Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Quintessentially American Christian Holiday

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Thanksgiving is not just an American holiday. It is a Christian holiday.

The 1621 Pilgrim Thanksgiving in Massachusetts was a time of giving thanks to God after a harrowing first year after their arrival at Plymouth Rock on the Mayflower. Governor William Bradford proclaimed the month of November to be dedicated to "Thanksgiving unto the Lord." Their motivation? They were Christians.Bradford wrote in his diary that their voyage and settlement was motivated by "a great hope for advancing the Kingdom of God." But they weren't the only ones, and they were not by far the first. Thanksgiving is an American holiday, yes, but more than that, it is an American Christian holiday.

In 1623, after a severe drought that ended at the conclusion of a colony-wide day of prayer and fasting, Bradford proclaimed another Thanksgiving - the Thanksgiving most Americans picture:
In as much as the great Father has given us this year an abundant harvest of Indian corn, wheat, peas, beans, squashes, and garden vegetable, and has made the forests to abound with game and the sea with fish and clams, and inasmuch as he has protected us from the ravages of the savages, has spared us from pestilence and disease, has granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience; now I, your magistrate, do proclaim that all ye Pilgrims, with your wives and ye little ones, do gather at ye meeting house, on ye hill, between the hours of 9 and 12 in the day time, on Thursday, November ye 29th, of the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred and twenty-three, and the third year since ye Pilgrims landed on ye Pilgrim Rock, there to listen to ye pastor and render thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all His blessings. William Bradford, Ye Governor of Ye Colony.
But there were earlier thanksgivings. One example happened along the James River at present-day Berkley Plantation in Charles City County, Virginia.

The year was 1619, twelve years after the establishment of Jamestown, when a group of thirty-eight settlers aboard the ship Margaret arrived after having made a ten-week journey across the Atlantic. Upon their landing, they knelt and prayed on the rich Tidewater soil with their Captain John Woodlief proclaiming:
“Wee ordaine that the day of our ships arrivall at the place assigned for plantacion in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually keept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”
Beginning on December 4, 1619, Berkeley Plantation (Charles City, VA)5 , celebrated an annual thanksgiving to God on the anniversary of their safe arrival in the New World. This event was not just an early English Thanksgiving in the New World, it was an event motivated by Christian sentiment.

Thanksgiving is not just an American holiday. It is a Christian holiday.

Celebrations of “thanksgiving” would become a deeply rooted American tradition, usually brought on by periods of great hardship. On December 18, 1777, at the recommendation of Henry Laurens, President of the Continental Congress, the Thirteen Colonies gave thanksgiving to God for the American victory at Saratoga.

"[Congress] recommended [a day of] . . . thanksgiving and praise [so] that “the good people may express the grateful feelings of their hearts and join . . . their supplication that it may please God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, to forgive [our sins] and . . . to enlarge [His] kingdom which consisteth in righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.” 24 Continental Congress, 1777 – written by Signers of the Declaration Samuel Adams and Richard Henry Lee

 The following year Continental Congressional chaplains issued a call to the States to thanksgiving and confession of sin. This Congressional practice continued until 1784.

In Virginia, Governor Thomas Jefferson issued a Thanksgiving proclamation in 1779, "[I] appoint . . . a day of public Thanksgiving to Almighty God . . . to [ask] Him that He would . . . pour out His Holy Spirit on all ministers of the Gospel; that He would . . . spread the light of Christian knowledge through the remotest corners of the earth; . . . and that He would establish these United States upon the basis of religion and virtue." 25

Thanksgiving is not just an American holiday. It is a Christian holiday.

President George Washington issued the first Presidential proclamation of a National Thanksgiving Day on November 26, 1789, to thank God for the new nation, and a few of his successors followed suit.

