Wednesday, November 11, 2015

What Do We Know About Thanksgiving?

In week two of the November Thanksgiving series, we are going to consider a few questions in rapid-fire succession. What is the history of Thanksgiving in America? What is its purpose, and its implications for the separation of church and state? And why is it so underappreciated in our society? I am looking at them all together because I believe the answers are interconnected.


Days of thanksgiving are an ancient practice, spanning across numerous religious traditions. Later on this month, we will be looking at the most relevant of these, the Israelite Feast of Tabernacles. However, as a Christian practice, days of thanksgiving did not start to gain prominence until the 16th Century.

Or at least, days of thanksgiving as such. For many centuries beforehand, the basic idea had been practiced through the various saints’ days of the Catholic calendar. But after the Protestant Reformation, the new church tradition needed to establish a new form of celebration.

There is some dispute over where and when the first American Thanksgiving took place, but the most obvious choice is the one every small child used to learn about in school. The Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts, Separatists from the Anglican Church, held a festival in the autumn of 1621 to offer thanks to God for their survival and the first successful harvest in the New World. This celebration, along with other similar events in the other young British colonies of the 1600’s, became a tradition that has lasted for centuries.

The purpose of these days of thanksgiving was explicitly religious. The governors and assemblies of the various colonies would occasionally make proclamations calling for either supplication to the Lord when they were in need, or for thanksgiving when their needs had been met. Given the religious nature of the founding of so many of the colonies, and the religious underpinnings of the rest, this makes sense. They wanted to stay connected to the fact that everything they had came to them from the hands of God. To forget to do so, they believed, was to risk becoming ungrateful and complacent, which in turn would result in the loss of their blessings.

This understanding carried over to the birth of the new nation. During the War for Independence, the Continental Congress made multiple thanksgiving proclamations after important victories, as did the new states on their own, and General Washington for the Continental Army under his command. As in the past, they were meant to recognize that the battle and its outcome had not been theirs, but God’s (2 Chronicles 20:15), and that they owed Him praise for His protection.

Then, after the war was over and a new government had been formed under the Constitution, the practice of Thanksgiving Day proclamations continued. The first of these occurred on October 3, 1789, having been called for by both houses of Congress and made by President Washington. It was one of the first official acts of the new government, and called for “service [to] that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be” (the full text can and should be read here). 

Though these proclamations generally followed the Plymouth pattern by taking place around the harvest, there was no set schedule. They could be made at any time of year, occasionally went with a few years in between, and were more often made by states than by the national government. This changed in 1863 when, after the Civil War had finally and irrevocably turned in favor of the Union, Abraham Lincoln instituted Thanksgiving as an annual national holiday to take place on the last Thursday of every November. It remained there until 1941, when Franklin D. Roosevelt moved it to the fourth Thursday of November in an attempt to help the economy during the Great Depression.

Church and State

When we think about this history, the thing that ought to strike us most is what it means for the so-called “wall of separation between church and state.” The early history of Thanksgiving shows that our predecessors, including the Founders of the United States and the Framers of the Constitution, did not intend for religious functions to be wholly distinct from the operations of the government. While not meant to be sectarian—devoted to one form of religion at the exclusion and persecution of others—there was no denying the thanks owed to and continued reliance on the blessings of the Almighty.

In some ways, I regret Lincoln’s decision to make Thanksgiving an annual holiday. When something becomes too regular and routine, it can tend to lose its urgency. That is, perhaps, part of the reason why the holiday is so underappreciated (though other reasons are far more compelling). Ultimately, however, I am grateful for it, since it has protected Thanksgiving.

There has been a growing and worrisome urge in the last 50 or 60 years to attempt to scrub America of its religious heritage. Just in October, another statehouse removed its statue of the Ten Commandments in order to avoid the ire of antitheists, who are also attacking the pledge of allegiance, the national motto, and crosses on monuments dedicated to soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice for this country. If Thanksgiving were not a national holiday, and instead were proclaimed intermittently, I believe it would be broadly challenged and would risk being eliminated.

