Today, we celebrate Thanksgiving Day. It will be a day of getting together with family, feasting on delicious food, and giving thanks for what God has so richly provided for us.
Not everyone will feel like giving thanks to God. Some will think they have not been blessed. Others have experienced pain and sorrow from the death of a loved one or some other tragedy in their life. And it is true; all of us could have reasons to not be thankful.
However, all we need to do is look back at one of the first celebrations of Thanksgiving Day to see that no matter how little we have or what our circumstances are today, we are much better off than early settlers from England when they arrived in the New World.
The Pilgrims left Plymouth, England, on September 6, 1620 for the New World. Although filled with uncertainty and peril, it offered both civil and religious liberty. For over two months, the 102 passengers braved the harsh elements of a vast storm-tossed sea. They had to stay in the cargo space of the sailing vessel, the Mayflower. No one was allowed to go on the deck due to terrible storms. The pilgrims comforted themselves by singing Psalms. Finally, with firm purpose and a reliance on Divine Providence, the cry of “Land!” was heard.
Arriving in Massachusetts in late November, the Pilgrims sought a suitable landing place. On December 11, just before disembarking at Plymouth Rock, they signed the “Mayflower Compact” - America's first document of civil government and the first to introduce self-government.
After a prayer service, the Pilgrims began building hasty shelters. However, unprepared for the starvation and sickness of a harsh New England winter, 46 of them died before spring, nearly half of their population. Yet, persevering in prayer, and assisted by helpful Indians, they reaped a bountiful harvest the following summer.
The Pilgrims learned to grow corn, beans, and pumpkins from the Indians, which helped all of them survive. The grateful Pilgrims then declared a three-day feast, starting on December 13, 1621, to thank God and to celebrate with 90 of their Indian friends, including their leader. This communal dinner is popularly known as “The First Thanksgiving Feast”.
Pilgrim Edward Winslow described the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving in these words:
“Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent four men on fowling (bird hunting) so that we might, after a special manner, rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as… served the company almost a week… Many of the Indians [came] amongst us and… their greatest King, Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted; and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought… And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God we are far from want.”
In 1789, following a proclamation issued by President George Washington, America celebrated its first Day of Thanksgiving to God under its new constitution. Still, official Thanksgiving observances usually occurred only at the State level.
In 1863, our country was in the midst of a civil war when the time for the annual celebration of Thanksgiving arrived. During the first week of July of that year, the Battle of Gettysburg occurred, resulting in the loss of some 60,000 American lives.
Could a country and its people be thankful while fighting a civil war? Yes! President Abraham Lincoln responded by setting aside the last Thursday of November as a national Day of Thanksgiving. Let us read his Thanksgiving Proclamation:
The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.
In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict, while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.
Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well as the iron and coal as of our precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.
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.
It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.
And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the imposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the divine purpose, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.
Four months later in November, Lincoln delivered his famous “Gettsysburg Address.” It was while Lincoln was walking among the thousands of graves there at Gettysburg that he committed his life to Christ. As he explained to a friend:
“When I left Springfield [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.”
This Thanksgiving Day would be a great time for you to consecrate yourself to Jesus Christ also, if you have not already done so. Why not stop right now and tell Jesus you accept His forgiveness for your sin and ask Him to come into your life forever. This would be the best expression of your thankfulness to God you could ever give. He gave you the gift of His Son. You can give Him your life.
As we celebrate Thanksgiving this year, let us retain the gratefulness to God displayed by the Pilgrims and many other founding fathers. And remember that it is to those early and courageous Pilgrims that we owe not only the traditional Thanksgiving holiday but also the concepts of self-government, the “hard-work” ethic, self-reliant communities, and devout religious faith .
Being thankful is not dependent on our circumstances. All that is required to be thankful is a proper perspective, a Godly perspective. We can be thankful no matter what is going on in our lives or in our country.
Our worst day in America is still better than the best day in most countries around the world.
Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise. Be thankful to Him, and bless His name.
Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
(I Thessalonians 5:16-18)