The human family has always had special days to acknowledge God’s goodness. The Jews have the passover, to celebrate God’s deliverance. The Plymouth colonists celebrated their second winter spent in the New World.
The first dreadful winter in Massachusetts had killed nearly half of the members of the colony, but they had new hope in the late summer of 1621. The corn harvest brought rejoicing, and the forests and streams were abundant with wild game and fish. At this time they had experience in this new land, and understood their environment. Governor William Bradford decreed that December 13, 1621, be set aside as a day of feasting and prayer to demonstrate the gratitude the colonists felt toward God. Women of the colony spent days preparing for the feast. “More than eighty Indians attended the feast. The tables were set outdoors, and all the people sat around the combined tables, like one large family. Prayers, sermons, and songs of praise accompanied the feasting. Three days were devoted to the Thanksgiving.”
News of the Plymouth celebration traveled to other New England towns and colonies. Thanksgiving Day became a custom. Attempts were made to formalize a special day of Thanksgiving. In 1789 President George Washington was urged by Congress to proclaim a national holiday of Thanksgiving. The content of his message is something for us to remember today.
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 and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceable to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness. Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 25th day of November next to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great & glorious Being who is the Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be, that we then all unite in rendering unto Him our service and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the People of this Country…; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His Providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enable to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness… And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord & 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 & relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a government of wise, just, & constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed & obeyed; to protect & guide all sovereigns & nations and to bless them with good governments. Peace & Concord; to promote the knowledge & practice of true religion & virtue…; & generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal Prosperity as He alone knows to be best.
Sara Hale, editor of Godey’s Ladies Book, who spent thirty years promoting the setting of a legal Thanksgiving Day. She wrote and published repeated pleas to the general public and wrote letters to the different presidents. Finally, in 1863, President Lincoln issued a proclamation setting aside the last Thursday of November in that year as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficient Father. (I think that it is interesting that President Lincoln issued this day of thanksgiving and praise to God in the midst of a civil war.) Finally in 1941 Congress ruled that Thanksgiving Day would be a legal holiday, the fourth Thursday of November. —- taken from a devotional address given by Harold I Hansen, Observing Thanksgiving Day, on November 25, 1975.