Still, that does not explain why the antitheists do not fight it. After all, they are fighting other things that exist in our laws to recognize the providence of God. I think, however, that Thanksgiving is too on the nose. If they were to try to attack it, that would draw attention to its true purpose and its long history. And in that case, it would undermine the entire secularist effort.

Think about it. Thanksgiving is our most religious holiday. Easter and Christmas do not count, because they are Christian holidays that the government merely recognizes. It did not create them. But Thanksgiving is different. On that day, the United States government asks us to pray. It does not force us to do so, but it gives us the opportunity and requests that we take it. And as its history makes clear, this is not so we can have some vague sense of gratitude, but rather so we can acknowledge the goodness of God. I guess that “high wall of separation” must have a few gaps in it, huh?

If secularists were to try to point this out, it would be devastating to their cause. They would only be proving to people how ridiculous their claims are. Thanksgiving makes it clear that the separation of church and state is not total. They have different spheres of authority that should not be exercised by one person or group, but those spheres can and certainly do mix. If our forebears clearly thought that way, then so can we. Any other reading of the First Amendment they wrote is self-evidently wrong.

Contemporary Importance

We have this legacy, then, but no apparent appreciation for it. As I mentioned in my last post, Thanksgiving is easy to overlook. Personally, I think antitheists would have it no other way. They cannot kill it, but they are happy to watch it die.

Which it very nearly has. The current state of Thanksgiving offers a window into the shift in national consciousness. What is Thanksgiving for now?

Some people would say food. Others family. Football and parades would get a few votes. Certainly these are good things, things to be thankful for, but they are not really the things to thank. They should not be the focus of the day. Nor are they any longer, as they were in the last generation or two.

No, because now it is not even really a holiday. More and more people are being required to work on it, or are choosing to spend it away from their loved ones and without any regard for rest or gratitude. Thanksgiving is dying because it is being sacrificed on the altar of consumerism.

Every person who works or shops on Thanksgiving Day is part of the problem. Don’t like hearing that? Too bad. It’s true. You can’t wait a day? Then who do you really worship? God? Or the dollar?

Thanksgiving used to be about acknowledging the Lord as the source of our blessings. Now, we are ignoring Him so we can pursue those blessings as though they are the source of meaning in life. Maybe, as our ancestors thought, we risk losing them as a result. Perhaps God will take them in order to teach us that we are not the source of our own happiness. But maybe not. Because the true emptiness of such a life is in many ways punishment enough.

Remember the Reason for the Season

Do I need to say it is ok to enjoy good things in life? All right, then I will. But I shouldn’t have to. That has not been my point. My point is that they are not the first things. The most important aspects of this life are those that connect us to our Creator and Sustainer. Thanksgiving is about bringing that to remembrance.

If you have not been doing so, then you need to get back on the right track. I tell you that because I believe you can, not because I want to attack you for doing something wrong. I want to turn it around, not feel morally superior. I'm not anyway. But this is important, and I feel called to make a bold case.

There was a time in this country when we recognized the goodness of God. It was so important to our ancestors that they made it a fact of our national life. It is so firm that it cannot be assailed by the greatest critics of everything it represents. But they do not have to assail it, if we do not even care to observe it. Thanksgiving is itself one of the greatest gifts we have been given. If we cannot be grateful for it, or anything else, then we don’t deserve to keep it.

So that is my charge to you. Work to keep it. Set it apart. It is not a shopping day, and shopping shouldn’t be the only reason to celebrate it. It is for giving thanks. So this year, dedicate yourself to giving thanks on, and for, Thanksgiving. It is not just a day between Halloween and Christmas. It is honorable in its own right, and we need to bring that attitude back. We owe it to our ancestors. We owe it to ourselves. We owe it to God. Don’t let it lose its meaning.

Thanks for checking out the Quest Forums blog! If you enjoyed this post, please consider following me here, on Twitter (@Quest_Forums), or on Facebook (“Quest Forums”). Links are in the sidebar. I am always looking for new questions and comments, so submit yours on any of these sites or by emailing And please, spread the word! The share buttons below are a great way to do that. I want to connect with as many people as possible, so if you know anyone with questions about the Bible, send them my way.

No comments:

Post a Comment