Aside from Independence Day, no other holiday is as profoundly American as Thanksgiving. With its historical roots in the first English settlers to these lands and their Native America counterparts, it’s even older than our republic.
Days of thanksgiving were a regular occurrence during colonial times, usually called for by the church to encourage parishioners to give thanks to God for blessings big and small. The Continental Congress, which governed from 1774-1789, issued proclamations for several national days of prayer and thanksgiving, a tradition that continued under Presidents Washington and Adams under the US Constitution.
Successive presidents issued similar if irregularly time proclamations. They offered thanks to God for the blessings he had bestowed upon our young nation and its people and encouraged the citizenry to do likewise.
But it was President Abraham Lincoln who canonized Thanksgiving as a permanent feature in the civic culture of our nation.
In 1863, in the first year of the American Civil War, he called for an official day in late November to give thanks for the many blessings God had bestowed upon the nation that year. It seems counterintuitive to suggest that there was much to be thankful for as a bloody civil war ripped the country at the seams. But Lincoln reminded Americans that there had, in fact, been blessings: fruitful fields, no aggression from foreign powers eager to capitalize on the weakness of the Union, a growing population, and more.
About those things he wrote:
“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. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people.”
We’ve been doing the same on the last Thursday of November ever since.
But in our increasingly secular culture, I fear that it gets lost that we’re thanking a very specific, very real deity. That we’re offering praise and gratitude to the one Lincoln called the Most High God.
Modern Americans like to talk in therapeutic terms about gratitude. We speak as if we can be grateful for things without clarifying an actual recipient of that gratitude. But that doesn’t even make sense.
When you say “thank you,” you’re thanking someone.
So why has much of our culture pulled back from the obvious association between our national holiday of Thanksgiving and God?
It is because some don’t want to acknowledge that he’s there, let alone owed thanks.
They want to avoid the slippery slope of acknowledging God, because the next thing you know, your conscience will be prompting you to obey him. They fear that relationship because they think it will cost them something.
Little do they know, it’s only within that relationship that real liberty can be found.
However our individual citizens see Almighty God or their relationship to him, there’s no getting around the fact that the founders of our nation, and generations of leaders since that time, have held a clear understanding of the role of providence in our founding and subsequent survival.
Men of faith set out to build a nation, and with God’s help, they did.
Families of faith—protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and others—have sent their sons and daughters to die on distant battlefields, covered in prayers.
And those prayers weren’t to no one in particular. They had a specific destination.
It’s also true that the founders wanted faith to be practiced out of personal conviction and motivation, rather than compelled by the state, or even interpreted by the state. So, they baked into the American pie freedoms that keep our relationship with God in our own hands, and the government out of it.
That means that America is a nation of religious pluralism, and increasingly, those who don’t associate with any religious faith at all. But our cultural and spiritual heritage is one of a people who acknowledged, worshipped and thanked God.
Faith is a profoundly American virtue.
So, when we gather with loved ones this week to celebrate Thanksgiving, let’s remember that thankfulness is more than just a vague feeling, more than an emotion. It’s an acknowledgment and an offering.
We acknowledge that the blessings we have are from the hand of a loving God and that he’s due our praise and thanks for those good gifts.
It’s the American way.
Dana Hall McCain, a widely published writer on faith, culture and politics, is Resident Fellow of the Alabama Policy Institute, alabamapolicy.org.