The theme of gratitude and the practice of giving thanks to God for the abundance of God’s gifts to us are deeply biblical. On the other hand, the American Thanksgiving Day event can end up being an exercise that comes down to –to quote the words of a children’s song- “Thank You for Making Me Me.” Inspiring and expressing gratitude in worship is essential. Celebrating a national holiday isn’t.
Scripture overflows with words of thanksgiving. “O give thanks to the Lord, call on his name, make known his deeds among the peoples ….O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever “ (1 Chronicles 16:8, 34). “I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving” (Psalm 69:30). “Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Timothy 4:4). Thanksgiving the least problematic of any distinctly civil religious holidays we may want to incorporate into the church’s worship.
However, to say that celebrating Thanksgiving Day in worship is the least problematic does not mean it is unproblematic. The narrative from which Thanksgiving Day arises is peculiarly America and as such importing it into worship helps facilitate and foster a unity, identity and affections not inherent to the faith and life of church. The story of the so-called “First Thanksgiving” is part of the American origin myth and often is presented as a piece of a salvation story with similarities to the narratives of the people of Israel in the wilderness.
After their first harvest in 1621, the Pilgrims celebrated with a feast that lasted three days. William Bradford wrote a matter-of-fact account of the occasion. “He intended not to establish an institution, but only to note the passing of yet another providential moment among many, ” observed historian Anne Blue Wills. Yet the story of the Pilgrims and American Indians feasting together and thanking God for the plenty after that first harvest is recounted as though this event was the beginning of an annual celebration. In fact the Pilgrims sporadically celebrated “thanksgivings” for a variety of reasons.
It is, indeed, true that Massasoit the Wampanoag leader had provided food to the colonists during the first winter when supplies brought from England proved to be inadequate. Likewise, it is true that the Pilgrims were taught how to catch eel and grow corn by Squanto of the Patuxet tribe who lived among the Wampanoag and served as an interpreter for the Pilgrims. He had learned English while enslaved in England. But the idyllic harmony portrayed in the often repeated telling of the “First Thanksgiving” serves a nationalistic origin myth of a golden age rather than a fuller truth.
In response to this mythic version of the First Thanksgiving Native American James Lee West offered a version of events that does not serve nationalistic ends,
My people have grown weary of hearing the songs of Thanksgiving. My people have grown weary of looking back at the first winter when the white man came singing songs of praise to a white man’s God who had blessed the new experiment in the “bleak wilderness” where no man had set foot. My people have grown weary of a celebration that can speak over and over again of a great tradition and a great nation “born under God” for the good of all mankind and that can turn men’s hearts and minds to years of building a great American dream without turning their hearts and minds to the blood and death upon which that dream is built.
We remember very well that Massasoit helped to save those first white men by teaching them to survive in the wilderness they feared so much. But we also remember that he could not teach them that their “red brothers” were more than animals. We remember that two generations later in King Philip’s War Massasoit’s own people fought back at these white men who had no regard for our humanity or civilization. (“A Native American’s Reflection on Thanksgiving, ” Andover Newton Quarterly, 11/1 (September 1970), 12.
Rather than being a celebration that developed directly from the experience of the early Pilgrims, Thanksgiving Day was a nineteenth century invention. In the minds of the Pilgrims to establish an annual day of Thanksgiving would be to take God’s providential mercy for granted. “It would tend to make people overconfident of God’s blessings and insufficiently conscious of their constant dependence upon his mercy, ” wrote Diana Muir.
It is noteworthy that when President George Washington issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1789, as well as the earlier Thanksgiving Proclamations of the Continental Congress, no mention is made of the so-called “First Thanksgiving” as a historical precedent. Even in the first annual national Thanksgiving Proclamation issued by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 there was no reference to the Pilgrims’ harvest feast.
To a great extent Thanksgiving Day became a national holiday due to the lobbying efforts of Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the most widely read periodical in the country at the time Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine, later called the Ladies Home Journal and Practical Housekeeper. “Thanksgiving for Hale signified one’s active participation in the fulfillment of America’s destiny as the greatest of all nations, ” noted historian Diana Muir.
The annual celebration of Thanksgiving Day was never simply an occasion to express gratitude to God. Nationalistic aims shaped the holiday. Schools used Thanksgiving as pedagogical tool to instruct and socialize immigrant children, Southerners, Catholics and others on the margins, imparting feelings of national unity and loyalty. The advocates for an annual Thanksgiving Day believed that the U.S. had been chosen by God and used the holiday to instill that belief in those who newly arrived in the country.
However, as Historian Anne Blue Wills observes, “Where the Pilgrim soul sought God, the nineteenth-century Pilgrim heirs sought a certain kind of Americanness….As this festival united U.S. citizens, set them apart from the rest of the world and fit them for a certain way of life, it also knit itself into their memories and tempered their behavior. Thanksgiving encouraged submission, not to a sovereign providence, but to the project of the nation.”
While fostering and expressing gratitude to God in worship for the saving deeds and ongoing blessings of the One revealed in Christ is of central importance, inspiring people in Christian worship to be thankful as Americans for things related to America is not. We thank God for who God is and for what God has done. Generating thanks based on national myths that hide more truth than they display has no role in the worship life of Christian churches. Rather, as we gather as a people of faith in thankful praise, we do so in unity with others throughout the ages and throughout the world who follow Jesus.