Thanks, but No Thanks?

Very soon most Americans will take a holiday, ostensibly to give thanks. But most will likely give thanks, as they have in years gone by, by simply eating too much.

It’s an interesting contrast to the time when the original settlers observed their first Thanksgiving. When they did so, it was with less food, less security and less freedom than we have today. Now most people in the West have an almost embarrassing choice of food. And although we may have new concerns about national security, the West enjoys freedoms that are unparalleled in human history. Ironically, some of those freedoms are such that they have the potential to end the free society we now know.

As a child attending Sunday school in the Anglican and Methodist Churches in England, I recall Harvest Festival, when we saw all kinds of ripe fruits and sheaves of grain on the altar. We sang: We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land, and it is fed and watered by God’s Almighty Hand. . . .” In so doing, we tried to thank God in our own way for His love and His blessings.

This kind of recognition of harvest plenty was in the background of the early settlers at the Plimoth Plantation, when they kept what we think of as the first Thanksgiving in 1621. They had, after all, come from England, so their perspective was what they had learned in church there.

Just under half of the Mayflower’s contingent had associated together in Holland as part of a sect of the Puritans known as the English Separatist Church. The other colonists included people from a variety of towns and villages who had simply joined the company in the hope of finding a better future in a new world. Some of these were hired to protect the interests of the London stock company who financed the voyage; others were Puritans who did not consider themselves Separatists.

So it was a diverse group that made it through that first year. Forty-six of the original 102 settlers had died, but the harvest was good. And because the Indians had been particularly helpful, the two populations joined together for their first harvest celebration.

The Separatists, however, believed that the Indians were heathens. They saw themselves as having come to set up the kingdom of God described in the Bible’s book of Revelation.

In the light of this idea, some historians have doubts about the sincerity of the first “Thanksgiving Day.” Wampanoag accounts suggest that the Indians mistook the celebration activities for war preparations and at least 90 warriors came to the colony to investigate. Other historians propose that the colonists did in fact invite the Indians but only as a cover-up for an attempt to negotiate for land. Whatever the true purpose, the colonists and Indians spent three days together celebrating the harvest. Interestingly, most of the food was supplied not by the settlers but by the Indians. In fact, when it became plain there would not be enough food, the Indians left the colonists and returned with five deer, which they contributed to the feast.  

Sadly, it took only a generation or so before the descendants of the first settlers and their Indian mentors were killing each other. Other forces had taken over, and the two groups no longer had a friendly relationship.

Perhaps it’s a good lesson that the history we are taught is not always the complete picture. It also teaches us that once human nature is involved, the picture becomes much more complicated as to intentions and motivations.

We may have assumed, for example, that Thanksgiving occurred in some communal way continuously after 1621. In fact, there was no Thanksgiving the next year, but in the summer of 1623 when a long drought broke after prayer, the governor proclaimed a special day to give thanks. Again the Indians were invited.

It is interesting to note here a popular myth, which has been perpetuated on Internet sites and in school lesson plans, of a sermon that is said to have been delivered by Mather the Elder on that day. Though documents show that the Mather dynasty of Puritan ministers did not arrive in the New World until 1635, an apocryphal relative is widely reported to have given special thanks to God for a devastating plague of smallpox, which had wiped out the majority of the Wampanoag Indians. This Mather is also said to have praised God for destroying chiefly young men and children, the very seeds of increase; thus clearing the forest to make way for a better growth.” Though these words do not come from a sermon, they are printed in Edward Johnson’s circa-1650 book The Wonder-Working Providence. 

Written to describe a devastating pestilence that had ravaged the Indian population in 1617, almost a decade prior to the arrival of the colonists, Johnson’s words read, “Their disease being a sore Consumption [the vernacular for tuberculosis], sweeping away whole Families, but chiefly yong Men and Children, the very seeds of increase . . . by this meanes Christ . . . not onely made roome for his people to plant; but also tamed the hard and cruell hearts of these barborous Indians.” The sentiment expressed is very similar to that in the legend, but it is unconnected to the origins of Thanksgiving. Nor did that Thanksgiving in 1623 succeed in establishing an ongoing tradition.

Indeed, 53 years passed before the next publicly proclaimed Thanksgiving. In 1676, the Charlestown, Massachusetts, council issued a proclamation declaring June 29 of that year as a day of thanksgiving for “reserving many of our Towns from Desolation . . . that the Lord may behold us as a People offering Praise and thereby glorifying Him.” Again, it was a single day observed in a localized area.

However, in 1777, the 13 colonies joined together for the first time in celebration of a Thanksgiving when the Continental Congress issued a proclamation to set apart Thursday, December 18th, as a day to acknowledge the nation’s gratitude for success in “the Prosecution of a just and necessary war.” In addition, the proclamation established the day as one of supplication to God, “to secure for these United States, the greatest of all human Blessings, Independence and Peace.”

For the next several years (until 1784), a separate proclamation was issued yearly by the Continental Congress, establishing various dates in December as days to be set aside for prayer and thanksgiving “for the continuance of his favor and protection to these United States.”

After several years during which no proclamations were issued, George Washington began a presidential tradition when he proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving in 1789, but this was not without opposition. The resistance persisted when President Thomas Jefferson later refused to uphold the tradition. In response to his political critics, he cited his view that there should be a “wall of separation” between Church and State. Though as governor of Virginia he had himself designated such days, Jefferson believed it was inappropriate for such proclamations to come from the highest federal office.

