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Our View: The 'why' of Thanksgiving

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  • | 5:00 a.m. November 27, 2013
Gov. William Bradford
Gov. William Bradford
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“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.”
— Cicero

Thanksgiving Day kindles so much in many of us: gratitude for what we have; for our families and friends; for the blessings bestowed on us, however great or small they may be. And if you’re a praying sort, it’s also a day so many offer prayers not just of thanks for what they have but that God also looks with favor on those who are less fortunate.

This is indeed a great day to reflect. And surely, you have to believe we would be so much better off as a nation and people if we did more of that this day — if our media and secular cultures focused more on the virtues and values of this day rather than on the commercialism of the next day.

There was a time, as many of you remember, when virtually all stores and businesses closed on Thanksgiving and Sundays. That was part of our nation’s Christian and biblical heritage. Says the Third Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.”

Yes, remember.

This is a day we should remember, a day to remember why Americans celebrate Thanksgiving Day.

When George Washington proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving Day in 1789 (see below), he articulated on behalf of all Americans and as only he could, his heartfelt gratitude for “the many and signal favors of Almighty God” bestowed on the young republic and its people. While many historians marvel at the simple clarity and brevity of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Washington’s Thanksgiving proclamation is just as deserving as a historical marker to be remembered by all generations of Americans.

It’s an archived reminder that our nation’s founding is rooted in religion and faith in God.

It was about more than a feast
Indeed, the why of Thanksgiving Day goes far deeper than the popular story of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony in 1622. Yes, they were thankful to God for their bountiful harvest and their new-found Indian friends. But if you can imagine yourself in the shoes of any of the original 102 Pilgrims who sailed from Leyden, Holland, for America, a land unknown, and who survived that tumultuous journey, followed by two years of near starvation, your gratitude simply for being alive would put a whole new perspective on Thanksgiving Day. It wasn’t at all about being thankful for a big fall feast.

Seldom, if ever, do we focus in our history texts on the details that compelled the Pilgrims — also known as Separatists, Puritans and Calvinists — to set sail. The textbooks typically mention — briefly — they fled religious persecution. But it would be worthwhile today for Americans to remember some of those precise details. As we all know, history repeats.

In his 500-page, hand-written account of Plymouth Plantation, Gov. William Bradford wrote how his fellow Calvinists in England became “hunted and persecuted on every side, so as their former afflictions were but as flea-bitings in comparison of these which now came upon them.”

“For some were taken and clapped up in prison, others had their houses beset and watched night and day, and hardly escaped their hands; and most were faine to flee and leave their houses and habitations, and the means of their livelehood,” Bradford wrote.

After a year of this and meeting in secret to practice their worship of God, they saw “they could no longer continue in this condition,” and “resolved to get over into Holland.” The people of Amsterdam, they had heard, accepted the free practice of religion.

But sailing 200 miles to Amsterdam was no small matter; it was a monumental ordeal. Bradford describes the fear many of the Separatists had of leaving England, as bad as it was, as “a misery worse than death.”
“But these things did not dismay themfor their desires were set on the ways of God and to enjoy his ordinances,” Bradford wrote.

The relatively short trip to Holland was horrible for many. Chartered ship operators, once at sea with the Separatists, robbed them; ransacked their belongings; molested many of the women; and then sailed back into the original port and turned over the Separatists to local authorities, who then imprisoned them.
Amazingly, the Separatists didn’t give up. “Some few shrunk at these first conflicts and sharp beginnings,” Bradford wrote, “yet many more came on with fresh courage and greatly animated others. And in the end, notwithstanding all these storms of opposition, they all got over at length.”

For 12 years, the Calvinist-Separatist-Pilgrims lived and practiced their religion in freedom and peace in Leyden, an area within Amsterdam where many of them became weavers.

And then the trouble began again. Bradford wrote of “Arminians,” who “greatly molested the whole state;” and university professors and other preachers who began to slander the Pilgrims’ religious practices. The tormenting rose to such a level that Bradford said some of his neighbors preferred being in prison in England than “this liberty in Holland, with these afflictions.”

Why they fled Holland
Distressed by the increasing abuse, the Separatists’ elders began to look ahead. They believed within a few years they “were fearful either to be entrapped or surrounded by their enemies” and unable to flee.
What’s more, they worried about their children. It was common for them to labor long hours in the mills, “their bodies bowed under the weight.” Many children also were falling to the temptations of youthful “licentiousness” and being drawn into “extravagant and dangerous courses,” Bradford wrote. Parents saw “their posterity would be in danger to degenerate and be corrupted.”

At the same time, many of the Separatist looked outward and spoke among their neighbors of “advancing the gospel of the kingdom of Christ in those remote parts of the world,” Bradford wrote.

All three of these influences — persecution, the well-being of their families’ future generations and spreading God’s word — combined to motivate the Pilgrims to seek a new beginning. As the Pilgrims discussed their options, Bradford wrote, “It was answered … the difficulties were many, but not invincible.”

When the Pilgrims celebrated Thanksgiving in 1622, they were thankful for much more than their feast.

They were grateful to have the freedom to live and worship God as they wished.

That is why America exists today. We are a nation rooted in God and religion.

Happy Thanksgiving. — MW

WHEREAS it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits and humbly to implore His protection and favour; and Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me “to recommend to the people of the United States a DAY OF PUBLICK THANKSGIVING and PRAYER, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:”

NOW THEREFORE, I do recommend and assign THURSDAY, the TWENTY-SIXTH DAY of NOVEMBER next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish Constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favours which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

And also, that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions; to enable us all, whether in publick or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us); and to bless them with good governments, peace and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

GIVEN under my hand, at the city of New York, the third day of October, in the year of our Lord, one thousand seven hundred and eighty-nine.



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