A Thanksgiving History

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By Raymond Harris

Concerning Scripture: Ester 9.20-22

In an era that seems to be awash with emotional anguish because of economic uncertainty, presidential nominations, continued struggles oversees and continued strife among our citizenry, I would like to take the time to step into a difficult territory called “church and state” to remind us of the reason why we as Americans should hold valuable this fourth Thursday of November.

Our nation is quite unique in its place in history. From our modest beginnings of an agrarian society struggling to provide life’s necessities of food, clothing and shelter, we have become a nation that has filled a continent and influenced the entire world.

Yet the tender reality of our history is one that contains moments and triumphs that are praise-worthy, and yet we have conducted ourselves in deplorable and deprecating ways. We are a nation that truly represents its citizenry from the righteous to the unrighteous. May our individual and national hearts never become so calloused that we cannot appeal to our Almighty Creator for His mercy and forgiveness.

1789 at a Glance
The year is 1789. There is no such thing as air conditioning, central heat, or multilane paved interstate highways. There are no radios or TVs, no Internet or iPods, no DVDs or MP3s, but human slavery is common practice.

Those living in 1789, may be alive in 1809 when a boy baby will be born, this boy maturing to manhood will remain relatively unknown and unappreciated to these people, until he helps guide their children and his nation through one of her darkest hours.

It is doubtful that those born in 1789 will live the 100 years that will pass before Thomas Edison will make his mark with the light bulb, or the 120 years needed before the introduction of the Ford Motor Company’s Model T.

The granddaughters of the nation’s founders will not live to see the day when the ladies will be given the privilege to vote.

The nation of 1789 knows nothing about the Iron Horse (aka locomotive), a Civil War, Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, a Teapot Dome Scandal, let alone World War I, the Great Depression, or WWII, Korea, Vietnam or Iraq.

In 1789 the United States is brand new.

By the close of 1783, the Treaty of Paris solidified the colony’s successful management of their War for Independence defeating England. Having won the war, 12 of the 13 colonies gathered together to revisit the Articles of Confederation, but in the process drafted a new Constitution for a national government.

While all 13 ultimately ratified the Constitution, only 9 were required for the constitution to become effective. By July 1788, eleven states agreed to the new government and in March 1789 the first congressional session was convened and a national leader was needed. Our nation’s first congress unanimously requested and chose George Washington to serve as the fledgling nation’s first President. But before we examine our culture and history, let us take a brief moment learn examine God’s Word.

Ester and the Feast of Purim
From the book of Ester, we learn that the Hebrews (who were in Babylonian captivity) were facing annihilation by Haman. As the events of this book unfold, not only did Haman, the treacherous leader, find himself executed for his doomsday plans but the Hebrews were permitted a victorious battlefield engagement against their enemy. Upon cessation of hostilities, a feast was held in honor of the engagement. This feast became the yearly national feast of Purim and was established in remembrance of the events described in the book of Ester.

In Ester 9.20-22, we find that Mordecai recommended this to be a yearly two-day event. The Jewish people were to observe a two-day feast were they would rest from fighting their enemies, so that they could turn from sorrow to joy, so that they could eat plenty, have joy, send portions one to another, and gifts to the poor. Interestingly enough, Mordecai was from the tribe of Benjamin and therefore not a Levite (the priestly tribe), nor was he a prophet (p. 146 Dickson), yet he commanded the Jewish nation to observe this feast as a national holy day (holiday) through out their history.

Another interesting aspect to this feast (and one that is of significant spiritual value) is that the book of Ester provides to us the biblical example permitting God’s people to establish holy days in remembrance of national events. This has application to 21st century believers because Paul states in Romans 15.4 (ESV) “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” Something that is worth noting: following the establishment of the feast of Purim, no prophet (including Jesus himself), made a God-given proclamation to negate or to remove the observance of this holy day established by a non-priest, non-prophet Jew.

So from Ester we can learn of the Jewish nation proclaiming a type of national “thanksgiving” but what does that have to do with our national day of thanksgiving.

The Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamation
While President George Washington’s 1789 Thanksgiving proclamation was the first for any United States President, it was actually nothing more than congress desiring to reinstate via presidential fiat, the proclamation of thanksgiving.

Continental Congress issued Thanksgiving proclamations between 1777 and 1784. When we recall that our national Independence was declared July 4, 1776, we can see that congress (from the earliest years of the independence) recognized the need to be thankful to God above. But these proclamations were a continuance of thanksgiving observances begun as early as the pilgrim’s harvest celebration of 1621.

But we should understand that these founding fathers and mothers were not just thankful for a new government. These souls were guided and influenced by God’s Holy Word. These men and women did not simply give name recognition to Jehovah, instead they trusted that He aided the development of the United States to become a part of the political and historical timeline of humanity.

Because these leaders placed their trust in God, the first United States congress requested that the first President recommend the first national day of “thanksgiving”.

As we hear a portion of Washington’s proclamation, we need to absorb the thoughts he is conveying. One, that he was requested by congress, the elected leaders, to make this proclamation, and that it is the duty of nations to acknowledge God:

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 peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:” [italics in original; emp. mine]

Washington then proclaims that this day is to contain an expression of our thanks to God:

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… [emp. mine]

Among the many statements in his proclamation, is his request that the nation ask for God to forgive our individual, collective and national sins:

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… [emp. mine]

It is interesting that our first president, at the behest of congress, asked the nation to set aside a day to not only give thanks to Jehovah, but to ask for his divine forgiveness. What is of further importance is that proclamation of thanksgiving and asking for forgiveness was a temperament demonstrated again by our second President John Adams in 1799, and our fourth President James Madison in 1814.

Intervening Years
However, it would be 45 long years before another president willingly expressed the idea that God was Sovereign. However, that president would not be the President of the United States, instead it would be expressed by the first and only president of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis.

Those 45 years would move from relative tranquility in the Era of Good Feelings to all out hostility. Those years would reveal the westward expansion, The Missouri Compromise and the Trail of Tears resulting from the Indian Removal Act. Those years would see the Gold Rush of 1849 during the period referred to as Manifest Destiny to the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott Decision and the secession of many southern states. But possibly it is only through the ruination of the nation through a national civil war that brought about an instance of humility by the President to again see God as Sovereign addressing the issue of sin.

Here in recent years, we have come to experience many social and national problems. We have seen crimes rate increase, gang violence grow, and domestic violence become all too common. We live in a world of shoplifting and other stealing, we have international conflict and terrorism. We have come to be a country of comforts but little contriteness.

Our society and nation is pitted against itself and each other in more ways that humanly possible. Yet we call on Jehovah to bless our nation and to guide our paths, but in recent times, the only president to mention anything about needing God’s forgiveness in his Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamation was President George Hebert Walker Bush in 1990.

The first three days of July 1863 record for us the historic battle at Gettysburg, were more than 7,500 soldiers sacrificed their life for their convictions and countries. In a Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamation issued October 3, 1863, about 45 days prior to the famed Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln affixed his signature and seal to the following:

The Year that is drawing to a 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 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.

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke the aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theater of military conflict; while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.

Needful diversion of wealth and strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore.

Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

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 [God’s gracious gifts, His anger for our sins and His mercy] should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.

I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.

And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascription’s justly due to Him for such singular deliverance’s and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and Union. [emp. mine]

What type of impact could our president have today, if he had the courage to express such moral conviction?

1. All Historical Information for George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, Model T, Women’s Suffrage, Treaty of Paris, Constitutional Ratification, the First Congress, Era of Good Feelings, the Missouri Compromise, the Trail of Tears, the Indian Removal Act, Manifest Destiny, and the Dred Scott Decision were researched on en.wikipedia.org November 16-17, 2007.

2. Mordecai – Dickson New Analytical Study Bible, King James Version, Bible Dictionary biographical information for Mordecai, p. 146.

3. Thanksgiving Date Change – http://www.earlyamerica.com/earlyamerica/firsts/thanksgiving