Perhaps no other custom so clearly reveals our nation’s original character as Thanksgiving Day. Other nations have similar observances, but the United States of America was the first to nationally recognize its dependence on God with a special day set aside to thank Him for His many blessings.
While the exact date of the first American thanksgiving celebration is debatable, there’s no doubt this custom sprang from the shared Judeo-Christian heritage of those early Pilgrims. From early Spanish expeditions in the late 1500s to the Popham Colony in Maine in 1607, each group publically declared their thanks to the God of the Bible. Twelve years later, settlers in Virginia declared a day of thanksgiving for their survival on the shores of this then-uncharted land. And in 1623, Governor William Bradford of Plymouth Colony established the most famous of these observances when a bountiful harvest prompted him to proclaim a special day to “render thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all His blessings.”1
During our Revolutionary War, the U.S. Continental Congress set aside a day for thanksgiving and praise for the decisive victory at Saratoga in 1777, marking the first time that all American colonies took part in such an event on the same day. The following year at Valley Forge, George Washington declared a special day of thanksgiving upon receiving news that France would provide aid to our cause. And later, as the young nation’s first president, he accepted a congressional petition by declaring Thursday, November 26, 1789, as the first Thanksgiving Day of the United States of America.
Many state and national days of thanksgivings have been proclaimed since that first Thanksgiving declaration. But it was the tireless crusade of Sarah Josepha Hale that led to the establishment of this observance as a national American holiday. Her moving letters so touched the heart of Abraham Lincoln that in 1863—in the midst of the horrors of the Civil War—he urged his countrymen to be mindful of their many blessings that are “the gracious gifts of the Most High God” who ought to be thanked “with one heart and one voice, by the whole American People.”2
Of course, giving thanks to God isn’t an exclusively American convention—it was first commanded of Christian believers thousands of years ago. Paul wrote, “In every thing give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Notice that the charge was not to give thanks for everything—rather, we are to give thanks in everything. Good or bad, right or wrong, be thankful in everything! Our American forebears knew this well.
So in this season of Thanksgiving, ICR joins all Christians in taking part in this beautiful tradition rooted in the biblical heritage of our country. ICR is thankful to God for His many blessings upon our ministry and for His faithful supply through believers like you who support the work of our staff to advance the truth of creation. Above all, we are thankful for Christ “who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Now that’s something to be thankful for!
This was adapted from the November 2012 Acts & Facts article, “The Roots of Thanksgiving.”
- Governor William Bradford’s Thanksgiving Proclamation, Plymouth Plantation, 1623.
- Proclamation of Thanksgiving, Abraham Lincoln, 1863.
Image Credit: The Prayer at Valley Forge. Copyright © 1975 A. Friberg. Adapted for use in accordance with federal copyright (fair use doctrine) law. Usage by ICR does not imply endorsement of copyright holder.
*Mr. Morris is Director of Donor Relations at the Institute for Creation Research.