EDITOR’S NOTE: A version of this Thanksgiving column by the late Jerry Falwell ran previously in Baptist Press in 2004.
LYNCHBURG, Va. (BP)–Throughout our nation’s history there have been champions of freedom who bore a dramatic influence in the rise of freedom in America. I wish to honor these Christian leaders with this column.
— William Bradford.
Gov. Bradford came to America on the Mayflower with his wife, Dorothy, who drowned on Dec. 7, 1620, when the ship was anchored in Provincetown Harbor. Despite the anguish of losing his wife, Gov. Bradford wrote “Of Plymouth Plantation,” which gave account of the Plymouth Colony.
In 1623, the notion of Thanksgiving was born as Gov. Bradford declared: “Inasmuch as the great Father has given us this year an abundant harvest of Indian corn, wheat, peas, beans, squashes, and garden vegetables, 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 ….”
This man of faith proclaimed that Nov. 29, 1623 (their third year on the new continent) serve as a day for “render[ing] thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all His blessings.” The colonists had actually celebrated with a feast in 1621, as Indian chiefs Massassoit, Squanto and Samoset and many of their men joined with the Pilgrims for a three-day event.
— George Washington.
Throughout the 1700s, individual colonies initiated individual days of thanksgiving each year. Informal thanksgiving festivities were held in 1777 throughout the colonies as a form of celebrating the surrender of the British.
But in 1789, military hero George Washington, who was serving as America’s first president, declared that America should officially honor God with a National Day of Thanksgiving. Recalling the many blessings on the young nation, President Washington wrote a proclamation setting aside Thursday, Nov. 26 as “A Day of Publick Thanksgiving an[d] Prayer.”
Signed on Oct. 3, 1789, the decree designated the day “to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God.” It was an important declaration that reminded all Americans throughout the young nation that God had indeed blessed them with the gift of freedom.
— Abraham Lincoln.
On Oct. 3, 1863, with our nation embroiled in a bitter conflict that set brother against brother, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation calling for a national Thanksgiving holiday to take place on the fourth Tuesday of November. This great man, noting the “severity” of the war, said the nation needed to turn its collective hearts heavenward in the time of national struggle.
“No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things,” President Lincoln wrote. “They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”
He noted that the way to bring the nation back to unity was by imploring “the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”
— Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday to the third Thursday of November (to extend the Christmas shopping season and boost the economy). After a storm of protest, Roosevelt changed the holiday again in 1941 to the fourth Thursday in November, where it stands today.
On Thanksgiving Day 1943, with the world at war, President Roosevelt issued this proclamation: “God’s help to us has been great in this year of march towards world-wide liberty. In brotherhood with warriors of other United Nations our gallant men have won victories, have freed our homes from fear, have made tyranny tremble, and have laid the foundation for freedom of life in a world which will be free.”
Several other presidents issued Thanksgiving proclamations. In 1898, President William McKinley said the blessings on the nation should “inspire us with gratitude and praise to the Lord of Hosts. …” In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson described the annual tradition of giving “in praise and thanksgiving to Almighty God for His many blessings and mercies to us as a nation.”
And in 2001, President George W. Bush issued his proclamation, saying: “In thankfulness and humility, we acknowledge, especially now, our dependence on One greater than ourselves…. May Almighty God, who is our refuge and our strength in this time of trouble, watch over our homeland, protect us, and grant us patience, resolve, and wisdom in all that is to come.”
This year, as we celebrate Thanksgiving nearly 400 years after Gov. Bradford’s first official proclamation, we continue to see an aggressive assault on the Judeo-Christian values that served as a foundation for the young nation. As we can see from the writings of great men of the past, these values have sustained and strengthened our nation at critical times.
It is imperative that those who understand the Christian heritage of this nation ensure that future generations have the ability to defend Thanksgiving and other God-inspired celebrations and observances that define our nation against those forces that wish to drive us into secular oblivion.
Jerry Falwell was pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., and chancellor of Liberty University before his death in 2007.