This Thanksgiving, the Consistory of Christ URC will once again call a special worship service at 10.00am. We do this every year in order to gather together as citizens of God's kingdom and give the Lord thanks for his innumerable blessings to us throughout the year. Truly, there is no better way to begin the holiday than by assembling with the saints, coming "into his presence with singing," entering "his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise" (Ps 100).
Thanksgiving is a civic holiday in America. Nowadays it is mainly about getting together with your family and eating too much food. Historically, though, Americans observe the Thanksgiving holiday because of the experience of those original pilgrims who came to the New World and offered thanks to God for his mercies amid the most trying of circumstances.
In 1620, the Mayflower made its long and dangerous journey from Southampton, England to Plymouth, Massachusetts, carrying 102 Protestant passengers of Nonconformist and Separatist convictions. Arriving in November, they spent their first winter in what one Puritan was later to describe as “a howling wilderness.” William Bradford, the pilgrims’ leader, kept a journal in which he recorded this about that first winter:
“But that which was most sad and lamentable was that, in two or three months time, half of their company died, especially in January and February, being the depth of winter and wanting houses and other comforts, being infected with the scurvy and other diseases which this long voyage and their inaccommodate condition had brought upon them. So, as there died sometimes two or three a day in the aforesaid time that, of 100 and odd persons, scarce fifty remained. And of these, in time of most distress, there was but six or seven sound persons, who, to their great commendations be it spoken, spared no pains, night nor day, but with abundance of toil and hazard of their own health, fetched them wood, made them fires, dressed them meat, made their beds, washed their loathesome clothes, clothed and unclothed them; in a word, did all the homely and necessary offices for them which dainty and queasy stomachs cannot endure to hear named, and all this willingly and cheerfully, without any grudging in the least, showing herein their true love unto their friends and brethren; a rare example and worthy to be remembered. Two of these seven were Mr. William Brewster, their revered Elder, and Myles Standish, their Captain and military commander, unto whom myself and many others were much beholden in our low and sickly condition. And yet the Lord so upheld these persons as in this general calamity they were not at all infected either with sickness or lameness. And what I have said of these I may say of many others who died in this general visitation, and others yet living; that whilst they had health, yea, or any strength continuing, they were not wanting to any that had need of them. And I doubt not their recompense is with the Lord.”
The following year (1621), Bradford recorded how the Lord had blessed them with an abundance of common-grace gifts:
“They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercising in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides they had about a peck of meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion.”
Bradford called the people to a time of Thanksgiving in that fall of 1621. Even though only fifty people remained alive, they gathered together, along with some 90 native-Americans, for a three-day feast to thank the Lord for his mercies and provision.
From Thanksgiving Service to National Holiday
That first Thanksgiving was gradually kept in more and more places throughout the colonies. It wasn’t until 1863, however, by the proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln, that it became an official holiday observed on the last Thursday of every November:
“The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.”
An illegitimate wedding of the two kingdoms? Perhaps. But whatever reasons President Lincoln had for designating Thanksgiving a national holiday, the church is not confusing the kingdom of God with the common kingdom of the world by assembling as the church on Thanksgiving Day.
A Subversive Act
As members of God’s holy nation (read: NOT America, but the Church universal), what better way is there for us to begin a civic holiday designated for thanksgiving but by assembling as the church and giving him thanks? Nowadays it seems that holding such a worship service is a subversive act in our culture, and in harmony with the same spirit of those Protestants who gave God thanks in 1621.
This Thanksgiving, let us gather together to worship the Lord and give him thanks on Thursday, November 22 at 10.00am. And then let us feast!