In the State of New York, Governor John Hancock in 1790 wrote, "[I] appoint . . . a day of public thanksgiving and praise . . . to render to God the tribute of praise for His unmerited goodness towards us . . . [by giving to] us . . . the Holy Scriptures which are able to enlighten and make us wise to eternal salvation. And [to] present our supplications...that He would forgive our manifold sins and . . . cause the benign religion of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ to be known, understood, and practiced among all the inhabitants of the earth." 26

Interestingly, Thanksgiving was not a specific day or even month, and apparently each presidential proclamation was issued on the whim of whoever was in office. Second President John Adams issued one in 1799. Sporadically between the years 1789 and 1815, days of Thanksgiving were recognized in January, March, April, October, and November. This recognition of Thanksgiving ended in 1815 following President James Madison's term.
Beginning in the 1840s, Sarah Hale, a mother of five children and an editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book persistently campaigned for an established national Thanksgiving. She editorialized in 1852,
"The American people have two peculiar festivals, each connected with their history and therefore of great importance in giving power and distinctness to their nationality. The Fourth of July Is the exponent of independence and civil freedom. Thanksgiving Day is the national pledge of Christian faith in God, acknowledging Him as the dispenser of blessings. These two festivals should be joyfully and universally observed throughout our whole country, and thus incorporated in our habits of thought as inseparable from American life."
It would be forty-six years before another American president would issue a Thanksgiving proclamation.That President was Jefferson Davis, who proclaimed a day of thanks, humiliation, and prayer for the Confederate States of America for October 31st, 1861. He issued another in 1862. Not to be outdone, President Abraham Lincoln resurrected the forgotten day in the United States as well, and issued a similar proclamation in April of 1862.

But it was the next Thanksgiving of 1863 that had an eternal impact on Abraham Lincoln. While Lincoln was walking among the thousands of graves there at Gettysburg, he first committed his life to Christ. He later explained to a clergyman:
"When I left Springfield [Illinois, to assume the Presidency], I asked the people to pray for me. I was not a Christian. When I buried my son, the severest trial of my life, I was not a Christian. But when I went to Gettysburg and saw the graves of thousands of our soldiers, I then and there consecrated myself to Christ." 22
That same year, Thanksgiving was made a national holiday in the United States, and in 1866, the tradition of recognizing Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November was started by President Andrew Johnson.

In 1939, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed legislation making fourth Thursday in November Thanksgiving Day. From that time on, every sitting President has recognized Thanksgiving as a national holiday.

Thanksgiving is not just an American holiday. It is a Christian holiday.

But that isn't the whole history of Christian thanksgivings in America. Let's start back at the beginning and move backward.

VIRGINIA: In 1607 when the first permanent English settlement was established in Jamestown, Virginia, Rev. Robert Hunt led the Englishmen in a Eucharist of thanksgiving and praise - consecrating the colony to God, at Cape Henry.4

MAINE: On August 9, 1607, English settlers in Maine under Captain George Popham held a harvest feast and prayer meeting on the Kennebec River with the Abnaki Indians.

FLORIDA: On September 8, 1565, Pedro Menendez de Aviles, a Spanish explorer, invited the Timucua Indians to dinner in St. Augustine, FL, after a thanksgiving Mass celebrating the explorers' safe arrival.

An earlier Florida Thanksgiving was held in 1564 when French Huguenot colonists celebrated near Jacksonville, FL. Prominent Huguenot leader, Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, envisioned America as a refuge for persecuted French Protestants. He sponsored a group of Huguenots to found Fort Caroline on Florida's St. John's River.2 The settlement struggled, but reinforcements came just in time to save it. On June 30, 1564, the group celebrated their first Thanksgiving Festival.

TEXAS: Texas had two of the earliest Thanksgivings. One was in 1598 at El Paso, Texas with Juan de Oñate and his expedition.3 But the first recorded Thanksgiving was May 23, 1541, at Palo Duro Canyon, Texas,1 when Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado held a service of thanksgiving with 1,500 of his men for finding food, water, and pasture for his animals.

Thanksgiving is not just an American holiday. It is a Christian holiday.

Sources: Andrew Marra, Fred Taylor, Jack Marlar, Pierre Bynum,
1. Library of Congress, “Thanksgiving Timeline, 1541-2001
2. Library of Congress, “Thanksgiving Timeline, 1541-2001
3. Texas Almanac, “The First Thanksgiving?
4. Benson Lossing, Our Country. A Household History of the United States (New York: James A. Bailey, 1895), 1:181-182; see also National Park Service, “The Reverend Robert Hunt: The First Chaplain at Jamestown."
5.Berkeley Plantation,” Berkeley Plantation.