In a time when the government seems so intent on denying the historical role God has played in the development of our nation, we should remember that giving thanks to God has been part of the American ethos since the days of exploration through the Colonial Period and throughout our national experience.
As Thanksgiving Day nears, all Americans should take time to be thankful for the many blessings bestowed upon our nation.
The first recorded thanksgiving feasts that were held in what is now the United States were conducted by the Spaniards in the 1500s. The Pilgrims were giving thanks to God before they got off the Mayflower and before that there were thanksgiving services in the Virginia colony.
During the American Revolution, governors of various colonies proclaimed days of thanksgiving. For example, in 1789 Thomas Jefferson, then governor of Virginia issued a proclamation stating: [I] appoint . . . a day of public Thanksgiving to Almighty God. . . to [ask] Him that He would . . . pour out His Holy Spirit on all ministers of the Gospel; that He would . . . spread the light of Christian knowledge through the remotest corners of the earth; . . . and that He would establish these United States upon the basis of religion and virtue.”
On September 25, 1789, the day after Congress recommended the First Amendment for ratification, both houses of Congress requested that President Washington proclaim a day of Thanksgiving.
As President, on October 3, 1789 George Washington made a proclamation creating the first Thanksgiving Day designated by the national government of the United States. It said in part “Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly implore his protection and favor… I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to 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…”
John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and other presidents continued to acknowledge an annual day of thanksgiving. By 1858 proclamations appointing a day of thanksgiving were issued by the governors of 25 states and two territories.
During the nineteenth century Sarah Josepha Hale, an influential author, poet, editor and supporter of women’s rights in education and the workplace, petitioned five presidents to establish a day of national thanksgiving.
Ms. Hale is credited as the individual most responsible for making Thanksgiving a national holiday in the United States. Her advocacy began in 1846 and continued for 17 years before it was successful. Her initial letters failed, but the letter she wrote to President Abraham Lincoln did convince him to support legislation establishing a national holiday of Thanksgiving in 1863. The new national holiday was considered an opportunity to pray for unity during the American Civil War.
Sarah Josepha Hale sought only to unite a divided nation and to recognize the importance of giving thanks to the author of our rights, responsibilities and freedoms.
In his proclamation establishing an annual national Day of Thanksgiving, Abraham Lincoln said: “I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”
In 2011 President Obama wrote in his Thanksgiving Day Proclamation: “As we gather in our communities and in our homes, around the table or near the hearth, we give thanks to each other and to God for the many kindnesses and comforts that grace our lives.”