emphasis, that is: the wonderful grace and mercy of the Christian God. If anything, these holidays, when properly observed by Christians, can be an opportunity to talk about the positive work of God through history and what He can do for men and women today.
I am old enough that I learned in elementary school the events leading up to the first Thanksgiving in what would become the United States. “In August 1607, English colonists joined Abnaki people along Maine’s Kennebec River for a harvest feast and prayer meeting. In the spring of 1610, in what some consider the ‘first American Thanksgiving,’ colonists in Jamestown, Virginia, held a thanksgiving prayer service after English supply ships arrived with much-needed food. Eleven years later, Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony celebrated the autumn harvest with a three-day feast. Governor William Bradford and the colonists joined the Wampanoag leader they knew as Massasoit and 90 other Wampanoag to feast on wild turkeys, duck, geese, venison, lobsters, clams, bass, corn, green vegetables, and dried fruits. The celebration included athletic contests and military exercises. This 1621 harvest celebration is given the distinction of shaping many of the United States’ Thanksgiving traditions and fueling many of the popular stories surrounding Thanksgiving’s history.”1 Edward Winslow wrote about this time of Thanksgiving to a friend in England:
And God be praised, we had a good increase…. Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling that so we might after a special manner rejoice together….These things I thought good to let you understand… that you might on our behalf give God thanks who hath dealt so favourably with us. (emphasis mine)
While there were other periods of “Thanksgiving” in pre-United States history, it began to be recognized in our new nation when George Washington wrote this proclamation 3 October 1789, again emphasizing that it is “Almighty God” who is to be thanked (italicised by me):
By the President of the United States of America, a Proclamation.
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 signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.
Now therefore 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– 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 previous to their becoming a Nation–for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war–for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed–for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted–for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.
and also that 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, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed–to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord–To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us–and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.
Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.
Fast forward almost a hundred years and Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of the Civil War, since we are “prone to forget the source from which” our bounties come, made another proclamation to set apart a day of praise and thanksgiving to God on 3 October 1863 (italicised by me):
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 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; 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 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, 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 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.4
Subsequent Presidents have issued similar proclamations with more or less credit to God for our blessings. Regardless of any acknowledgement or lack of acknowledgement that modern Presidents or people ascribe to God, it can not be denied that the root of Thanksgiving day is found in the provision and blessing of God, who took care of those who followed him as well as those who also benefited from the abundant blessing that God provided. Similarly, Christians today can continue to offer thanks to God, as the source of our help and blessing, both today and throughout history.