America has had an on-again, off-again relationship with Thanksgiving as a national holiday. While we trace the present celebration back to what we call the first Thanksgiving in 1621, that tracing is not altogether a straight line. The first national celebration of Thanksgiving was proclaimed by the Continental Congress in 1777 and was set for December 18th of that year. It was an overtly Christian proclamation that not only thanked God for His material provision and asked or His help in the struggle for independence, but recognized that our greatest need is forgiveness of sins:
It is therefore recommended to the legislative or executive powers of these United States, to set apart Thursday, the 18th day of December next, for solemn thanksgiving and praise; that with one heart and one voice the good people may express the grateful feelings of their hearts, and consecrate themselves to the service of their divine benefactor; and that together with their sincere acknowledgments and offerings, they may join the penitent confession of their manifold sins, whereby they had forfeited every favor, and their humble and earnest supplication that it may please God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of remembrance…
After the Revolutionary War, presidents would sometimes proclaim a national day of Thanksgiving but no fixed date was assigned and by 1815, the practice had stopped. It resumed in 1863, however, when, Abraham Lincoln declared not one but two Thanksgiving Day observances, one on August 6 after the Union victory at Gettysburg and the other on the last Thursday in November. But, again, this was not set as a recurring event, just a one time proclamation. Observance of the holiday, however, became customary on that last Thursday in November.
Thanksgiving as we know it today, an annual national holiday on the fourth Thursday in November, did not became official until 1941 when it was established by a joint resolution of Congress. The measure was signed by President Franklin Roosevelt on December 26, 1941, just a few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, to be effective in November 1942.
The connection of our modern celebration with the Pilgrims and their celebration in 1621 is often attributed to the recovery in 1855 of William Bradford’s diary, “Of Plymouth Plantation.” The manuscript had been lost during the Revolutionary War and was rediscovered in the Bishop of London’s Library at Fulham Palace, having been confiscated by the British during the war. In 1897 it was returned to the United States and in 1912, the Massachusetts Historical Society published an “authorized” version of the text. The availability of this primary source helped Americans connect the dots, so to speak, between the events of 1621 and the modern celebration of Thanksgiving.
Christians can trace the practice of setting aside time for thanksgiving back even farther.
Hundreds of years before the first proclamation on these shores, King David issued a proclamation calling on the people of Israel to give thanks to the LORD. This was accompanied by feasting and singing to God (I Chronicles 16:1-7). David’s outpouring of thanks was not precipitated by material prosperity or victory in war (though he’d had some of those at this point). His overflow of thanks was because the Ark of the Covenant had returned to Jerusalem and God could again be properly worshipped by His people. This led him to write a song of thanksgiving which says in part:
Oh give thanks to the Lord; call upon his name;
make known his deeds among the peoples!
Sing to him, sing praises to him;
tell of all his wondrous works!
Glory in his holy name;
let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice!
Seek the Lord and his strength;
seek his presence continually!
Remember the wondrous works that he has done,
his miracles and the judgments he uttered,
O offspring of Israel his servant,
children of Jacob, his chosen ones! – I Chronicles 16:8-13
As we gather this week with family and friends around the table, let us remember our history as a nation certainly and the many blessings God has bestowed upon us through that association. But let us also remember this is not our home and the thing for which we should be most thankful is that we serve a loving God who’s made a way for us to be reconciled to Him through Jesus Christ. A God who will one day return for us and with whom we will live in peace, abundance and holiness forevermore (Revelation 22:1-5).
For that we should be thankful every day, not just once a year.
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