On Thursday, September 24, 1789, the First House of Representatives voted to recommend—in its exact wording—the First Amendment to the states for ratification. The next day, Friday, September 25, 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.” ((Annals of the Congress, 1:950.)) The colonists of another era were aware of the many instances of thanksgiving celebrations found in “holy writ.” Thanksgiving, as it was practiced by the colonists, was a religious celebration that shared the sentiments of their biblical forerunners, giving thanks to God for His faithful provision. For these devoutly religious people, thanksgiving would have come naturally. “Twice en route the passengers [aboard the Arbella] participated in a fast, and once (two days after sounding ground beneath the Arbella) a ‘thanksgiving.’ When the sailing season ended with all ships accounted for, ‘we had a day of thanksgiving in all the plantations.’”2
There are numerous claims to the first Thanksgiving. One of the earliest recorded celebrations occurred a half century before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth in 1621. “A small colony of French Huguenots established a settlement near present-day Jacksonville, Florida. On June 30, 1564, their leader, René de Laudonnière, 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. 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 formerly commemorated yearly. An annual commemoration of thanks 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
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. “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. His proclamation stated that:
“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…. 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.”
Starting with Lincoln, United States Presidents proclaimed the last Thursday in November for Thanksgiving. Franklin D. Roosevelt changed the celebration to the third Thursday in November “to give more shopping time between Thanksgiving and Christmas. At this point Congress enacted the ‘fourth Thursday’ compromise.”6 Ever since this pragmatic and commercial approach to Thanksgiving was promoted, its original meaning has steadily been lost.
This article is an appendix from Gary DeMar’s bestselling book, America’s Christian History: The Untold Story.
- 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. [↩]
- David D. Hall, Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989), 166. [↩]
- Diana Karter Appelbaum, Thanksgiving: An American Holiday, An American History (New York: Facts on File Publications, 1984), 14–15. [↩]
- Jim Dwyer, ed., Strange Stories, Amazing Facts of America’s Past (Pleasantville, NY: The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., 1989), 198. [↩]
- Appelbaum, Thanksgiving, 186. The celebration of Christmas, in addition to Thanksgiving, has become an ordeal in censorship. Silent Night and other sacred songs have been stripped from public school Christmas pageants and replaced with Jingle Bells and Frosty the Snowman. Public school officials and school teachers are made to substitute “winter holiday” for Christmas. In St. Paul Minnesota, an affirmative action officer for the state tax department, banned what she called the “unwelcome greeting of Merry Christmas” via the department’s electronic mail. (“‘Merry Christmas’ offense, bureaucrat rules,” Atlanta Journal/Constitution (December 11, 1994), A11). [↩]
- Edmund H. Harvey, Jr., ed.,Readers Digest Book of Facts (Pleasantville, NY: The Reader’s Digest Association,  1987), 125. [↩]