“Enter His gates with thanksgiving, and His courts with praise. Give thanks to Him and praise His name. For the LORD is good and His love endures forever; His faithfulness continues through all generations.” (Psalm 100:4-5)
Why is America such a blessed land? Some point to its bountiful resources, its vast and glorious expanses. Others point to that which is inspired by these geographical gifts – the freedom, the entrepreneurial spirit, the economic and technological wonderment. Still others, however, would note the rancor and recrimination that currently poison our political discourse – and argue forcefully that this country is blessed no more.
Were we to field the question, we would answer it differently, for we believe our nation to be so heaped over with blessings that only the most jaded would deny our indebtedness to Almighty God for His continuing favor. Pressed further, we would say that America is blessed not so that we should thank God, but blessed because we have, continually, from our earliest days on this continent, given thanks to God and humbly sought ever-better to follow His precepts.
Consider this history: Though the “First Thanksgiving” by name was in the Virginia Colony in 1607, our Thanksgiving heritage has its roots with the Pilgrims’ three-day feast in early November of 1621.
The Pilgrims were Puritans, Calvinist Protestants who rejected the institutional Church of England. After a brief, ill-starred sojourn in Holland, the Pilgrims left Plymouth, England, on 6 September 1620, sailing for a new world that offered the promise of both civil and religious liberty. For almost three months, 102 hardy seafarers braved the bitter elements to arrive off the coast of what is now Massachusetts, in late November of that year.
On 11 December, prior to disembarking at Plymouth Rock, the voyagers signed the “Mayflower Compact,” often cited as America’s original document of civil government and the first to introduce self-government. While still anchored at Provincetown harbor, their Pastor John Robinson counseled, “You are become a body politic…and are to have only them for your…governors which yourselves shall make choice of.”
Governor William Bradford described the Mayflower Compact as “a combination made by them before they came ashore…occasioned partly by the discontented and mutinous speeches that some of the strangers amongst them had let fall. … That when they came a shore they would use their owne libertie; for none had power to command them….”
Upon landing in America, the Pilgrims conducted a prayer service and then quickly turned to building shelters. Starvation and sickness during the ensuing New England winter killed almost half their population. But through prayer, hard work and the assistance of their Indian friends, the Pilgrims reaped a rich harvest in the summer of 1621. The settlers knew clearly that their new-world enterprise sought civil and religious liberties, but, disastrously, under pressure from investors funding their colony, they reluctantly organized their efforts communally, holding all fruit of their labors in common so as to send back half their profits as investment returns. Predictably, their work yielded little success, and Plymouth Colony was in danger of foundering after two years.
Governor William Bradford recorded the following in his history of the colony: “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.”
The Plymouth Colony’s first Thanksgiving to God was celebrated during the summer of 1623, when the colonists declared a Thanksgiving holiday after their crops were saved by much-needed rainfall. The reorganization of their labors toward ownership and property rights set them on the proper path to reaping continual rewards. Families working together primarily for their own betterment were freer – and were better able to pay off the investors.
As the Plymouth Pilgrims’ experience clearly demonstrated, a governing body steeped in liberty and virtue is the sole sure guarantor of private property, family security and preservation of freedom.
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.
Our new nation’s first official Thanksgiving Proclamation, issued by the revolutionary Continental Congress on 1 November 1777, expressed gratitude for the colonials’ October victory over British General Burgoyne at Saratoga. Authored by Samuel Adams, the man the other Founders turned to for reasoned statements of liberties as God’s blessings, it read in part: “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…together with penitent confession of their sins, whereby they had forfeited every favor; and their humble and earnest supplications that it may please God through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of remembrance…it is therefore recommended…to set apart Thursday the eighteenth day of December next, for solemn thanksgiving and praise, that with one heart and one voice the good people may express the grateful feeling of their hearts and consecrate themselves to the service of their Divine Benefactor…acknowledging with gratitude their obligations to Him for benefits received. … To prosper the means of religion, for the promotion and enlargement of that kingdom which consisteth ‘in righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost’.”
We were at war then, no less than we are now, but do we still offer such special thanks to God for our battlefield successes, praying for the continued safe advance of our troops?
