The Story of Thanksgiving and Why it Matters, Part 3

Posted by Worldview Warriors On Tuesday, November 17, 2015 0 comments

by Bill Seng

“Cry out, ‘Save us, God our Savior; gather us and deliver us from the nations, that we may give thanks to your holy name, and glory in your praise.’” ~1 Chronicles 16:35

Thus far (in Part 1 and Part 2) we have learned that the Pilgrims are recorded as having celebrated the first two Thanksgivings observed on American soil. But that is not the end of the Thanksgiving story. At the end of this month, as you are aware, we will be celebrating Thanksgiving as a country. The Pilgrims gave thanks to God Almighty for the abundance that he provided for them and for preserving their community through difficult times. At that time there were no United States and thus no nationally established holiday of Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving was established as a national holiday to be celebrated annually under Abraham Lincoln after the landmark victory at Gettysburg during the Civil War. It would then follow that the fourth Thursday of November would remain the nationally recognized Thanksgiving to this very day. The establishment of this holiday took place on November 26, 1863. For more on this, check out this blog post. The Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving in 1621. Why did it take so long for America to establish an annually recognized day of Thanksgiving?

Days of Thanksgiving and Prayer have always been a part of this nation’s heritage. In 1777, the British General surrendered at Saratoga, New York.  The Colonial Legislature then declared December 18th of that year to be a national day of Thanksgiving and Prayer. It was widely acknowledged by the founders that the establishment of this great country was only made possible through God’s grace. For all of the George Washington fans reading this post, you’ll be pleased to note, as I am sure you already know, that he is responsible for announcing a national day of Thanksgiving to be celebrated Thursday, November 26, 1789. Once again, it was in celebration of God’s hand in guiding the establishment of the United States. Anyone familiar with American history will recall the great struggles the founders went through in framing the Constitution of the United States of America and drawing out the roles of federal, state, and local government in the lives of U. S. citizens. If you have never studied this subject I highly encourage you do so, as it is one of the most miraculous achievements in this country’s history. Nonetheless, these examples were never intended to be lasting.

However, there have been people who have opposed a nationally recognized day of Thanksgiving. In fairness, their opposition has been rooted in the religious neutrality of our nation. Namely, if the federal government were to announce a national Day of Thanksgiving and Prayer, could they not also oppress those who did not worship in a manner acceptable to the government? The first amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” One might argue that this amendment makes it very difficult for the federal government to justify any sort of national religious holiday.

One such president would be Thomas Jefferson, who thought that it was not appropriate for a country founded under the principle that the state should not meddle in the dealings of people’s personal religious convictions to be establishing religious holidays. Other presidents before the Civil War did declare national observances of Thanksgiving and Prayer, but it was not until President Lincoln that it became an annual event.

Two more significant events affected Thanksgiving following the Civil War, and then I will conclude.  Franklin Roosevelt attempted to move Thanksgiving to the third Thursday of the month. This would allow Christmas shoppers and merchants a few extra days to stimulate the economy between the two holidays. It seems that he forgot that this holiday was never established to stimulate the economy but to recognize God’s hand in guiding our nation and giving thanks back to him. Fortunately, Congress convinced him to move it back to the fourth Thursday.

On a more sober note, on September 11, 2001, a terrorist attack rocked the United States in a manner that could only be equaled by the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. President George W. Bush declared September 14 a national day of prayer. This was certainly different from the national Days of Thanksgiving and Prayer declared in previous centuries, but it was a reminder that if our country wants to thrive and be blessed, it must first honor God.

Our country’s religious heritage is rich and inspirational. Noble men of past generations have reminded us that everything we have has been given to us by God. The only appropriate response to God’s graciousness is to put everything aside and take some time to thank him for his goodness. As the Psalmist says, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His Love endures forever” (Psalm 136:1).


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