Thanksgiving, to me, is one of the most important and meaningful holidays on our calendar.
There’s a rich tradition for this holiday that dates back, not just through American history, but thousands of years through the history of the Hebrew people.
It’s true. That’s where the Pilgrims got the idea for the feast – from the Bible.
I count 28 references to the word thanksgiving in the King James Bible – all but six in the Old Testament. For the ancient children of Israel, thanksgiving was a time of feasting and fasting, of praising God, of singing songs. It was a rich celebration – and still is for observant Jews today.
William Bradford, the leader of the Pilgrims, studied the Hebrew scriptures. The Pilgrims took them very seriously. The idea of giving thanks to God with a feast was inspired by that knowledge of the Bible. In a very real way, the Pilgrims saw themselves, too, as chosen people of God being led to a Promised Land.
At the table, they acknowledged “God’s good providence” and “blessed the God of Heaven who brought us over the furious ocean.” For “what could sustain us but the Spirit of God and His grace?” asked Bradford. He then quoted Moses, “Our fathers cried unto Him and He heard their voice and looked on their adversity” (Deuteronomy 26:7).
In addition to proclaiming a day of thanksgiving, like the ancient Hebrews did before them, Bradford and his flock also praised God’s loving kindness, the famous refrain of Psalms 106 and 107 and Jewish liturgy (“Give thanks to the Lord for He is good, for His kindness endures forever”).
The “thanksgiving” idea took different forms in colonial America. It wasn’t until George Washington, the republic’s first president, proclaimed Nov. 26, 1789, as a day for thanking God for bringing America through its trials, that an official holiday was marked.
Washington, too, was a student of the Hebrew scriptures. He believed with all his heart that America would be blessed only if it acknowledged the source of all blessings.
Here’s what he proclaimed Oct. 3, 1789:
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 implore His protection and favor; and whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me to recommend to the people of the United States a day of Public Thanksgiving and Prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.
Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the twenty-six of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that Great and Glorious Being, who is the Beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country, previous to their becoming a nation; for the single manifold mercies, and the favorable interposition’s of His providence, in the courage and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish Constitutions of Government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.
And also, that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the Great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private institutions, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discretely and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us) and to bless them with good governments, peace and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science, among them and us; and generally, to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.
(By the way, some revisionist historians have tried to suggest Washington was not a Christian, but a deist. You need only read this one proclamation to put to rest such fanciful ideas.)
Later, in 1863, with the nation torn asunder by the War Between the States, Lincoln re-instituted the tradition for two years. Again, in 1941, with a global war threatening, Congress established the fourth Thursday of November as the day for Americans to thank God.
That’s right – I said to thank God.
That’s what it is all about. That’s what it has always been about. It’s not about Indians. It’s not about turkey. It’s not about squash or sweet potatoes or pumpkin pie.
It’s about celebrating all that God has done for us. And He has surely blessed America for more than 200 years.