This week, millions of Americans will gather for Thanksgiving. But will they really be giving thanks? And who will they thank?
FORASMUCH as it is the indispensable Duty of all Men to adore the superintending Providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with Gratitude their Obligation to him for Benefits received, and to implore such farther Blessings as they stand in Need of: And it having pleased him in his abundant Mercy, not only to continue to us the innumerable Bounties of his common Providence; but also to smile upon us in the Prosecution of a just and necessary War, for the Defense and Establishment of our unalienable Rights and Liberties; particularly in that he hath been pleased, in so great a Measure, to prosper the Means used for the Support of our Troops, and to crown our Arms with most signal success:
It is therefore recommended to the legislative or executive Powers of these UNITED STATES to set apart THURSDAY, the eighteenth Day of December next, for SOLEMN THANKSGIVING and PRAISE: That at one Time and with one Voice, the good People may express the grateful Feelings of their Hearts, and consecrate themselves to the Service of their Divine Benefactor; and that, together with their sincere Acknowledgments and Offerings, they may join the penitent Confession of their manifold Sins, whereby they had forfeited every Favor; and their humble and earnest Supplication that it may please GOD through the Merits of JESUS CHRIST, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of Remembrance; That it may please him graciously to afford his Blessing on the Governments of these States respectively, and prosper the public Council of the whole: To inspire our Commanders, both by Land and Sea, and all under them, with that Wisdom and Fortitude which may render them fit Instruments, under the Providence of Almighty GOD, to secure for these United States, the greatest of all human Blessings, INDEPENDENCE and PEACE: That it may please him, to prosper the Trade and Manufactures of the People, and the Labor of the Husbandman, that our Land may yield its Increase: To take Schools and Seminaries of Education, so necessary for cultivating the Principles of true Liberty, Virtue and Piety, under his nurturing Hand; and to prosper the Means of Religion, for the promotion and enlargement of that Kingdom, which consisteth "in Righteousness, Peace and Joy in the Holy Ghost."
In 1780, after Benedict Arnold’s traitorous pit was uncovered, Congress appointed a national day of thanksgiving and prayer. On October 18, Congress made this proclamation:
Whereas, it hath pleased Almighty God, the Father of all mercies, amidst the vicissitudes and calamities of war, to bestow blessings on the people of these states, which call for their devout and thankful acknowledgments, more especially in the late remarkable interposition of his watchful providence, in rescuing the person of our Commander in Chief and the armyfrom imminent dangers, at the moment when treason was ripened for execution; in prospering the labors of the husbandmen, and causing the earth to yield its increase in plentiful harvests; and, above all, in continuing to us the enjoyment of the gospel of peace;
It is therefore recommended to the several states to set apart Thursday, the seventh day of December next, to be observed as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer; that all the people may assemble on that day to celebrate the praises of our Divine Benefactor; to confess our unworthiness of the least of his favors, and to offer our fervent supplications to the God of all grace; that it may please him to pardon our heinous transgressions and incline our hearts for the future to keep all his laws; to comfort and relieve our brethren who are any wise afflicted or distressed; to smile upon our husbandry and trade; to direct our public councils, and lead our forces, by land and sea, to victory; to take our illustrious ally under his special protection, and favor our joint councils and exertions for the establishment of speedy and permanent peace; to cherish all schools and seminaries of education, and to cause the knowledge of Christianity to spread over all the earth.
Note how explicitly Christian these declarations are. This is not a call for prayer to an unknown god or unnamed god. This is not the god of “civil religion,” a malleable placeholder for people to fill in with their own imagintions. These are calls to prayer to the Triune God of Scripture, the Christian God, the God of the gospel.
