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Thanksgiving in America

A brief history of the U.S. holiday.
“And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty” — Edward Winslow (attendee at first Thanksgiving).

In the fall of 1620, a group of people seeking the right to worship God without government restrictions boarded the ship Mayflower for America. After two months at sea, the ship landed in the autumn near modern Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Of the more than 100 who started the journey, all but 53 succumbed to disease by the end of that first winter. The small band of settlers survived due to the friendship of Native Americans such as Squanto who taught them food gathering skills, and the Wampanoag leader Massasoit who provided food when their supplies ran out.

A large feast was prepared to celebrate their first harvest. Pilgrims gathered with 90 Wampanoag members in 1621 in what is considered the first American Thanksgiving.

Early settlers continued to celebrate days of thanksgiving as a common practice into the 1700s. On Nov. 26, 1789, President George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation by the government, calling upon Americans to express gratitude to God for the conclusion of the war of independence, declaring, “A day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God.”

A national Thanksgiving came about in the 1800s, largely due to the efforts of Sarah Josepha Hale. Widowed after just nine years of marriage, with five children, she turned to poetry as a form of income. Her most famous poem was “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” She became the editor of a literary magazine and one of the most influential voices in the 19th century.

She’s also known as the mother of Thanksgiving. Concerned the holiday was mainly celebrated in the Northeast, she campaigned for a national Thanksgiving holiday, publishing numerous articles and petitioning governors, senators, and every U.S. president over three decades.

She believed it was right to acknowledge God’s faithfulness and that such gratitude would spread, writing, ”The last Thursday in November will be an American jubilee of thankfulness to the Lord of Heaven, from whom all blessings flow; and as other nations attain to the political and religious privileges we enjoy, their people would adopt the same day for a public thanksgiving, till the tide of rejoicing rolls around the globe.”

Finally, in the midst of the Civil War in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared the fourth Thursday of November as a national holiday, proclaiming it a day of “Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens” and “in celebration of the bounties that had continued to fall on the Union.”

Though briefly moved a week earlier in 1939, an act ratified by Congress and signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt made the fourth Thursday in November the permanent day of observance. Roosevelt stated, “It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord. Across the uncertain ways of space and time our hearts echo those words, for the days are with us again when, at the gathering of the harvest, we solemnly express our dependence upon Almighty God.”

As we gather this week for copious amounts of food, time with family, and relaxation, let’s be sure to express our own sentiments of thanks to God for His many blessings in our lives. In quiet moments alone, let’s reflect on God’s goodness. As we have opportunity with friends and relatives, let’s allow time to express thanks to God for His faithfulness.

The Psalmist proclaims, “It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High; to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night” (Psalm 92:1-2).

The apostle Paul reminds us to “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

Despite overwhelming hardship and grief from the loss of loved ones, early settlers praised the Lord as the source of their provision and survival. In the midst of war, President Lincoln looked to God with gratefulness. No matter our situation this year, let’s remember our blessings and the peace of knowing we are in God’s hands.

Keith Surface

Keith Surface is manager for AG News and public relations for the Assemblies of God. He is a graduate of Southwestern Assemblies of God University (SAGU) and the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary. Keith is an adjunct instructor of church history for SAGU. A licensed minister with the Assemblies of God, he regularly teaches and preaches in local churches. Keith and his wife, Melanie, have four children and live in Ozark, Missouri.