In the end, it was Sarah Josepha Hale, a magazine editor, who after many years of writing letters and editorials finally succeeded in prompting President Lincoln to act. In 1863 he proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a national day of Thanksgiving. However, it still took until 1941 for Thanksgiving to be sanctioned by Congress as a legal holiday on the fourth Thursday in November.

As history attests, there are many twists and turns in the history of what we today regard as a lasting tradition with a religious foundation. And because human nature is what it is, there is often sadly a knot of human deceit and connivance at the heart of such institutions.

But despite today’s legally mandated annual day of Thanksgiving, genuine thankfulness, though rare, should be much more than a once-a-year event with a web of dubious traditions.

Gratitude and ingratitude are opposite poles—as opposite as right and wrong, good and evil. One of the problems with blessings is that it is easy to take them for granted and to forget where they come from. Unfortunately our society has, in fact, eliminated the God we say we are thanking on Thanksgiving Day.

It is interesting to note that some of the minds that have aggressively pursued this “death of God" have had ulterior motives. Using the theory of evolution and the aimlessness of human existence that goes along with it, they have happily dismissed God as a figment of the imagination.

An example of this is found in an autobiographical work titled Ends and Means, by Aldous Huxley, who was a grandson of Thomas Huxley, perhaps the major proponent of Charles Darwin’s theories in Darwin’s lifetime.

Aldous Huxley wrote that the reason he and his friends gave up on God and adopted the belief that life was meaningless was so that they could be freed from a way of thinking and a way of morality. They wanted to be free to do what they wanted.

For myself, as, no doubt, for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was simultaneously liberation from a certain political and economic system and liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom; we objected to the political and economic system because it was unjust. The supporters of these systems claimed that in some way they embodied the meaning (a Christian meaning, they insisted) of the world. There was one admirably simple method of confuting these people and at the same time justifying ourselves in our political and erotic revolt: we could deny that the world had any meaning whatsoever.”

Aldous Huxley, Ends and Means, 1937.

Huxley died in Los Angeles in 1963, having largely embraced Hindu philosophy in later life. But obviously his belief in meaninglessness would lead to the denial of God and of creation as God’s special work, and in turn of gratitude toward Him.

Gratitude requires a softened heart. If you are grateful, it is likely that you are humble at the same time. It requires the willingness to suspend our disbelief and look objectively at where we are in the universe.

To come to be grateful to God is to ask, “What is this universe? What is it about?”

In a 2001 book titled The Hand of God, pictures taken from the Hubble telescope present the universe in a way one never sees it in person.

These pictures are accompanied by brief texts written by all kinds of people; scientists, authors, poets, theologians, astronauts and others. Newsweek science writer Sharon Begley wrote the introductory text. She says, "Ironically the more focused the portraits from deep space, the more meticulous and specific our calculations, the more it seems improbable, even impossible, that our world could have been an arbitrary occurrence."

She is also very clear about Darwin’s influence on modern thinking. She speaks of his theory of evolutionary biology, which seems to dethrone the Creator and replace Him with blind chance. "Darwin more than any other scientist before, dislodged humans from the apex of the tree of life, making them seem almost incidental to Creation. . . . But once people get back to the reality of what they can see, either with the naked eye or even more so through the Hubble Telescope, they begin to see the Creator’s hand again! There is a move within science today that says, Maybe He is out there, after all.

Former astronaut John Glenn said in 1998, from the space shuttle Discovery: I don’t think you can be up here and look out of the window as I did the first day and see the Earth from this vantage point, to look out at this kind of creation and not believe in God. To me it’s impossible—it just strengthens my faith. I wish there were words to describe what it’s like . . . truly awesome."

Also in the book is a composite photo of the earth rising over the edge of the moon. It is a remarkable picture. Alongside it is text from astronaut James Irwin: The earth reminded us of a Christmas tree ornament hanging in the blackness of space. As we got farther and farther away it diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful marble you can imagine. That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing this has to change a man, has to make a man appreciate the creation of God and the love of God.

When astronaut Alan Shepard looked back at the earth as he traveled toward the moon, he could only weep at its majesty. He broke down crying.

What does it mean that we are on this beautiful, delicate marble, floating out here in the blackness of space? Does this put Thanksgiving in context?

Approaching Earth from space, the astronauts had a gradually increasing view of home. In a similar way we can gradually get a closer and closer perspective on what we should be grateful for as we look at what it takes to be thankful.

Gratitude requires humility. Paul’s famous statement in Philippians 4:11 that he had learned, whatever his state, to be content, is another way of saying he was grateful for the condition he was in, whatever it was.

Think for a moment about what those astronauts came back to. They did not return to a place as beautiful as it had appeared from a distance. Once close enough, they could see the pollution and despoliation of the earth by man’s hand.

In orbit they could probably barely identify the countries where war was still raging. Once back on the ground they could see the violence on the streets. Back at home they could go to war with their wives and children, as some sadly did.

An attitude of thankfulness puts us in a humble frame of mind. It teaches us to whom we are in debt for all that we have. There is no room for pride when we are in the thankful mode.

The national holiday of Thanksgiving is upon us. What will it mean to us this year?