Today, of course, is Thanksgiving; and the obvious question is, to Whom are we giving thanks, and why? Not surprisingly, however, many today studiously avoid answering the question. For them it is a time to get together with family and enjoy a turkey dinner with all the trimmings. Some even go so far as to call it “Turkey Day,” as if we needed a national holiday to celebrate a bird.
The obvious answer to the question is, of course, that the purpose of the occasion is to thank God for all His blessings received during the past year. What is striking about this, however, is that this is a national holiday; and yet we have the separation of church and state in this country. How, then, can the state proclaim what is ostensibly a religious holiday?
The deeper problem, however, is how modern Americans, with their increasingly secular outlook, can relate to their cultural heritage, in which Christianity played a prominent part. Thanksgiving Day, in fact, is a holiday that goes back to our very beginnings, and says a great deal about who we are, or least thought we were.
The first Thanksgiving was celebrated sometime in October, 1621, by the Pilgrims. They were called “Pilgrims” because that was what they thought they were: “strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Heb. 11:13; cf. I Pet. 2:11). They were members of a small religious sect in England that rejected the idea of a state church. The church, they believed, should be a voluntary association of committed Christian believers – a “believers’ church,” the communion of the saints. This was a radical idea at the time, and it brought upon them persecution. They were forced to live for a time as exiles in Holland.
Eventually they hit upon the idea of migrating to the New World. Having obtained a patent from the Virginia Company, a group of investors in London, they sailed across the Atlantic in the Mayflower. Halfway across they encountered storms, lost their way (they couldn’t see the stars by which to navigate), and eventually sighted land at Cape Cod. At first they tried to head south, toward the mouth of the Hudson River which lay within the territory controlled by the Virginia Company, but were forced back by bad weather. They decided to settle at Plymouth. As it turned out the Indian tribe that had previously lived there had been wiped out by disease three years earlier. Because Plymouth lay outside of the territory controlled by the Virginia Company, but needing some form of civil government, the Pilgrims drew up the Mayflower Compact, and early experiment in self-government.
They suffered through a difficult winter. And then one day in March, 1621 the unexpected happened. They were paid a visit by Samoset, an Indian who could speak broken English. Squanto, another Indian who could speak some English, came shortly afterward and lived with the Pilgrims briefly, and gave them valuable tips on fishing and agriculture.
At the end of that summer the Pilgrims had much for which to be thankful. They had recovered their physical health, had erected some buildings, enjoyed friendly relations with the neighboring Indians, and had produced a successful corn harvest. Appropriately, then, sometime during that October they held a Thanksgiving celebration. Massasoit, chief of the neighboring Wampanoag tribe, along with 90 of this people, attended and stayed for three days. The Pilgrims had been through much, but as Cotton Mather was later to write, “They were indeed very often upon the very point of starving, but in their extremity the God of Heaven always furnished them with some sudden reliefs . . .” (Magnalia Christi Americana, I. iii. 1).
Interesting there is an antecedent for Thanksgiving in the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles or Booths (Succot) which also is typically celebrated sometime in late September or early to mid October. The Jewish feast was meant to commemorate Israel’s wilderness journey through the Exodus, as well as to celebrate the ingathering of the year’s harvest. In both cases God had been gracious to Israel in preserving and sustaining them as a nation, and it was only proper and fitting that Israel acknowledge the fact.
And so should we, this Thanksgiving season. God has blessed us with peaceful shores, abundant natural resources, and an unparalleled measure of political freedom. We are one of the richest, freest nations on earth. Most of us can scarcely imagine the grinding poverty and the political repression that many persons around the globe must endure. Should we not express our gratitude to God this Thanksgiving?
The danger is that in the very midst of our material prosperity we will forget its ultimate source. God once warned ancient Israel about the dangers of prosperity and the temptation to say “My power and the might of mine hand hath gotten me this wealth” (Deut. 8:17). “But thou shalt remember the Lord thy God: for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth, that he may establish his covenant which he swore unto they fathers, as it is this day” (v. 18).
Should we not be thankful to God this Thanksgiving Day?