The celebration of Thanksgiving has a long history in the Americas, stretching all the way back to the earliest colonization of the continent by Europeans. Though we have traditionally identified a particular celebration by the pilgrims in 1621 as having been the “first Thanksgiving,” in truth, the pilgrims, and all the other various settlers to these lands celebrated numerous Thanksgivings for a variety of reasons.
Historians tell us that some colonists, for instance, gave thanks in many places merely for having been able to make it once more to land. The Spaniards and the French both celebrated recorded days of Thanksgiving in the 16th century, and Thanksgiving services were held in Virginia in as early as 1607. The settlers to the Americas, many being quite religious, had a tradition and an understanding that Thanksgiving was an important concept and one that all faithful men would engage in. To this end, they regularly set aside days for the purpose of prayer and the giving of thanks, sometimes combining such a day with a feast or other celebrations. They sometimes celebrated such days more than once a year. In point of fact, the Thanksgiving celebrated by the Pilgrims in 1621 was three days long.
These days of Thanksgiving were often commanded by secular leaders, but were always understood in a religious context. For instance, when George Washington, serving as President of the United States, ordered a national day of Thanksgiving in 1789, he commented that it was, “the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor.” He recommended the day, “be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be,” and enjoined the nation to, “unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions…”
The giving of thanks to God is a thing most familiar to practitioners of the Christian faith, and the observance of a particular day devoted entirely to thanksgiving is an entirely natural development for a nation comprised of and directed by those mindful of Christian duty.
The Scriptures teach us that each meal is to be sanctified with thanksgiving (cf. 1 Timothy 4:3-5) and that it is proper for a Christian to be, “giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Ephesians 5:20; NKJV) We also read, “and whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” (Colossians 3:17; NKJV)
So important is the need for humanity to be thankful, that a lack of thanksgiving, properly directed at God, is identified in Biblical doctrine as one of the great hallmarks of a lost and sinful world. The apostle Paul wrote of such a people, “because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful.” (Romans 1:21; NKJV) The sin is two-fold: a failure to properly acknowledge God as the proper recipient of worship, and a failure to properly worship God with thanksgiving (cf. Psalm 100).
Men who want to celebrate a day of Thanksgiving as a purely secular holiday, devoid of religious devotion and prayer, are left with an interesting quandary: who are they giving thanks to? Are they showing gratitude to farmers? To the grocery clerks who sold them food? To their employers? To themselves? A celebration of thanksgiving without acknowledging God devolves, philosophically, into little more than a worship of men, and an adoration of self.
Almost as bad, but in a different way, are those who acknowledge the blessings of God on a single day, but refuse to give Him tribute at any other time. God is rich towards men every day, and it is every day that the Christian should be acknowledging such with gratitude, thanksgiving and prayers. To devote one day to God, and the rest of the year to self is to belittle what God has done. Thanksgiving Day is not a replacement for those services that God is owed, but is, properly understood, most meaningful as a natural extension of those duties we should be engaged in throughout the year.
As we turn our minds to thoughts of Thanksgiving, followers of Christ should strive to do so properly, with a focus on the one to whom we give thanks through the avenue of ardent prayer.
The church of Christ invites you to come worship and study with us as we strive to give Thanks to the one who made us and saved us. Please join us at 234 Chapel Drive, Gallipolis, Ohio.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ.