LYNCHBURG, Va. (BP)–Thanksgiving is probably the most significant American holiday because of the favor it has experienced from some of our greatest leaders. And the Thanksgiving tradition serves as a valuable history lesson for civil libertarians who carelessly attempt to ignore our nation’s prominent religious heritage that should not be swept under the proverbial rug.
The Thanksgiving tradition can be traced back to the early Pilgrims who held a feast in 1621 after a substantial harvest. Governor William Bradford proclaimed a day of thanksgiving, inviting Indian chief Massasoit and many of his people to this three-day feast. Squanto, the Pilgrim’s translator and friend, was present as well. While this banquet would not become an annual event, it beautifully signified the heartfelt thanks of the early colonists for God’s blessing on them.
On June 20, 1676, the governing council of Charlestown, Massachusetts, determined that they would officially express thanks for their prosperity. By unanimous vote, they instructed clerk Edward Rawson to proclaim June 29 as a day of thanksgiving.
That proclamation read, in part: “… and that the Lord may behold us as a People offering Praise and thereby glorifying him; the Council doth commend it to the Respective Ministers, Elders and people of this Jurisdiction; Solemnly and seriously to keep the same Beseeching that being persuaded by the mercies of God we may all, even this whole people offer up our bodies as a living and acceptable Service unto God by Jesus Christ.”
It was not, however, until Nov. 1, 1777, that the first official national recognition of Thanksgiving was given, when declared by the Continental Congress following Burgoyne’s defeat at Saratoga. The defeat of Burgoyne and his army came following a grueling campaign that began with the British victory at Ticonderoga, and our leaders desired to express thanks to God for the victory.
Throughout the 1700s, it was common practice for the colonies to observe days of thanksgiving throughout the years. Then, on Oct. 3, 1789, George Washington, during his first year as president, set aside Thursday, November 26, as “A Day of Public Thanksgiving and Prayer.” This official decree by the young national government determined that the day should “be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God.”
No early variety of the American Civil Liberties Union arrived on the scene that day to protest Washington’s action with a lawsuit. No primitive version of Barry Lynn [of Americans United for Separation of Church and State] was there to claim that a government endorsement of a day of Thanksgiving might “offend” somebody. Instead, the nation enthusiastically welcomed this proclamation with grateful hearts.
On Oct. 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation distinguishing the fourth Tuesday of November as a national Thanksgiving holiday. President Lincoln also declared days of Thanksgiving for Sunday, April 13 — following the Union victory at Shiloh — and Aug. 6, 1863, in recognition of the Union’s success at Gettysburg.
Mr. Lincoln’s October 1863 Thanksgiving proclamation read, in part: “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.”
What eloquent and provocative words these are.
President Andrew Johnson set aside a special Thanksgiving on Dec. 7, 1865 (celebrating the Union victory), and each president since that time has declared an annual national Thanksgiving. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt changed the holiday to the third Thursday of November (to broaden the Christmas shopping season), but after much protest, two years later changed Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday in November, where it remains today.
As you can see, Thanksgiving holds a special place in the history of our nation. Our Founders were men who were not afraid to boldly declare thanks to Almighty God for honoring the nation.
The words of Benjamin Franklin, speaking to the Constitutional Convention, on June 28, 1787, brilliantly express the sentiment of our Founding Fathers: “I have lived, sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth — that God Governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?”
This Thanksgiving, I encourage all parents and grandparents to remind their families of the great Judeo-Christian heritage of America. It is up to us to keep alive the legacy of religious freedom and passion that sparked this nation. May the words of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” (1938) remain our constant theme as we battle to preserve the Judeo-Christian heritage of our dear nation.
Falwell is pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church, Lynchburg, Va., and chancellor of Liberty University.