The true focus of Thanksgiving

HAMPSTEAD, N.C. (BP)--Few things reveal the hollowness of American Christianity with any more clarity than the collapse of Thanksgiving. In this age of contention over the role of Christianity in the public square, Thanksgiving has survived at all only because it has been emptied of its true spiritual and religious significance. Many have deemed it a "secular holiday," the blatant contradiction built into the linguistic root of "holiday" notwithstanding.

Just how far have we moved? One Amazon.com customer has compiled a list of secular Thanksgiving children's picture books, to which the customer offers this preface: "It can be difficult for parents and teachers to find picture books that approach Thanksgiving in a secular way. This is a list of titles that do not interpret the holiday in a religious manner. Although several of these books mention characters being 'thankful,' they do not depict anyone saying grace/giving thanks to a higher power." In other words, these books go out of their way to obfuscate the truth about Thanksgiving in America.

Of 25 such titles for sale at Amazon.com, one is entitled "Thank-You, Thanksgiving." The title gives away the absurdity of the proposition. If there is no personal God who has intervened in American history, then there is no one left to thank -- so let's thank the day itself. Another book is "Thank-You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving." Since we can no longer thank the God we have forgotten, this book redirects thanks to Sarah Hale, a writer and woman's magazine editor who prevailed upon Abraham Lincoln to use his influence to turn Thanksgiving from a states-based event into a true national holiday. Never mind the unsettling fact that the real Sarah operated from a Christian worldview and that her true desire was to ensure that all Americans were involved in giving due reverence to God for his many blessings.

Every effort to redefine Thanksgiving into a holiday that suits the secularist agenda is destined to fail. The true Christian origins and intentions of Thanksgiving are unmistakably revealed in a mountain of historical and literary evidence. The Protestant Reformation gained steam in part from its cry to return ad fonts -- that is to the biblical source itself, not the layered interpretations built up over centuries that had effectively hidden the biblical meaning. Thanksgiving is a time when American Christians need to return to the sources themselves.

For example, the Continental Congress issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1777 that could arguably be considered the first such national decree. Printed in The Journals of Congress, it reads:

"It is therefore recommended to the legislative or executive powers of these United States, to set apart Thursday, the 18th day of December next, for solemn thanksgiving and praise; that with one heart and 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 acknowledgements 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 blessings 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."

Where, I ask, is "thank-you Thanksgiving" or "thank-you, Sarah" in all of that? To paraphrase what Charles Spurgeon once said about the Bible, the true roots of Thanksgiving do not need so much to be defended as they need to be turned loose.

Thanksgiving is a time to recognize the blessings of God on this nation. It is also a time to repent of sin and seek forgiveness through the work of Christ. It is a time to pray for wisdom for our leaders and protection over our military personnel. In the present economic malaise, Thanksgiving is an opportunity to ask God to ensure the future prosperity of the nation.

The pulpits of America once resounded with sermons built around these themes during the season of Thanksgiving. Like the Founding Fathers before them, men entered the pulpit and drew attention, especially, to the Psalms of thanksgiving found in the Bible. They recognized that the active hand of God in American history called for similar offerings of praise and thanks from our people. May God grant that a remnant of Christians in America cherish and preserve the authentic meaning and practice of Thanksgiving for future generations.


Paul Brewster is pastor of Barlow-Vista Baptist Church in Hampstead, N.C.