The Myths of Thanksgiving

So maybe you know that Abraham Lincoln issued the first presidential Thanksgiving proclamation in October 1863, when the outcome of the Civil War and his re-election remained very much in doubt. Whether or not you know the official origins of the Thanksgiving holiday, take a minute to appreciate this selection from Lincoln’s vivid words:

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. . . . 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 one voice by the whole American People.

However, you probably know less than you think about the true origins of Thanksgiving, whether celebrated by the Pilgrims and Native Americans or codified by presidential proclamation. For example, do you know that Thanksgiving was not formally connected to the Pilgrims until the 1930s? President Herbert Hoover said, “We approach the season when, according to custom dating from the garnering of the first harvest by our forefathers in the New World, a day is set apart to give thanks even amid hardships to Almighty God for our temporal and spiritual blessings.”

And today we often lament the commercialization of Thanksgiving, especially as Black Friday specials creep back into Thursday. But did you know that in the middle of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt temporarily moved Thanksgiving forward one week to make the Christmas shopping season longer and bolster the nation’s struggling retailers? Turns out consumerism is a durable American tradition, too.

For more myth busting, listen to the newest Going Deeper with TGC podcast, recorded with Tracy McKenzie, chair of the department of history at Wheaton College and author of the forthcoming book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History (InterVarsity, 2013). He talks with Mark and me about what and how we know about the original Thanksgiving, what kind of relationship the Pilgrims and Native Americans shared, what hard questions the Pilgrims would ask us today, how to make thanksgiving an everyday lifestyle, and why we’re all pilgrims.

Stay tuned as Trevin Wax, managing editor of The Gospel Project, talks with George Guthrie of Union University and author of Read the Bible for Life about the Bible’s storyline of redemption. Finally, Mark and I discuss two additional resources to help you honor God and love your family during the holidays:

You can stream the podcast below, download the mp3, or subscribe to Going Deeper with TGC on iTunes or through your other mobile devices.

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Going Deeper with TGC, 11-20, Tracy McKenzie

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  • Brian Spence

    On October 3, 1789, George Washington issued the Thanksgiving proclamation below, and linked above.

    “By the President of the United States of America, a Proclamation.

    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 to implore his protection and favor– and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.

    Now therefore 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– That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks–for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation–for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war–for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed–for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted–for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

    and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions– to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually–to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed–to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord–To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us–and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

    Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.

    Go: Washington”

    • taco

      So, are you saying this post is misleading or what exactly?

      • Brian Spence

        Not misleading at all, just incomplete. I don’t think the point of the article is in any way misleading or inaccurate based on Washington’s proclamation.

        I wasn’t aware of the Washington proclamation myself until earlier this year when my 2nd grader came home excited about the history of Thanksgiving and we started doing some research. What she was being taught in school was exceedingly pluralistic, and I wanted her to be able to read for herself.

  • John Carpenter

    The Puritans regularly had Thanksgiving holidays. So I don’t know what the post is saying when it says it wasn’t “formally” connected to the “Pilgrims” until the 1930s. If it means merely “by the President”, I suppose that’s true. But it’s not important.

    They believed that there were basically three special days during the year, it may seem odd to us but they didn’t celebrate Christmas or Easter but they kept the weekly Sabbath, meeting for worship on the first day of the week, and then Fast Days and Thanksgiving days. But neither were on set dates in the calendar. They were dynamic and spontaneous. If events showed that God was displeased with them, they would call a day of fasting and humiliation. If there were droughts, or ship-wrecks, or severe Indian attacks, they saw those events as whips in God’s hands to discipline them. They believed all those things were under the control of God, that nothing was outside of His control. So they would call a day for repentance. They also would call a fast day over trouble in the church or society: if heresies arose, or contention and divisions in the church, or there was a neglect of family order and worship, or immorality broke out among the youth. They knew that God was afflicting them by allowing these things and would afflict them more if they didn’t turn from them. So they would call a special day, a day of humiliation. Each family was supposed to prepare their hearts, to arrive early at church, to dress simply (without ostentation). Then they would spend the day listening to preaching, singing psalms, and particularly in prayer. The purpose was to afflict the soul, say “woe is me,” and seek God’s mercy. A Puritan pastor in New England defined the day of fasting like this:

    An extraordinary part or act of Gospel worship wherein for a convenient season we abstain from the comforts of this life, and upon due examination of our ways towards God, and consideration of God’s ways toward us, we make a solemn and real profession that we justify God and judge ourselves.

    The Puritans called about three times as many fasting days as they did Thanksgiving days. Three times. Because they were aware of their sinfulness, they took God’s judgment seriously. It says a lot about us and our culture, doesn’t it?, that we have neglected this fasting day and only kept the feasting day. But I’m glad that, at least, we’ve kept that one holiday.

  • Steve, Winnipeg, Canada

    A major myth is that Thanksgiving is in November. Everyone knows it is the second Monday in October!

    Just kidding, all you Americans, don’t freak out! I’m only joking!

  • Joshua Waulk

    I find it doubtful that any American president, in my lifetime, will use the language and thought processes we find Lincoln using in this post. On one hand, I lament this probability. On the other hand, I recognize that our God has things well in hand, and the victory is sure. We have much to be thankful for, regardless of national/political discrepancies.

  • Fr. Ryan Hall

    There are several historical inaccuracies here. October 1863 was not the first Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamation. Jefferson Davis of the Confederacy issues one in 1861, and both he and Lincoln issued them in 1862. Washington issued more than one, as did Adams and Madison:

    While not a Federal holiday during the early 1800’s, it was a state holiday in some places, with governors giving Thanksgiving day proclamations or blessings. Some mention in sermons from that period talk about the Pilgrim fathers and Thanksgiving.

    Secondly, the assertion that the Pilgrims were never connected to Thanksgiving before the 1930’s is likewise erroneous, though a nice attempt at historical revisionism. I have an American History primer in my hands as I write this from the late 1800’s that talks about Thanksgiving and Lincoln’s proclamation which mentions its ties to the Pilgrims. Now, I grant that Pilgrims and Indians as the primary image of Thanksgiving is relevantly current, but to assert that there was no formal connection before the 1930’s is erroneous.

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