Minister’s Forum: The history of giving thanks
This Thanksgiving I feel incredibly thankful to be an American, I love my country and feel intensely patriotic. I thank God for our freedoms that we have as no other nation on Earth and our prosperities and blessings that we enjoy. I think it would be good for us to be reminded ourselves of the true meaning of Thanksgiving as intended by our founding fathers.
This holiday began when the Pilgrims invited their Indian neighbors to dinner to thank God for his provisions. But, there really is much more to the story.
The Atlantic crossing in the fall of 1620 had been an extremely difficult journey for the Pilgrims. For two months, 102 people were wedged into what was called the “tween decks” – the cargo space of the boat, which only had about 51Ú2 feet of headroom. No one was allowed above deck because of the terrible storms. While this was no pleasure trip, only one person died during the voyage. After 66 days at sea, land was sighted off what is now Cape Cod, Mass.
The Pilgrims barely survived their first winter on the Cape. Only four families escaped without burying at least one family member. But God was faithful. In the spring of 1621, He sent them Squanto, an Indian who could speak their language and who offered to teach them how to survive in this strange new land. Squanto had been captured as a young man and taken to England. During that time he mastered the English language; and then had been freed and returned to his native territory shortly before the Pilgrims arrived. Probably the most important thing Squanto taught the Pilgrims was how to plant the Indians’ winter staple crop – corn.
The Pilgrims thanked God for this wonderful helper, but they also shared with Squanto the most valuable treasure they had brought with them from England – the Gospel. Squanto died within a year or two after coming to the aid of the Pilgrims, but before his death he prayed that he might go to be with their God in Heaven. Other Indians who Squanto had introduced to the Pilgrims were also impressed with their God. During the summer of 1621, when it appeared the years corn harvest would not survive a severe drought, the Pilgrims called for a day of fasting and prayer. By the end of the day, it was raining. The rain saved the corn, which miraculously sprang back to life.
One of the Indians who observed this miracle remarked that their God must be a very great God because when the Indians pow-wowed for rain it always rained so hard the corn stalks were broken down. But, they noticed that the Pilgrims’ God had sent a very gentle rain that did not damage the corn harvest.
It was that same miraculous corn harvest that provided the grain for the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving meal with their Indian friends and helps. Today, many of our public school children are taught that we celebrate Thanksgiving because the Pilgrims were thanking their Indian neighbors for helping them; but the evidence of history shows that on that first Thanksgiving day the thanks of both Pilgrims and Indians went to God for His goodness toward them all.
In 1789, Congress approved the Bill of Rights, the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution. Congress then “recommended a day of public thanksgiving and prayer” to thank God for blessing America. Another 75 years later, after the Civil War ended, President Abraham Lincoln established the last Thursday in November as a day to acknowledge “the gracious gifts of the Most High God” bestowed upon America. Every president did the same until 1941 when Congress officially made Thanksgiving a national holiday.
(Resource information from the Christian Legal Association.)
– Alan Morse is pastor of the First Baptist Church of South Lake Tahoe.