Thanksgiving is one of my favorite times of the year. Our family gathers to eat turkey, cranberry sauce, dressing, pecan pie, and catch up on each other’s lives (and of course, watch a little football). Time slows down briefly at Thanksgiving, as the people I love most surround me. Probably sounds familiar to your family also!
I want to take a brief moment and consider the story of Thanksgiving in America. How did this beloved holiday come to be and what lessons might the history of Thanksgiving teach us today?
Many of the first European settlers in our country were Protestant Christians from England, who came to the shores of America seeking a land where they could worship and serve God freely. In 1609, a group of these Protestants had fled religious persecution from the powerful Church of England and settled in Holland. Unfortunately, the British king harassed them even on the shores of Holland, and the group had difficulty adjusting to life in a strange land with an unfamiliar language.
So in 1620, a group of roughly 130 Christians, led by William Bradford, set sail from Holland on the Mayflower, headed to a new land. This small band of devout Christian Pilgrims established the Plymouth Colony near Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The settlement at Plymouth wasn’t the first European community in North America: Jamestown had been settled in 1607, John Smith had already explored the Cape Cod area, and of course there were numerous indigenous people groups scattered along the east coast, whose histories stretched back centuries.
The first year was trying for the Plymouth Colony. Food was scarce, the weather harsh, and nearly half of the group died during the initial winter as a wave of disease swept through the fragile community. But the group survived with help from a Native American named Squanto, who spoke English as a result of spending several years in England as a captive of John Smith. Squanto acted as a mediator between the Pilgrims and Massasoit, chief of the local Pokanoket tribe.
Absent the help of Squanto and his tribe, the Pilgrims probably would not have survived that first year. The Pilgrims saw the aid of Squanto and Massasoit as the providence of God sustaining their existence. In the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims shared a harvest festival with the Pokanoket people. This certainly wasn’t a formal Thanksgiving in the sense we think of today, but there is historical evidence the Pilgrims used this and other opportunities to express thanks for God’s mercy.
During the Revolution against King George III from 1776-1783, the Continental Congress often set aside days of prayer and thanksgiving for God’s aid during the war. In 1789, after the federal government of the United States had been established with the ratification of the Constitution in 1787-1788, the Congress asked President George Washington to officially set aside a day “of public thanksgiving and prayers” to acknowledge “the many and signal favors of Almighty God” in allowing the colonists to establish a form of government for “their safety and happiness.”
In his proclamation setting aside a day of thanksgiving, Washington urged his fellow countrymen to unite “in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him…to render our national government a blessing to all the people.” The recently concluded war had been difficult and its success was never certain until the very end. A contentious debate over the ratification of the Constitution had quickly followed. George Washington and the other founders knew the American experiment of self-government could not prosper without the aid and favor of God.
In 1863, amidst the burning furnace of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln officially declared Thanksgiving as a national holiday, to be celebrated on the final Thursday in November. By this point, most of the states had official days of thanksgiving set aside, but Lincoln’s proclamation set in place the holiday we have today. Lincoln called upon the people to pray for the “widows [and] orphans… [of] the lamentable civil strife” and implore the “Most High God” to heal the wounds of the nation and restore the country to the “full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and Union.”
America is a nation founded on thanksgiving – but to what person or object did the Pilgrims, Washington, and Lincoln direct their thanks? Surely, to the God who has blessed our country. We live in troubled times: radical Islamic terrorists threaten the peace of the nations, while many of our political leaders timidly falter.
May we join together this Thanksgiving to lift our thanks to Heaven for God’s graciousness on our land and ask for divine protection on our country in the days to come.
Dr. Larry Stutts represents Senate District 6, comprised of all or parts of Marion, Lawrence, Lauderdale, Colbert, and Franklin counties, in the Alabama Senate. He can be reached at [email protected] or 334-242-7862.