Without diminishing the various religious festivals that preceded it across the ocean, most recognize the holiday called Thanksgiving as a uniquely American tradition. Before appreciating the role of U.S. presidents who helped to normalize the observance of the holiday, however, we would do well to commemorate the noble intentions of Separatist Puritans who, due to their inability to reform the Church of England, sailed across the Atlantic in search of the freedom to establish an English-speaking society that was robustly committed to Scripture.
Despite efforts of modern revisionists to downplay the distinctly Christian motivations of the pilgrims, their stated mission in the Mayflower Compact was “for the glory of God and advancement of the Christian faith.” When the Puritans arrived in the New World in November of 1620, the harsh New England winter coupled with starvation and disease nearly did them in. Before the cold months subsided, only 53 of the 102 pilgrims on the Mayflower survived.
Thankful to be alive, they, according to the first governor of Plymouth Colony, “fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven who had brought them over this vast and furious ocean.” From the very beginning of the American experiment, gratitude to Almighty God, even in the midst of tremendous hardship was at the forefront of colonial life.
Realizing the continued theme of God’s faithful provisions, our first president, George Washington, declared a National Day of Thanksgiving in order to offer prayers to the “Lord and Ruler of Nations.”
In the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln, after extolling the divine blessings upon our country, offered a Thanksgiving Proclamation wherein he encouraged the last Thursday of November as a day of praise to our “beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
Following the same pattern during World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt sought national gratitude in the midst of a difficult season even as he formalized the federal calendar to include the Thanksgiving holiday. He pleaded with Americans to “bear more earnest witness to our gratitude to Almighty God.”
If nothing else, these historical realities remind us that Thanksgiving is more about whom we give thanks to than what we give thanks for. Each year I always chuckle when I read about atheist and humanist groups attempting to express appreciation to no one in particular when the fourth Thursday of November rolls around.
Some will merely voice gratitude to family and friends (we can learn much about the value of esteeming the people in our lives). The notion of secular grace, however, leaves many worshipping the universe or luck in general. Not only is this logically and theologically inadequate, but it is also a colossal waste of time. Giving thanks, by its very nature, requires that someone be there to receive it.
Even with a cursory reading of God’s Word, the theme of thankfulness emerges. King David instructed, appointed, and admonished leaders in Israel to offer thanks to God after settling the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem (1 Chronicles 16). He tells the people to make God’s deeds known (16:8), to speak of God’s wonders (16:9), to glory in God’s name (16:10), to remember God’s work (16:12), to proclaim the good tidings of God’s salvation (16:23), and to ascribe to the Lord the glory due His name (16:28-29). Then, at a high point of praise, David admonishes: “O give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; For His lovingkindness is everlasting (1 Chronicles 16:34).”
Neither time nor space will permit me to cite all the verses extolling the virtue of thankfulness. My personal favorite simply reads, “in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus (1 Thess. 5:18).” Thanklessness is a form of independence from God, which is nothing more than practical atheism in disguise. Giving thanks not only reminds us that God is real, but also that He is both active and benevolent in our lives.
So, join me this week, and every week, in giving thanks to the Lord for the magnificent work of His hands. Count your blessings and voice your love and appreciation to the Father above (Psalm 105:1). On your good days and on your bad days, remember the will of God and give Him thanks through everything season of life (Eph. 5:20).
Adam Dooley is the pastor of Englewood Baptist Church in Jackson, Tenn., as well as an author and frequent conference speaker. He also teaches adjunctly at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. He is the author of Zondervan’s Hope When Life Unravels: Finding God When It Hurts. His other books include Passion In the Pulpit, which he co-authored with Dr. Jerry Vines, as well as a forthcoming commentary on 1 & 2 Chronicles in the Christ-Centered Exposition series.