At the end of their War for Independence, Congress again declared a special day of thanksgiving. And again, there was never any question which God they were thanking:
President George Washington made a thanksgiving declaration, at the request of Congress, in 1789:
Whereas it hath pleased the Supreme Ruler of all human events, to dispose the hearts of the late belligerent powers to put a period to the effusion of human blood, by proclaiming a cessation of all hostilities by sea and land, and these United States are not only happily rescued from the dangers and calamities to which they have been so long exposed, but their freedom, sovereignty and independence ultimately acknowledged by the king of Great Britain. And whereas in the progress of a contest on which the most essential rights of human nature depended, the interposition of Divine Providence in our favor hath been most abundantly and most graciously manifested, and the citizens of these United States have every reason for praise and gratitude to the God of their salvation. Impressed, therefore, with an exalted sense of the magnitude of the blessings by which we are surrounded, and of our entire dependence on that Almighty Being, from whose goodness and bounty they are derived, the United States in Congress assembled do recommend it to the several States, to set apart the second Thursday in December next, as a day of public thanksgiving, that all the people may then assemble to celebrate with grateful hearts and united voices, the praises of their Supreme and all bountiful Benefactor, for his numberless favors and mercies. That he hath been pleased to conduct us in safety through all the perils and vicissitudes of the war; that he hath given us unanimity and resolution to adhere to our just rights; that he hath raised up a powerful ally to assist us in supporting them, and hath so far crowned our united efforts with success, that in the course of the present year, hostilities have ceased, and we are left in the undisputed possession of our liberties and independence, and of the fruits of our own land, and in the free participation of the treasures of the sea; that he hath prospered the labor of our husbandmen with plentiful harvests; and above all, that he hath been pleased to continue to us the light of the blessed gospel, and secured to us in the fullest extent the rights of conscience in faith and worship. And while our hearts overflow with gratitude, and our lips set forth the praises of our great Creator, that we also offer up fervent supplications, that it may please him to pardon all our offenses, to give wisdom and unanimity to our public councils, to cement all our citizens in the bonds of affection, and to inspire them with an earnest regard for the national honor and interest, to enable them to improve the days of prosperity by every good work, and to be lovers of peace and tranquillity; that he may be pleased to bless us in our husbandry, our commerce and navigation; to smile upon our seminaries and means of education, to cause pure religion and virtue to flourish, to give peace to all nations, and to fill the world with his glory.
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.
Notice that although Washington rightly declines to pick winners in the competition among denominations, he is not at all ambivalent about the nature of God. There is exactly one of Him. He is the all-powerful ruler of the universe. He is good, and the source of all good. He cares whether we are just, pays attention to what we are doing, and distributes His blessings accordingly. Acknowledging our gratitude to Him, and asking pardon for our national and personal sins, is both a public and a private duty.
Sadly, for many Americans today, Thanksgiving has become a hollow shell of what it was designed to be. We have secularized what cannot be secularized. There cannot be a secular thanksgiving because who would we be thanking? Secularism acknowledges no God who made us, rules us, and sustains us (much less forgives us and saves us). Unless we are thanking the real and living God, the Triune God — the same God thanked in America’s early congressional and presidential declarations — then there is no point in it.
One objection that was raised to Thanksgiving become a standardized, federalized holiday in the 19th century was that it confused the kingdom of Christ with the civil, political kingdom. For example, in 1853 Governor Joseph Johnson of Virginia declined to declare a day of Thanksgiving in his state because it violated Thomas Jefferson’s supposed "wall of separation” between church and state. His successor, Henry A. Wise was even more explicit in his reasons for declining to declare s state-wide Thanksgiving holiday:
This theatrical national claptrap of Thanksgiving has aided other causes in setting thousands of pulpits to preaching 'Christian politics' instead of humbly letting the carnal Kingdom alone and preaching singly Christ crucified.
Obviously this “two kingdom” view that sneers at both political preaching and the possibility of a “Christian politics” did not prevail at that time, but it shows that a kind of dualism was creeping into the theology of many Americans by the mid-19th century.
A strong theological case can be made that thanksgiving should not be limited to individuals and families, but should extend to whole nations. In other words, the early American magistrates and legislators were exactly right to have days set aside in which the nation as such would pay public homage to the Creator. If Washington was right that nations as nations have a duty to obey God’s will and be grateful for his benefits, how could it be otherwise? Romans 1:18-32 shows that nations and cultures have an obligation thank and honor God.
In Romans 1:18-32, Paul gives his divinely inspired analysis of how human societies disintegrate and come under judgment. Paul describes fallen man’s idolatry in terms of a failure to thank God. All of the sins Paul lists at the end of the chapter — envy, strife, murder, disobeying parents, etc. — are all downstream from this sin of failing to thank God. Ingratitude is the mother sin. A nation that refuses to thank the Creator is ripe for wrath. The sin from which all others flow is a refusal to thank God.
This really traces back to the Garden of Eden (and Paul’s account in Romans 1:18-32 is full of echoes of and allusions to the opening chapters of Genesis). The original sin was (from one perspective) a failure to thank God. Adam and his wife ate without first giving thanks. Had they stopped to thank God before that first bite, they would have realized the complete contradiction involved — it is impossible to thank God for what he has not given! The practice of thanksgiving would have stopped them from eating from the forbidden tree. Thus, the antithesis is clear: we can either thank God or we can commit idolatry. There is no third option.
