Alexander's Column

Thanksgiving 2002: The Shining City on a Hill

Mark Alexander · Nov. 27, 2002

For just over a year, our nation has been warring with a shadowy enemy who lurks and hides, slipping over borders to attack or to escape. A year ago, the shadows of devastation still lay heavy and cold across our land – in New York City, at the Pentagon, and in a field in Pennsylvania. Of the blessings we can affirm this Thanksgiving, one we can be most grateful for is that further attacks this year by our enemies’ adherents have been quashed or limited in their deadly reach. But in some ways, our country seems ill equipped to press on in the fight, because we are hesitant to admit our battle is with adversaries who openly admit they belong to a “culture of death,” as demonstrated by an Islamic extremist speaking from the Moscow theater where he and his group had taken nearly a thousand people hostage: “I swear by god we are more keen on dying than you are keen on living.” Moreover, we have too often in recent days been negligent in our own blessed land in acknowledging the source of the bounties we enjoy as a “culture of life and liberty.” Celebrating thanksgiving in the midst of trouble may seem difficult, but our nation’s tradition is to offer thanks for blessings during trials.

We recount the origins of our Day of Thanksgiving, that we may celebrate the holiday as our forebears did, in humble acknowledgment and heartfelt gratitude for God’s many blessings upon His people and our nation, and that we may focus respectfully on the origins of our freedom – so that we may restore them once again.

The celebration we now popularly regard as the “First Thanksgiving” was the Pilgrims’ three-day feast celebrated in early November of 1621. Thanksgiving alone among American religious holidays derives in the main from Puritan observances. Quibblers may note that the first record of Christian thanksgiving in America was Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado’s 1541 service for prayer and thanks when his expedition found food and water in the Texas Panhandle. French Huguenots, settling near what is now Jacksonville, Florida, offered praise and thanksgiving in 1564. And English settlers observed days of thanks in 1607 both along Maine’s Kennebec River, where they built Fort St. George, and in Virginia at Cape Henry.

The Pilgrims (who, 11 year earlier, went to Holland seeking refuge from religious oppression in England) left Delfthaven, Holland, in the vessel Speedwell for Plymouth, England, where they met up with friends and other seeking passage to the new world aboard the Mayflower. After two attempts to get underway, the Speedwell developed leaks. On September 6, 1620, the Pilgrims abandoned the Speedwell, crowded aboard the Mayflower, and finally set sail for a new world that offered the promise of both civil and religious liberty. For almost three months, 102 seafarers braved harsh elements to arrive off the coast of what is now Massachusetts, in late November of 1620. On December 11, prior to disembarking at Plymouth Rock, they signed the “Mayflower Compact,” 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.”

Upon landing in America, the Pilgrims conducted a prayer service, then quickly turned to building shelters. 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 first Thanksgiving to God in the Calvinist tradition in Plymouth Colony was actually celebrated during the summer of 1623, when the colonists declared a Thanksgiving holiday after their crops were saved by much-needed rainfall.

In 1630, while sailing to America, devout Puritan John Winthrop, later to become Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, meditated on the task before the colonists seeking religious liberty: “We will be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword throughout the world.” The earliest Americans knew that self-government rests equally on liberty and virtue – as well as that liberty and virtue are inseparable.

By the mid-17th century, the custom of autumnal Thanksgivings was established throughout New England. Observance of Thanksgiving Festivals began to spread southward during the American Revolution, as the newly established Congress officially recognized the need to celebrate this revered day.

The first national Thanksgiving Proclamation, issued by the revolutionary Continental Congress on November 1, 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, its one sentence of 360 words 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’.”

On Wednesday, December 17th, General George Washington issued general orders including: “Tomorrow being the day set apart by the Honorable Congress for public Thanksgiving and Praise; and duty calling us devoutly to express our grateful acknowledgements to God for the manifold blessings he has granted us, the General directs that the army remain in its present quarters, and that the Chaplains perform divine service with their several Corps and Brigades. And earnestly exhorts, all officers and soldiers, whose absence is not indispensably necessary, to attend with reverence the solemnities of the day.”

Lt. Col. Henry Dearborn’s diary entry for December 18th read, “This is Thanksgiving Day. God knows we have very little to keep it with, this being the third day we have been without flour or bread, and are living on a high, uncultivated hill, in huts and tents, lying on the cold ground. Upon the whole I think all we have to be thankful for is that we are alive and not in the grave with many of our friends.”

And Surgeon Albigence Waldo observed, “Mankind is never truly thankful for the benefits of life, until they have experienced the want of them.”

Cognizant of the need for a warring country’s continuing grateful prayers to God, the Continental Congresses proclaimed yearly Thanksgiving days during the Revolutionary War, from 1777 to 1783, with declarations such as this, also penned by Samuel Adams on behalf of the Continental Congress, November 3, 1778: “That all the People may with united Hearts on that Day express a just Sense of His unmerited Favors: –Particularly in that it hath pleased Him, by His over ruling Providence to support us in a just and necessary War for the Defence of our Rights and Liberties; …by defeating the Councils and evil Designs of our Enemies, and giving us Victory over their Troops –and by the Continuance of that Union among these States, which by his Blessing, will be their future Strength & Glory.”

Our Founding Fathers officially recognized the importance of a day for giving thanks for our nation’s blessings by one of the first acts of the constitutional government. Soon after adopting the Bill of Rights, a motion in Congress to initiate the proclamation of a national day of thanksgiving was approved.