On December 26, 1941, President Roosevelt signed a resolution permanently establishing the fourth Thursday of each November as a national holiday. For the previous 79 years, beginning in 1863, our nation had celebrated an unofficial Thanksgiving Day on the last Thursday in November. President Lincoln began this tradition, which Presidents following him continued, by declaring, “We often forget the Source from which the blessings of fruitful years and healthful skies come. . . . No human wisdom hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most HighGod. . . . I therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States . . . to observe the last Thursday of November as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”
According to historian David Barton, the first national Thanksgiving occurred in 1789. In September of that year, immediately after approving the Bill of Rights, Congress delivered a resolution to President Washington requesting, “that he would recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer.” Washington declared, “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. . . . Now, therefore, I do appoint Thursday, the 26th day of November 1789 . . . that we may all unite to render unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection.”
In 1777 the Continental Congress called for a day of thanksgiving and praise, “so that the people may express the grateful feelings of their hearts . . . and join . . . their prayers that it may please God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, to forgive our sins and . . . to enlarge His kingdom which consists in righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.”
On October 23, 1871 President Ulysses S. Grant recommended that on Thursday, the 30th day of November, “the people meet in their respective places of worship, and there make the usual acknowledgments to Almighty God for the blessings he has conferred upon them; for their merciful exemption from evil, and invoke His protection and kindness for their less fortunate brethren whom, in His wisdom he has deemed it best to chastise.”
Of course, governmental calls for prayer, petition, and thanksgiving have by no means been limited to a day in November. In 1799 President John Adams called for a national Fast Day, requesting that citizens, “abstain, as far as may be, from their secular occupation, and devote the time to the sacred duties of religion… that they call to mind our numerous offenses against the most high God, confess them before Him with sincerest penitence…that He would make us deeply sensible that ‘righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people’ (Proverbs 14:34).”
In 1988 Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law that declared the first Thursday of each May to be recognized as a National Day of Prayer. On the inaugural date he proclaimed: “Let us, young and old, join together, as did the First Continental Congress, in the first step—humble, heartfelt prayer. Let us do so for the Love of God and His great goodness, in search of His guidance, and the grace of repentance…”
As governors, Thomas Jefferson in Virginia and John Hancock in Massachusetts both declared official days of prayer and thanksgiving. In 1790, Hancock exclaimed, “I. . . appoint . . . a day of public thanksgiving and praise . . . to render to God the tribute of praise for His unmerited goodness towards us . . . by giving to us . . . the Holy Scriptures which are able to enlighten and make us wise to eternal salvation. . . . And to pray that He would forgive our sins and . . . cause the religion of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ to be known, understood, and practiced among all the people of the earth.”
Enduring this drought ought to remind us all how thankful we should be toward our Creator for all that He provides. When the Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving in October of 1621, they had endured many hardships. In just about one year’s time, nearly half (47) of their original number had died. Through their many difficulties they still found cause to thank and praise God. The Pilgrims understood well that God truly provided them with everything that they needed. May we be of the same mindset this Thanksgiving Day.