By James M. Decker
We all heard the story of the “first Thanksgiving” as schoolchildren. In 1621, after a harrowing voyage to America on the Mayflower and the hardship of frontier life, the settlers at Plimoth Plantation celebrated a successful harvest. But how did our current national holiday come to be?
The Plimoth thanksgiving is an iconic part of history, even if it was not the “first” such celebration. Thanksgiving services were routine in the settlements of Virginia perhaps as far back as 1607. In 1619, a group of settlers arrived in Virginia with the London Company, whose charter provided that the day of their arrival be “perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”
The early American settlements kept the spirit of regular celebration, which passed on to the new nation calling itself the United States of America. The Continental Congress issued Thanksgiving proclamations throughout the Revolutionary War, often more than once a year. President George Washington famously issued a National Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1789, asking the people to unite in “sincere and humble thanks” for the Almighty’s care for the new nation.
Thanksgiving was celebrated at various times in the coming decade, with each state often scheduling its own celebration. It wasn’t until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln received a letter from a magazine editor named Sarah Josepha Hale asking him to make Thanksgiving a “national and fixed Union Festival,” so the nation could celebrate the holiday on a single day. Lincoln famously issued a Thanksgiving proclamation which, if you have never done so, I encourage you to read.
As our country was being torn about by a bitter, bloody, and seemingly never-ending civil war, Lincoln recognized the larger blessings that we all shared and asked, amidst the ugliness of war, that the people recognize “the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.” He invited the citizens to celebrate a holiday of Thanksgiving, writing that “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.”
As I read through the history of Thanksgiving, I can’t help but notice something: the holiday’s most prominent developments did not occur in times of peace and tranquility. Thanksgiving was created by settlers fighting off starvation, deprivation, and depredation in a new world. It was continued by leaders waging a treasonous war for independence and freedom and as a new nation stood on wobbly feet. It was formalized by a President presiding over a bloody civil war, at a time period in which the war’s outcome was very much in doubt.
Our forefathers found reasons to be thankful when their daily affairs were not pleasant and their survival was not guaranteed. As I’ve written on several occasions, there are plenty of storm clouds in the future of rural America. And yet, those storm clouds pale in comparison to the challenges of Plimoth Plantation in 1621 or America in 1863. If the colonists can stop to give thanks for a successful harvest, and if President Lincoln could see the big picture of America’s blessings amidst war, then we too can see our blessings. If we stop and look for them, we can find countless reasons to be thankful for our individual communities and for rural life in general.
This week, I encourage you to think about the history of Thanksgiving and all those people who found reasons to be thankful in their circumstances. So today, in your circumstances, why are YOU thankful?
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James Decker is a lawyer, farmer, and mayor in Stamford, Texas, and the creator of the forthcoming “West of 98” podcast and website. He may be contacted through Facebook at facebook.com/james.decker. Listen to our podcast interview with James here.