I am blessed this Thanksgiving, as I hope you are as well, to be spending time with my family. And it may sound strange, given that we are less then two weeks from our having suffered a huge political setback in the midterm elections, but we have a great deal to be thankful for. The first thing that comes to mind is this: We still live in a nation where we can celebrate Thanksgiving — a thoroughly faith-grounded holiday — with public expressions of thanks to our Creator.
America’s First Thanksgiving: A Wholly Holy Celebration
As we all enjoy turkey and the trimmings this Thanksgiving, you may be interested to know that the first Thanksgiving celebration in America was a completely religious observance that didn’t include a feast.
It occurred in 1619 — more than a year before the Pilgrims arrived from Massachusetts. A group of 38 English settlers arrived in Virginia and set aside a day to give thanks to God for their safe passage. The three-day festival of food and friendship that was the origin of Thanksgiving as we know it today didn’t occur until 1621.
Not Just a Private Celebration, a Public Thanks to God
Ever since, Thanksgiving has been a time for Americans not just to celebrate privately in our homes but to give public thanks to God — and not just for our material blessings but for our freedom. Our earliest Thanksgivings were in times when that freedom was at its most vulnerable.
In 1789, George Washington issued a proclamation calling for a day of “public thanksgiving and prayer” — a day for Americans to acknowledge “the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”
But Washington didn’t just say that individual Americans should thank God. He proclaimed that nations — especially the one-year-old United States of America — have obligations to God as well. He wrote, “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.”
Lincoln Makes It a Yearly Celebration
But it wasn’t until more than 70 years later — at a time when America faced its greatest crisis — that Thanksgiving became a yearly celebration.
The Civil War was raging. Three months earlier, the Battle of Gettysburg had left 50,000 Americans killed, wounded or missing. Riots were tearing apart American cities.
In the midst of this chaos, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed in October 1863 that the last Thursday of November should henceforth be set aside as a day of thanksgiving.
Lincoln acknowledged that the nation was “in the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity.” But he focused instead on the nation’s blessings, urging his fellow Americans to remember that “No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the most high God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”
And Lincoln, too, proclaimed that all Americans set aside the day for a public expression of gratitude to God. He wrote, “It has seemed to me fit and proper that they [gifts of God] should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people.”
A Chance to Thank God for Our Rights — And to Seek His Guidance
Today, at a time when public expressions of faith and thanks to our Creator are under assault in America, it is especially important to remember the true meaning of Thanksgiving.
We are, of course, a nation of religious liberty. Americans are free to worship — or not worship — as they choose. But our religious freedom also means that we are free to openly and publicly acknowledge our Creator. For a nation that believes its rights come from God — that we are “endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights” — Thanksgiving is our chance to thank God for these rights, and to seek His guidance in protecting and preserving them.
There have been few times in our history when our rights and freedom — including our religious freedom — have been in greater need of protection. Great forces of intolerance threaten us. So this Thanksgiving, like those celebrated by Washington and Lincoln before us, we give thanks for our blessings at the same time we ask for the wisdom and humility to preserve them.
We give thanks for the peaceful political process we just witnessed.
We are grateful for the prosperity and peace we enjoy here at home.
We thank God for the extraordinary young men and women who are protecting our way of life in war zones overseas.
A Unique Holiday for a Unique Nation
And in thanking God for these blessings, we also submit to His guidance. In giving thanks, we seek wisdom. We hope to give a meaning to our nation that is greater and higher than any of us. We strive to build up our shining city on a hill and continue to make it a city of hope for all the world.
Thanksgiving is a unique holiday for a unique nation. May we long live in an America that acknowledges the gifts of our Creator and seeks His wisdom and guidance. And may you and your family have a safe and happy Thanksgiving.
P.S. Many of the thoughts expressed in this Thanksgiving edition of “Winning the Future” are echoed in my book, Rediscovering God in America. I am grateful for the fact that this week it reached No. 23 on the New York Times hardcover bestseller list. My most sincere thanks to everyone who has made it such a success.