Of course, grace restores nature, and at the Last Supper Jesus got right what Adam got wrong. Jesus gave thanks for the bread before distributing it so they could eat it. He gave thanks again for the wine before passing the cup from which they all drank. It is as if Jesus not only made up Adam’s failure to give thanks before eating, but also doubled up the thanksgiving as a way of making restitution. The (aptly named) Eucharist stacks up thanksgiving upon thanksgiving, repatterining and reprograming Christ’s disciples to live lives of thankfulness.
Refusing to give God thanks is the very essence of sin. Thanking God is the bedrock and foundation of human life and indeed of human civilization. What does it mean to thank God? Thanking God means we recognize everything we are are and have is a gift. What should we thank God for? Obviously, we should thank God for our salvation — for the forgiveness of sins, for new life in the Spirit, for our adoption into God’s covenant family, for God’s Word, for baptism, for the Lord’s Supper, and so on. Indeed, even a heart of gratitude comes from God. The great poet George Herbert has a poem called “Gratefulness” in which he says [slightly altered], “You have given so much to me — gift upon gift; give me one thing more — a grateful heart.” Yes, it’s true — we should even thank God for making us thankful because even our thankfulness is his gift.
Ultimately, we have to thank God not just for our salvation and other blessings, for our very existence. Life itself is a gift of grace. Our very existence is sheer gift. God is self-existent. We are not. We are creatures; we exist only at God’s pleasure. God made us, God sustains us. We have nothing we have not received.
Again this means that the core of a human life lived according to God’s design is thankfulness. This is as true for societies as it is for individuals. To refuse to thank God is the worst form of pride possible. It means we have become blind to reality. To be truly human is to be thankful. A truly human life —a life well lived — is a life built on thanksgiving from the ground up. Likewise, healthy cultures are built on practices of gratitude, publicly, corporately, nationally.
Our society today is a train wreck precisely because we have forgotten God, and in forgetting God we have forgotten to thank him. Again, for far too many Americans there is nothing deeply or profoundly thankful about thanksgiving. At best, they pay lip service to the meaning of the day. For most, it’s just a reason to get a couple days off work in late November each year. But thanksgiving is not a way of life for them. That is why our nation is in such a wretched state: we are no longer a thankful people. (Just ask yourself if any of the above quoted congressional resolutions could be passed today. Of course not — they’d cause too much of an uproar.)
In Romans 1, Paul says refusing to give God thanks leads to idolatry and idolatry leads to immorality. That’s the pattern of a dying society: ingratitude —> idolatry —> immorality. We need to understand the dire implications of refusing to thank the God who made us and sustains us. If your very existence is a gift of God, and then you refuse to acknowledge that fact by thanking him, what happens to you? To your self-understanding? If you refuse to thank God you are replacing God with the self. You are making yourself to be God. You are putting yourself in God’s place. You are pretending to be self-created, self-existent, self0sustaining. If your existence if a gift and you deny the giver of that gift, then you really deny your own selfhood. By refusing to thank God, you will lose yourself, you will lose your sense of identity, you will no longer know who or what you are. You will lose touch with reality. In these days of “virtual reality,” we have expression, “touch grass.” That is, get back to what’s really real, get back in touch with reality. Giving God thanks is the safest and surest way to “touch grass,” to reframe your life in terms of reality, to anchor your soul in the truth. If you will not give God thanks, if you act as if you are entitled to life rather than gifted with life, you are denying the most basic fact about yourself, namely, that you are God’s creature. If you do not think you are God’s creature, what do you think you are?
People in our culture today are incredibly anxious and insecure. Mental health abnormalities dominate the population. One source of these problems is our refusal to give God thanks as the Creator, which in turn leads to the feeling that I have to create my own identity, my own meaning, my own purpose, even my own morality. (An extreme example of this kind of existential crisis is seen in the transgender movement, in which people with gender dysphoria pretend they can recreate themselves as a different gender.) The Satanic lie, “You shall be as gods” is still at work. But we are not God. Our identity, meaning, and purpose are part of the givens of life — God grants us all these as creatures made in his image. If you will not thank God — if you insist on playing god yourself — you put an unbearable burden n your own shoulders. Those who not live according to the divine design and blueprint bring a heap of trouble down upon themselves.
All that to say: we really only have one choice to make. We can either thank God and acknowledge him as Creator, or we can refuse to thank God and be left with lives of meaninglessness. And frankly, that’s where a lot of Americans are today — choosing a life of arrogant meaninglessness rather than a life of humble thanksgiving. These fellow Americans are left with no real mission in life, no moral compass to guide them; they are in the dark. The only way to turn on the light is to give God thanks. Thanksgiving will gives life meaning — as well as peace and joy. This Thanksgiving, remember, it’s either gratitude or nihilism. Those are your only options.