Almost from the very beginning of America the call to give thanks to Almighty God has been heard in the land. Even before the Pilgrims settled in Massachusetts the proclamation of Thanksgiving was sounded upon these shores.
One of the earliest recorded celebrations occurred a half century before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth in 1621. “A small colony of French Huguenots established a settlement near present-day Jacksonville, Florida. On June 30, 1564, their leader, René de Laudonnière, recorded that ‘We sang a psalm of Thanksgiving unto God, beseeching Him that it would please Him to continue His accustomed goodness towards us.”
In 1607, 13 years before the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts, a group of 104 English men and boys began a settlement on the banks of Virginia’s James River. They were sponsored by the Virginia Company of London, whose stockholders hoped to make a profit from the resources of the New World. The community suffered terrible hardships in its early years, but managed to endure, earning the distinction of being America’s first permanent English colony.
In 1610, after a hard winter called “the starving time,” the colonists at Jamestown called for a time of thanksgiving. This was after the original company of 409 colonists had been reduced to 60 survivors. The colonists prayed for help that finally arrived by a ship filled with food and supplies from England. They held a prayer service to give thanks.
While none of these Thanksgiving celebrations were an official national pronouncement (no nation existed at the time), they do support the claim that the celebrations were religious. “Thanksgiving began as a holy day, created by a community of God-fearing Puritans sincere in their desire to set aside one day each year especially to thank the Lord for His many blessings. The day they chose, coming after the harvest at a time of year when farm work was light, fit the natural rhythm of rural life.”
In July 1776, the American colonists declared independence from Britain. The months that followed were so bleak that there was not much to give thanks for. The Journals of the Continental Congress record no Thanksgiving in that year, only two days of “solemn fasting” and prayer.
For much of 1777, the situation was not much better. British troops controlled New York City. The Americans lost the strategic stronghold of Fort Ticonderoga, in upstate New York, to the British in July. In Delaware County, Pa., on Sept. 11, troops led by Gen. George Washington lost the Battle of Brandywine, in which 200 Americans were killed, 500 wounded and 400 captured. Early in the morning of Sept. 21, another 300 American soldiers were killed or wounded and 100 captured in a British surprise attack near Malvern, Pa., that became known as the Paoli Massacre.
Philadelphia, America’s largest city, fell on Sept. 26. Congress, which had been meeting there, fled briefly to Lancaster, Pa., and then to York, a hundred miles west of Philadelphia. One delegate to Congress, John Adams of Massachusetts, wrote in his diary, “The prospect is chilling, on every Side: Gloomy, dark, melancholy, and dispiriting.”
His cousin, Samuel Adams, gave the other delegates — their number had dwindled to a mere 20 from the 56 who had signed the Declaration of Independence — a talk of encouragement. He predicted, “Good tidings will soon arrive. We shall never be abandoned by Heaven while we act worthy of its aid and protection.”
He turned out to have been correct, at least about the good tidings. On Oct. 31, a messenger arrived with news of the American victory at the Battle of Saratoga. The American general, Horatio Gates, had accepted the surrender of 5,800 British soldiers, and with them 27 pieces of artillery and thousands of pieces of small arms and ammunition.
Saratoga turned the tide of the war — news of the victory was decisive in bringing France into a full alliance with America. Congress responded to the event by appointing a committee of three that included Samuel Adams, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia and Daniel Roberdeau of Pennsylvania, to draft a report and resolution. The report, adopted Nov. 1, declared Thursday, Dec. 18, as “a day of Thanksgiving” to God, so that “with one heart and one voice the good people may express the grateful feelings of their hearts, and consecrate themselves to the service of their divine benefactor.”
It was the first of many Thanksgivings ordered up by Samuel Adams. Though the holidays were almost always in November or December, the exact dates varied. (Congress didn’t fix Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday in November until 1941.)
In 1778, a Thanksgiving resolution drafted by Adams was approved by Congress on Nov. 3, setting aside Wednesday, Dec. 30, as a day of public thanksgiving and praise, “It having pleased Almighty God through the Course of the present year, to bestow great and manifold Mercies on the People of these United States.”
When the nation was finally established the First House of Representatives on Thursday, September 24, 1789, voted to recommend—in its exact wording—the First Amendment to the states for ratification. The next day, Friday, September 25, Congressman Elias Boudinot from New Jersey proposed that the House and Senate jointly request of President Washington to proclaim a day of thanksgiving for “the many signal favors of Almighty God.” Boudinot said that he “could not think of letting the session pass over without offering an opportunity to all the citizens of the United States of joining, with one voice, in returning to Almighty God their sincere thanks for the many blessings he had poured down upon them.” and on October 3rd of that year President George Washington made the first Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamation.
On October 3, 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared that the last Thursday of November 1863 would be set aside as a nationwide celebration of thanksgiving. His proclamation stated that:
“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…. I do, therefore, invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday in November next as a day of Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent father who dwelleth in heaven.”
Starting with Lincoln, United States Presidents proclaimed the last Thursday in November for Thanksgiving. Franklin D. Roosevelt changed the celebration to the third Thursday in November “to give more shopping time between Thanksgiving and Christmas. At this point Congress enacted the ‘fourth Thursday’ compromise.” Ever since this pragmatic and commercial approach to Thanksgiving was promoted, its original meaning has steadily been lost.
As a nation we owe a debt of gratitude to those who arrived here before us and set in place the practice of offering Thanksgiving to God for the preservation of this great nation. Without which I fear this young nation would have been lost before it even began. Although many today attempt to remove the foundation Religion played in the formation of this nation, it is quite clear to this reader that the Divine Providence of God was responsible for the very survival of these United States of America. Thanks be to God!
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