“[I]t is the indispensable duty of all men to adore the superintending providence of Almighty God … that with one heart and one voice the good people may express the grateful feeling of their hearts and consecrate themselves to [His] service … acknowledging with gratitude their obligations to Him for benefits received….” –Samuel Adams
What is the nature of gratitude, of true thankfulness? Acknowledgment of receiving a gift that is undeserved, then joy appropriately suffusing that knowledge, overflowing into recognition of indebtedness to the giver. In truth, we are not really giving thanks – we give nothing – we are only responding with properly grateful hearts that are due the Gift Giver.
That is the spirit in which Thanksgiving was first celebrated on our shores – and then persisted as a joining thread of our nation’s character. The Pilgrims set us on the path to become a country humbly acknowledging the thanks we owe to Almighty God as Creator of life and Author of liberty.
At Thanksgiving nowadays, we’re often invited to “count our blessings.” Similarly, The Patriot’s holiday tradition is to recount the origins of our blessings of liberty. Indeed, Thanksgiving is an indispensable part of the foundation of our nation.
The Pilgrims left Plymouth, England, on 6 September 1620, sailing for a new world that promised opportunities of religious and civil liberty. For almost three months, 102 seafarers braved harsh elements, arriving off the current-day Massachusetts coast, in November 1620. On 11 December, prior to disembarking at Plymouth Rock, the voyagers signed the Mayflower Compact, America’s original document of civil government predicated on principles of self-rule. Governor William Bradford described the Mayflower Compact as “a combination … that when they came a shore they would use their owne libertie; for none had power to command them….”
Starvation and sickness during the ensuing New England winter killed almost half their population, but through prayer and hard work, with the assistance of their Indian friends, the Pilgrims reaped a rich harvest in the summer of 1621.
The bounty, however, was short-lived. Under pressure from investors funding their colony, the Pilgrims had acceded to a violation of Christian prescriptions for honoring the laborer as “worthy of his hire,” and for certifying property ownership rights for individuals and families – acquiescing to a ruinous financial arrangement holding all fruit of their labors in common, so as to send back a quickly accounted half to their overseas backers.
Making matters worse, by the spring of 1623, Plymouth was in danger of foundering under famine, blight and drought. Governor Bradford wrote that the drought “continued from the third week in May, till about the middle of July, without any rain and with great heat for the most part, insomuch as the corn began to wither away…. [The Pilgrims] set apart a solemn day of humiliation, to seek the Lord by humble and fervent prayer, in this great distress. And He was pleased to give them a gracious and speedy answer, both to their own and the Indians’ admiration that lived amongst them. … For which mercy, in time convenient, they also set apart a day of thanksgiving.”
Colonist Edward Winslow noted the Pilgrims worshiped thus: “[W]e returned glory, honor, and praise, with all thankfulness, to our good God, which dealt so graciously with us….” So, the original American Thanksgiving Day centered not on harvest feasting (as in 1621) but on gathering together for public thanksgiving for God’s favor and provision.
Bradford recorded in his history of the colony that moment in which Plymouth’s leaders gave up their failed communal economy in favor of the free market: “At length, after much debate of things, the Governor (with the advice of the chiefest amongst them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves; in all other things to go in the general way as before. And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number.”
By the mid-17th century, the custom of autumnal Thanksgivings was established throughout New England. Observance of Thanksgiving Festivals spread to other colonies during the American Revolution, and the Continental Congresses, cognizant of the need for a warring country’s continuing grateful entreaties to God, proclaimed yearly Thanksgiving Days during the Revolutionary War, from 1777 to 1783. In 1789, among the first official acts of Congress was approving a motion for proclamation of a national day of thanksgiving – again acknowledging the importance of a day for citizens to gather together and give thanks to God for our nation’s blessings.
On 3 October 1789, by way of proclamation, George Washington wrote: “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 favour. … I do recommend and assign [this day of public Thanksgiving], 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.”
It was 155 years later, at the onset of another war to preserve our liberty, that Congress permanently set November’s fourth Thursday as our official national Day of Thanksgiving.
Like the Pilgrims, and many generations since, we should hold sure that whatever travails and straits we navigate, if we remain steadfast in faith and obedience, God will see us through under His care.
As Ronald Reagan noted in his 1982 Thanksgiving Proclamation, “Today we have more to be thankful for than our Pilgrim mothers and fathers who huddled on the edge of the New World that first Thanksgiving Day could ever dream of. We should be grateful not only for our blessings, but for the courage and strength of our ancestors, which enable us to enjoy the lives we do today. Let us affirm through prayers and actions our thankfulness for America’s bounty and heritage.”
Indeed, we should: “Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise. Be thankful to Him, and bless His name. For the LORD is good; His mercy is everlasting, and His truth endures to all generations.” (Psalm 100:4-5)
This Thanksgiving, please pray for our Patriot Armed Forces standing in harm’s way around the world, and for their families – especially families of those fallen Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen who have died in defense of American liberty.
Semper Vigilo, Fortis, Paratus, et Fidelis!
Mark Alexander Publisher
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Note to parents: Our Family Thanksgiving Quiz provides a great opportunity for kids to learn more about the Christian foundations of our great nation.