In one of the first acts of the new constitutional government, our Founding Fathers officially recognized the importance and rectitude of a day for citizens to come together giving God thanks for our nation’s blessings. After adopting the Bill of Rights to the Constitution, Congress approved a motion for proclamation of a national day of thanksgiving. Both chambers of Congress asked President George Washington “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 and signal favours of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”
Washington thereby set his signature to the first day of thanks for the liberties enshrined in our new Constitution, by writing as follows:
“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 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 has been pleased to confer upon us.
"And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplication 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 stations, 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, discreetly 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.
"Given under my hand, at the city of New York, the 3d day of October, AD 1789.”
As president, John Adams followed the custom of declaring national days of thanks, and James Madison called for three national observances of fasting and grateful prayer for deliverance during the War of 1812. (In light of this, we can’t help but wonder what Madison, the Father of our nation’s Constitution, would have made of the notion that school prayer is un-constitutional.) But in a foretaste of the impermissibility that current-day secularizers attach to the acknowledgment of God as Provider of our country’s blessings, Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams refused to continue the practice of proclaiming a day of national thanksgiving.
Ironically, on the south bank of Washington’s Tidal Basin, etched in the marble of the Jefferson Memorial, is our third president’s immutable admonition about the origin of liberty: “God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?” Surely, they cannot, as history would soon prove out.
After 1815, there were no further annual Thanksgiving proclamations until our country was imperiled from the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln declared 26 November 1863 a Day of Thanksgiving, calling for prayer and thanksgiving for the nation, and saying in part, “[It is] announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations are blessed whose God is the Lord. … It has seemed to me fit and proper that…[God’s blessings] should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people.”
For the following 75 years, every subsequent president repeated that proclamation, until 1939, when Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving Day to a week earlier than had been tradition, to lengthen the growing pre-Christmas consumer frenzy. Two years later, Congress returned the celebration to its traditional date and permanently set the fourth Thursday of each November as our official national Thanksgiving. Alas, we’ve come to commemorate the holiday with a near-perfunctory acknowledgment.
Indeed, by this Thanksgiving, after 40 years of secularization, our nation has strayed far from the soul-deep thankfulness toward our Lord expressed by our first countrymen and generations after them. How, then, can we recover and properly bend our grateful hearts toward God in 2005?
To begin, we must seek to restore the bedrock of liberty and democracy, the family. Recent contention has followed the adage, “It takes a village to raise a child.” The unspoken portion of this aphorism implies that the goal of child-rearing is forming good inhabitants of “the village.” But this can’t account for our national heritage, our history of remarkable challenges overcome by outstanding leaders and Patriot citizens.
More astute analysts would argue that it takes a family to raise a child. And while that is certainly close to the truth, it still does not offer a complete account. We would submit that it takes a family imbued in thanksgiving – and not only for raising good children, but also for everything in a decent and just society.
We must therefore confront those whose intent it is to turn our country into a secular utopist commune, where public religious exercise is forsworn and relegated to individual private spheres. These secularists, of course, face an insurmountable fact: Public observances of thanksgiving declared by government leaders have been the hallmark of our nation since its inception. Indeed, so long as our nation observes a Thanksgiving holiday, two irrepressibly logical questions will accompany it: Thanksgiving for what? And to Whom?
For citizens, participation is noncompulsory – each may freely choose whether to give honor and gratitude to God, as respect for liberty of conscience requires – but not for our country if we wish to remain a land of liberty.
Here, then, we are left to ponder: What is the wellspring of thanksgiving? Scripture tells us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Likewise, humility before our Heavenly Father plants the seeds of gratitude. We often describe our national character as based on self-reliance, but that is only so insofar as we acknowledge that our ultimate reliance is on Almighty God.
Our successes are not by military might, not by our firepower, but by His blessing. What the Pilgrims, the Revolutionaries and the Founders sought was liberty – but most of all religious liberty. More than merely an adjunct or afterthought to our manifold freedoms, our forbears knew that religious liberty is the centerpiece of freedom: A nation that freely gives thanks is a nation that will remain free.
“Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving…” (Psalms 147:7)
On behalf of our National Advisory Board and your Patriot staff, we wish God’s blessing and peace upon you and your families this Thanksgiving.
Semper Vigilo, Paratus, et Fidelis!
(Please pray for our Patriot Armed Forces standing in harm’s way around the world in defense of our liberty, and for the families awaiting their safe return.)
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