Summary: This message was originally delivered at a community Thanksgiving address recounting the contributions of the Puritans to our American heritage, and challenging Christians to remember and preserve their Christian heritage.
We owe a great debt to the Puritans of the New England colonies who started the tradition of Thanksgiving. I remember when as a kid in grade school we colored pictures of the Puritans for this season. Now-a-days the Turkey is substituted for the Puritans. That is a shame because along with forgetting the Puritans, much of America has forgotten the religious aspects of the Thanksgiving Day holiday.
America was once very much a Christian nation. As a student of history I know this to be true. But I think it is no longer true. Those who attend church regularly are, even in our own community, in the minority today. And the true meaning of Thanksgiving has been lost to many Americans. That was not the case during the first years of our nation’s history.
The tradition of our annual day of Thanksgiving originated in the New England colonies many years before the formal organization of the United States. Later, during the early years of the Republic, the tradition spread throughout the land. Let us go back to this earlier time. I would like for us to examine the roots of the Thanksgiving holiday as it was first celebrated in New England, and in so doing it is my hope that we will rediscover our Christian heritage, and rededicate ourselves to its preservation.
I begin this evening by quoting from a typical address given at a typical celebration of Thanksgiving in early American New England. The speaker began, “In the services of our national holiday of Thanksgiving, we seem to be led by a natural law, to acknowledge and consider our position and our privileges. Gratitude and a sense of obligation are both appropriate responses to what we have been afforded by Divine Providence.”
Such words are typical of the many Thanksgiving Day addresses in New England during the years that forged our national character and gave birth to the Republic. A common understanding of words such as these was shared by nearly citizen. Sadly today, the majority of our citizens do not understand the concept of natural law mentioned by that speaker. They know only man-made law, and, the majority of our people today feel little if any obligation to express gratitude toward God for His divine providence.
It is appropriate that we remember what it meant to celebrate Thanksgiving in colonial and early America. It is not appropriate to denigrate this day by calling it “Turkey Day”.
As President of these United States, George Washington proclaimed the first nation-wide Thanksgiving celebration marking November 26, 1789, as “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many… favors of Almighty God.” How foreign, how obscene it would have seemed to Washington for the focus of news coverage of his proclamation of Thanksgiving to be focused instead upon the issuing of a presidential pardon for a turkey. Maybe, if he had a sense of humor, he might smile at such a thing. But I think he would be greatly disturbed that we as a nation have forgotten to acknowledge with grateful hearts the many favors of Almighty God
Our nation is no longer a Christian nation, though it once was. During the early formative years of our nation, all citizens would have attended a Thanksgiving Service. Tonight we who honor the Lord have been reduced to a minority. Why is this? Has God offended the people of America? Has God abandoned us? Has God let us down? What more could God have done for us than he has already done?
God entrusted the formation of our government and the framing of our Constitution to men of great intellectual and moral strength. The educated of the colonies became the first leaders in America. And the educated were, by virtue of their education, familiar with and in harmonious agreement with the concept of God’s natural law. To be educated in colonial America meant having gained an understanding of and appreciation for the Bible.
The early settlers of New England were a people who possessed a rare combination of profound biblical learning, deep piety, and practical energy. They were not mere adventurers fortunate to have succeeded in their efforts, but rather people of healthy of character, possessing a faith born of the Holy Spirit poured out upon this favored land. We can hardly overestimate the blessing of having had such people lay the foundations of our government and our educational institutions. Even a superficial comparison with societal institutions in many other parts of the world will show how much we, as Americans, owe to the wisdom of those who established our nation based upon biblical faith and the common law tradition of England.
Once, one of the noblest features of this land was the high character of its laws, and the dignity, incorruptness, and fidelity of its courts of justice. Religion was once so prominent, that morality was publicly prized, and immorality not tolerated. Education was once so emphasized, that intellectual and moral achievement was a goal greatly sought after by its citizens. I cannot justify all of our history. There have been grievous errors along the way. But it is clear, that the Holy Spirit was still present and working in the development of our nation.