The Story of Thanksgiving



What is the origin of America's annual Thanksgiving Day?

The Pilgrims left Plymouth, England, on September 6, 1620. Their destination? The New World. Although filled with uncertainty and peril, it offered both civil and religious liberty. For over two months, the 102 passengers braved the harsh elements of a vast storm-tossed sea. Finally, with firm purpose and a reliance on Divine Providence, the cry of "land!" was heard.

Arriving in Massachusetts in lake November, the Pilgrims sought a suitable landing place. On December 11, just before disembarking at Plymouth Rock, they signed the "Mayflower Compact" - America's first document of civil government and the first to introduce self-government.



In 1789, following a proclamation issued by President George Washington, America celebrated its first Day of Thanksgiving to God under its new constitution. That same year, the Protestant Episcopal Church, of which President Washington was a member, announced that the first Thursday in November would become its regular day for giving thanks, "unless another day be appointed by the civil authorities." Yet, despite these early national proclamations, official Thanksgiving observances usually occurred only at the state level.

Much of the credit for the adoption of a later ANNUAL national Thanksgiving Day may be attributed to Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Godey's Lady's Book. For thirty years she promoted the idea of a national Thanksgiving Day, contacting President after President until President Abraham Lincoln responded in 1864 by setting aside the last Thursday of November as a national Day of Thanksgiving. Over the next seventy-five years, Presidents followed Lincoln's precedent, annually declaring a national Thanksgiving Day. Then, in 1941, Congress permanently established the fourth Thursday of each November as a national holiday.





Lincoln's original 1862 Thanksgiving Proclamation came - spiritually speaking - at a pivotal point in his life. During the first week of July of that year, the Battle of Gettysburg occurred, resulting in the loss of some 60,000 American lives. Four months later in November, Lincoln delivered his famous "Gettysburg Address." It was while Lincoln was walking among the thousands of graves there at Gettysburg that he committed his life to Christ. As he explained to a friend:

When I left Springfield [to assume the Presidency] I asked the people to pray for me. I was not a Christian. When I buried my son, the severest trial of my life, I was not a Christian. But when I went to Gettysburg and saw the graves of thousands of our soldiers, I then and there consecrated myself to Christ.




As Americans celebrate Thanksgiving each year, we hope they will retain the original gratefulness to God displayed by the Pilgrims and many other founding fathers, and remember that it is to those early and courageous Pilgrims that they own not only the traditional Thanksgiving holiday but also the concepts of self-government, that "hard-work" eithic, self-reliant communities, and devout religious faith.

When the holiday of Thanksgiving was proclaimed by the United States Congress in 1782, they had this to say in their proclamation: "It being the indispensable duty of all nations, not only to offer their supplications to ALMIGHTY GOD, the giver of all good … but also in a solemn and public manor to give him praise for his goodness in general…Therefore the United States in Congress assembled, taking into their consideration the many instances of divine goodness to these States … do hereby recommend to the inhabitants of these States in general, to observe, and request the several States to interpose their authority in appointing and commanding the observation of THURSDAY the twenty-eight of NOVEMBER next, as a day of solemn THANKSGIVING of GOD for all his mercies … to testify to their gratitude to GOD for his goodness, by a cheerful obedience to his laws, and by promoting, each in his station, and by his influence, the practice of true and undefiled religion, which is the foundation of public prosperity and national happiness."


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