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Wednesday Word: Thanksgiving

November 25, 2020 | Jay T. Smith

Whatever Happened to Thanksgiving?

Give thanks with a grateful heart
Give thanks to the Holy One
Give thanks because He’s given Jesus Christ, His Son
(Henry Smith, 1978)

Most Americans learned about Thanksgiving in an American history class. As the story goes, the local Native Americans (Patuxent, Wampanoag) came to the rescue of the Separatist Pilgrims who had recently emigrated from England. In this story, the Pilgrims’ provisions had been exhausted, and were it not for Squanto of the Patuxent tribe, who showed them how to plant corn and fish for local eels, they would have died. Additionally, Massasoit, of the Wampanoag tribe, brought them more food from his tribe.

In 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens,” which was to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November. Thus, the American version of Thanksgiving that has been indelibly impressed upon young American’s lives came to be.

Contemporary Thanksgiving

In the last 50 years, there have been a multitude of books written on Thanksgiving; either to reinforce the centuries-old cultural understanding, or to present alternative versions based upon perspectives such as historical context, Separatist ecclesial practice, and Lincoln’s supposed ulterior purpose, to name but a few perspectives. In an America that is much more secular than in the colonial period, or the mid-19th century Civil War period, we are often shocked to find out that the federal holiday of Thanksgiving has deep religious roots; first in Judeo-Christian faith on the whole (the concept of giving thanks), and more pointedly, the religious practice of “thanksgiving” by the Separatist Pilgrims.

The Religious Practice of Giving Thanks

During the English Reformation King Henry and Thomas Cromwell began a reform of the church holy days. In 1536 many of these reforms were codified. The reforms reduced the number of Church holidays to 27, yet some Puritans wished to completely eliminate Church holidays. They desired holidays to be replaced by Days of Fasting, or Days of Thanksgiving in response to events that the Puritans viewed as acts of “special providence.”

Separatist Pilgrims and Anglican Puritans who emigrated from England to the “New World” in the 1620s and 1630s brought the tradition of Days of Fasting and Days of Thanksgiving. According to the Plimoth Plantation Historical Society, not much is known about the 1621 Plymouth harvest feast and Days of Thanksgiving. The best sources tell us the thanksgiving feast was prompted by a good harvest, which the Pilgrims celebrated with Native Americans, who helped them get through the previous winter.

As important to our cultural memory as the feast itself—with its unique “pilgrim” menu of turkey, waterfowl, cod fish, pork, deer, corn, root vegetables and local fruits—is the actual religious purpose of the Separatist Pilgrim and Puritan “thanksgiving” liturgy. Informed by strict Calvinist doctrine, the only holy days were days that the church leaders declared to be days of fasting and repentance, due to injurious circumstances; or, days of giving thanks and feasting, due to special providential blessing.

Special Providence Leading to Thanksgiving

In that the “holiday” of Thanksgiving in the United States is now seen primarily as a family affair, focused on a special dinner, the spiritual and theological purpose of this day of Thanksgiving is lost. Lincoln declared this day of Thanksgiving in order to commemorate the federal victory at the Battle of Gettysburg. Lincoln saw this victory as the turning point of the Civil War; and yet he also saw this as an act of divine providence. It was a day where all Americans could give thanks that the end of the war was within sight. Yes, it was a day of feasting, but it was also a day of giving thanks for what God had done in the lives of these people.

In “postmodern” America, a recovery of this “Calvinist-originated” concept is something every Christian could and should embrace. But I might recommend one slight change. Our Thanksgiving celebrations should not simply be a day of feasting, but a true day of introspection, repentance, and prayer. We must thank our Creator for the gift of life—both temporal and eternal. In the midst of difficult political and economic times, we must pray that our nation may find its way and that we will dedicate ourselves to the gospel and its love for all people. Only after we have spent time in introspection, repentance, and prayer may we celebrate God’s provision; and not just for our Christian families, but for all people. May God richly bless you as we enter into not just a day, but a season of Thanksgiving.

Jay T. Smith

President and Bridger Professor of Theology & Ethics

Dr. Jay Smith leads the Yellowstone Theological Institute as its president. Dr. Smith has served as minister of youth, music and as senior […]

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