On Thanksgiving Day most Americans gather together with family and friends for food, fellowship, and football. We grossly overeat, share stories from the past, hopes for the future, and then watch TV while digesting. Is this how it has always been? Not surprisingly, the answer is “no.”
Clearly TVs weren’t around in the beginning, so they aren’t part of this discussion. As many things happen in America, Thanksgiving began as something entirely different from what we now experience, and the modern iteration of the holiday bears no resemblance to its origins.
Indeed, long before and for a time after it became an official national holiday, there was a higher likelihood the day would be marked by fasting, not feasting. Not only was there no turkey, stuffing, or cranberry sauce, but the purpose of setting aside a national—proclaimed in official government documents—day of Thanksgiving was to give thanks and praise and honor to God.
Let’s take a quick jaunt through history, shall we? While there are, literally, hundreds of official Thanksgiving Day proclamations, I’ll highlight excerpts only a few here.
Governor William Bradford issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation in 1621, the year after they had arrived on the Mayflower. Half of them died that winter, and yet, several months later, he urged the people to give thanks to God for the ways in which He had blessed them.
“Forasmuch as it is the indispensable duty of all men to adore the superintending providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with gratitude their obligation to him for benefits received, and to implore such farther blessings as they stand in need of; and it having pleased him in his abundant mercy not only to continue to us the innumerable bounties of his common providence, but also smile upon us in the prosecution of a just and necessary war, for the defense and establishment of our unalienable rights and liberties … It is therefore recommended to the legislative or executive powers of these United States, to set apart Thursday, the 18th day of December next, for solemn thanksgiving and praise; that with one heart and one voice the good people may express the grateful feelings of their hearts, and consecrate themselves to the service of their divine benefactor; and that together with their sincere acknowledgments and offerings, they may join the penitent confession of their manifold sins, whereby they had forfeited every favor, and their humble and earnest supplication that it may please God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of remembrance …”
Also during the Revolutionary War in 1779 while Governor of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation:
“…that it be recommended to the several states to appoint THURSDAY the 9th of December next, to be a day of publick and solemn THANKSGIVING to Almighty God, for his mercies, and of PRAYER, for the continuance of his favour and protection to these United States; to beseech him that he would be graciously pleased to influence our publick Councils, and bless them with wisdom from on high, with unanimity, firmness and success; that he would go forth with our hosts and crown our arms with victory; that he would grant to his church, the plentiful effusions of divine grace, and pour out his holy spirit on all Ministers of the gospel; that he would bless and prosper the means of education, and spread the light of Christian knowledge through the remotest corners of the earth”
In the first act following the framing of the Bill of Rights in 1789, Congress passed a Resolution urging a national day of Thanksgiving, which was offered by President George Washington a few weeks later:
“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 … Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day 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 signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course 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 lately 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 hath been pleased to confer upon us.”
In 1864, three years into the War between the States, President Abraham Lincoln issued this Thanksgiving Day proclamation:
“Now, therefore, I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, do hereby appoint and set apart the last Thursday in November next as a day which I desire to be observed by all my fellow-citizens, wherever they may then be, as a day of thanksgiving and praise to Almighty God, the beneficent Creator and Ruler of the Universe. And I do further recommend to my fellow-citizens aforesaid that on that occasion they do reverently humble themselves in the dust and from thence offer up penitent and fervent prayers and supplications to the Great Disposer of Events for a return of the inestimable blessings of peace, union, and harmony throughout the land which it has pleased Him to assign as a dwelling place for ourselves and for our posterity throughout all generations.”
As is clear, Thanksgiving Day was to be a day set aside for thanksgiving and praise—and often fasting and repentance—to God. Let us not forget that in the midst of fellowship and food with our family and friends.
This Thanksgiving, wouldn’t it be great if we elevated the holiday (originally meaning “holy day”) from mere gluttony? What if we began a new tradition of reading one (or more) of these Thanksgiving Day proclamations from our own history? What if we also chose to spend some time in prayer and thanksgiving to the One who has blessed us beyond all measure, even though we have offended and rejected Him time and again?
To reiterate Abraham Lincoln, "I do further recommend to my fellow-citizens aforesaid that on that occasion they do reverently humble themselves in the dust and from thence offer up penitent and fervent prayers and supplications to the Great Disposer of Events for a return of the inestimable blessings of peace, union, and harmony throughout the land which it has pleased Him to assign as a dwelling place for ourselves and for our posterity throughout all generations.”