The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

Thanksgiving: A Religious Holiday All the Way

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On Thursday, September 24, 1789, the First House of Representatives voted to recommend—in its exact wording—the First Amendment of the newly drafted Constitution to the states for ratification. The next day, Congressman Elias Boudinot from New Jersey proposed that the House and Senate jointly request of President Washington to proclaim a day of thanksgiving for “the many signal favors of Almighty God.” Boudinot said that he “could not think of letting the session pass over without offering an opportunity to all the citizens of the United States of joining, with one voice, in returning to Almighty God their sincere thanks for the many blessings he had poured down upon them.”[1]

Roger Sherman spoke in favor of the proposal by reminding his colleagues that the practice of thanksgiving is “warranted by a number of precedents in holy writ: for instance, the solemn thanksgivings and rejoicings which took place in the time of Solomon, after the building of the temple. . . . This example, he thought, worthy of Christian imitation on the present occasion.”[2]

There are numerous claims to the first official Thanksgiving celebrated in the New World. One of the earliest recorded festivals occurred a half century before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. “A small colony of French Huguenots established a settlement near present-day Jacksonville, Florida. On June 30, 1564, their leader, René de LaudonniPre, recorded that ‘We sang a psalm of Thanksgiving unto God, beseeching Him that it would please Him to continue His accustomed goodness towards us.’”[3]

In 1610, after a hard winter called “the starving time,” the colonists at Jamestown called for a time of thanksgiving. This was after the original company of 409 colonists had been reduced to 60 survivors. Extreme hardship did not deter the survivors from turning to God in thanksgiving. The colonists prayed for help that finally arrived by a ship filled with food and supplies from England. They held a prayer service to give thanks.

This thanksgiving celebration was not commemorated formally on a yearly basis. An annual commemoration of thanksgiving came nine years later in another part of Virginia. “On December 4, 1619, 38 colonists landed at a place they called Berkeley Hundred [in Virginia]. ‘We ordain,’ read an instruction in their charter, ‘that the day of our ship’s arrival . . . in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.’”[4]

Records show that the first official Thanksgiving Day was celebrated on June 29, 1676 in Charlestown, Massachusetts, across the Charles River from Boston. Gov. Jonathan Belcher had issued similar proclamations in Massachusetts in 1730 and in New Jersey in 1749. George Washington proclaimed a day of thanksgiving on October 23, 1789, to be celebrated on Thursday, November 27.

While none of these Thanksgiving celebrations was an official national pronouncement (no nation existed at the time), they do support the claim that the celebrations were religious and specifically Christian in their origin and purpose. “Thanksgiving began as a holy day, created by a community of God-fearing Puritans sincere in their desire to set aside one day each year especially to thank the Lord for His many blessings. The day they chose, coming after the harvest at a time of year when farm work was light, fit the natural rhythm of rural life.”[5]



On October 3, 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared that the last Thursday of November 1863 would be set aside as a nationwide celebration of thanksgiving:

We have been the recipients of the choisest bounties of heaven; we have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity; we have grown in numbers, wealth and power as no other nation has ever grown.

But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us. o 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. . . . I do, therefore, invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday in November next as a day of Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent father who dwelleth in heaven.

Beginning with Lincoln, Presidents proclaimed that the last Thursday in November would be set aside for a national day of Thanksgiving. Franklin D. Roosevelt changed the celebration to the third Thursday in November “to give more shopping time between Thanksgiving and Christmas.”[6]

This pragmatic and commercial approach to Thanksgiving has been adopted by our secular culture. Are we surprised that government schools want God out? If they keep Him in, they would be obligated.

Endnotes:

[1] The Annals of the Congress, The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States, Compiled From Authentic Materials by Joseph Gales, Senior (Washington, DC: Gales and Seaton, 1834), 1:949-50.
[2] Annals of the Congress, 950.
[3] Diana Karter Appelbaum, Thanksgiving: An American Holiday, An American History (New York: Facts on File Publications, 1984), 14-15.
[4] Jim Dwyer, ed., Strange Stories, Amazing Facts of America’s Past (Pleasantville, NY: The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., 1989), 198.
[5] Appelbaum, Thanksgiving, 186.
[6] Edmund H. Harvey, Jr., ed., Readers Digest Book of Facts (Pleasantville, NY: The Reader’s Digest Association, [1985] 1987), 125.

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