In the early autumn of 1621 at the settlement at Plymouth, fifty-three surviving pilgrims celebrated a harvest festival in which they gave thanks to God. To them, this was a religious day of thanksgiving. The survivors, along with native Indians, celebrated what may be known as the first Thanksgiving. However, by 1623, a harvest festival and a religious day of thanksgiving had developed into a yearly event, which they called Thanksgiving. Individual governors of the different regions, later to be known as states, proclaimed a day of thanksgiving to be celebrated annually on a Thursday in November. The custom soon began to spread.
American’s first president, George Washington, proclaimed the first national day of Thanksgiving. Before becoming president, he presided over the Constitutional Convention and the signing of American’s new constitution, a document that still directs our nation today. During those difficult times in the development of our nation, our founding fathers asked for help from the Higher Power and prayed for our nation’s success.
President Washington, in his Thanksgiving address, made positive references to the idea of showing gratitude to God and he proclaimed: “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… a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God.”
On September 28, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln received a letter from Sarah Hale urging him to proclaim a national holiday called Thanksgiving. Mrs. Hale, the seventy-four year old editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, a publication of that day, had been advocating for Thanksgiving to be declared a national holiday for over fifteen years. President Lincoln made an almost immediate response to Mrs. Hale’s letter, because on October 3, 1863, at the urging of President Lincoln, a proclamation for a nationwide and permanent Thanksgiving Day was written by William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State. The document set apart the fourth Thursday in November as the national holiday, a day for thanksgiving and praise, and a day to serve as a unifying event in a post-Civil War America.
Today, Thanksgiving still remains a day when all Americans have the opportunity to show their thankfulness for our freedoms and for the wonderful ways in which God has blessed our nation, as well as our individual lives. We live in a very challenging time, and it is so important for people to take this opportunity to express their gratitude to God for His blessings and loving favor shown to Americans.
The Thanksgiving holiday is one of our nation’s oldest and most cherished traditions in which we show our gratefulness by taking time to pause and reflect upon the One who has guided us and guarded us throughout the history of our nation. Oftentimes, in our desire to be politically correct, we fail to make reference to the Supreme Being who allowed us to have what we enjoy today.
President Obama has been criticized for his failure to include references to God in his speeches, especially his Thanksgiving speeches. While this criticism may be justified—and I, for one, wish he would do more to reference God—we need as citizens of the United States to pray for him and for those in leadership positions of our country.
As we celebrate Thanksgiving this year, don’t forget to give thanks for the accomplishments of so many individuals of the past, for the work of those of today, and for the hope we have of tomorrow.