Thanksgiving is America’s foundational holiday, but its origins grow
fuzzier each year. Celebrating the bounty of the autumn harvest should be a time of respite from the increasingly harsh busy-ness of the world. Our ability to be restored by family and community could be enhanced by more fully
understanding what Thanksgiving means. How did the holiday begin? Who initiated it? What were they thankful for, and to whom? Should it matter to us today?
In November of 1621, a day of public thanksgiving was proclaimed by
William Bradford, the first governor of Plymouth Plantation. The Pilgrims had weathered their first full year in Massachusetts, having arrived late the previous autumn. Four wild turkeys were served for the small company chastened by many losses. (The natives sometimes helped but “were readier to fill our sides with arrows,” as many diarists of those decades recorded). At table, they acknowledged “God’s good providence” and “blessed the God of Heaven who brought us over the furious ocean.” For “what could sustain us but the Spirit of God and His grace?” asked Bradford, then quoted Moses, “Our fathers cried unto Him and He heard their voice and looked on their adversity” (Deuteronomy 26:7). The Pilgrims saw God’s faithfulness in redeeming Israel from Egypt as the paradigm for their deliverance and gratitude.
The tradition of publicly acknowledging the Source of blessings was
observed periodically throughout the colonial period. Selected by acclamation as the nation’s first president, George Washington proclaimed November 26, 1789 (exactly 209 years ago) as a day to thank God for bringing America through its birth pangs. In 1863 Lincoln re-instituted the tradition for two years, and in 1941, with clouds gathering again, Congress established the fourth Thursday of November as the day for Americans to thank the God in whom our currency says we trust.
A few years after Bradford led his flock in America’s first formal
Thanksgiving, John Winthrop stood on the deck of the Arabella, looking west over the gray waters of Massachusetts Bay toward what would become Boston. In penning his famous sermon on Christian Charity, Winthrop also sought his pattern in the Hebrew Bible. “There are two rules whereby we are to walk with one another,” he wrote, “justice and mercy,” the attributes for which God chose Abraham who followed God’s way as his own (Genesis 18:19). Winthrop then quoted Micah and prayed that by pursuing this path “the God of Israel will dwell among us,” that like Israel, the Puritans would be “united as one people” and serve as a beacon to the nations.
In proclaiming a day of thanks giving, Bradford also praised God’s
loving kindness, the famous refrain of Psalms 106 and 107 and Jewish liturgy
(“Give thanks to the Lord for He is good, for His kindness endures forever.”).
Faithful kindness is the quality for which God established His promise
through Abraham, and by which He intended His sovereignty to be remembered. Because He will be as He always has been, faithful, when God sent Moses back to redeem the Israelites from Egypt He bid him say, “‘I Will Be’ has sent me to you. This is My remembrance from generation to generation.” God remembers, and He intends that people remember their relation to Him.
Thankfulness arises from memory and faith, qualities by which a
person, nation, and world can be healed. The prophet Zechariah foresaw a spring of healing light flowing from Mount Zion “when the eyes of all mankind will turn toward God” in gratitude, and two “crowns of remembrance” symbolize state power wed to religious service. This balance will embody the dual meanings of Zechariah’s name, “remembrance of God” and its core, “manliness of God.” Restoring this besieged quality will bring healing and peace, “the book of remembrance” hailed by Zechariah’s peer, Malachi who foresaw re-uniting fathers with sons when judges let God into their midst to judge with justice and truth.
Those who gratefully acknowledge the source of all blessings elicit
many blessings for their nation. Bradford, Winthrop, and their people knew that the way to sustainable social and family life was forged by the One who brought order out of chaos. Remembering Him reminds us who we are, more than nature that has not memory but impulse and repetition.
Thanksgiving cut from its roots is a term out of context, a noun-verb
hiding its object. The people who founded America in faith, courage, and
suffering patterned their experience on the Children of Israel, and like
them gave thanks in faithful remembrance of the Creator and source of life
abundant. Such gratitude endures as the substance of joy.