Summary: We paused as a nation this week to give thanks. Let us give thanks not just for what God has done for us, but for Who He is!
In 1789, our nation’s first President, George Washington, issued the following proclamation:
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, 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,
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.
The holiday we recognize as the first Thanksgiving celebration started in the fall of 1621, when the settlers at the Plymouth colony in what we now call Massachusetts got together with about 90 Wampanoag Indians for a feast. The pilgrims had not had an easy time. Half of them had died the previous winter from disease, and without the help of the Indians, all of them would have perished.
After the colony’s first harvest, Governor William Bradford proclaimed a time of thanksgiving and prayer to God. The feast lasted three days and featured venison, turkey, duck, eel, clams, leeks, cod, bass, barley, corn, and cornbread.
Two years later, the colony responded to a severe drought with a time of prayer and fasting, and after the rains came, another thanksgiving celebration was held. Late in the year, Governor Bradford proclaimed November 29 as a day for the colony’s settlers to gather together and give thanks to God for all His blessings.
The first Thanksgiving Day proclamation of the independent United States was Washington’s proclamation in 1789, which set the last Thursday of November as the annual Thanksgiving Day celebration.
A few years later, however, the holiday was cancelled by the nation’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, who was an agnostic. The observation of Thanksgiving returned to our nation in 1863, when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed it a national holiday to be observed the last Thursday of November each year, at the end of the harvest. The timing was changed to the 4th Thursday of November by President Roosevelt in 1941.
The tradition of Thanksgiving Day is to look to God in gratitude for His care and blessings. It does not matter that times may have been hard. The people used the occasion to recognize God as our Creator, Provider, and Sustainer. Finally, only two nations--the United States and Canada--officially recognize a day of thanksgiving. Both nations grew out of hardship, grit, and dependence on God.
For some context to our discussion today, let’s return for a moment to that day in November 1621 and the handful of survivors at Plymouth, Massachusetts. They had come to these shores looking for a fresh start. They were coopers, blacksmiths, weavers, farmers, and other tradesmen. They lived in very small huts made of small logs with mud to seal the cracks. The roofs were thatched and leaky. Food was scarce the winter of 1620-21, because the settlers arrived too late in 1620 for a successful agricultural season. They lived on small game, fish, berries, and edible roots that first winter, and half of the community died before the spring thaw. In 1621, the small community cultivated wheat and barley from seeds they had brought with them on the Mayflower, along with corn that was native to their new land. The community had good relationships with the natives in the area, the Wampanoag tribe, and the Indians helped with the planting, cultivation, and harvest.
After all the trials they had been through, what do you suppose was on the pilgrims’ list of things for which they were thankful? Their list was most likely different from the lists we would make. They no doubt were thankful for their survival, for God’s provision of food from the land, and for the hope they had for the future--the simple, basic provision from God of life and sustenance. They didn’t have jobs, 401Ks, pensions, autos, fine homes, and so forth. They had life, and it was clear to them that their life and survival came from their Creator and Sustainer.
God tells us it is important for us to remember Him. In the Old Testament, God delivered His people twice to the land He had reserved for them--the first time when Abraham was chosen to lead his family into the Promised Land and second time when God chose Moses to lead the people out of slavery back to that land. Both times, God reminded them repeatedly not to forget Him when they had settled in the land. He knew the root of their difficulties would come not from the efforts to settle the land and prosper, but because they would tend to forget Him as their Provider and Sustainer as they became more and more secure and comfortable in the land.