O give thanks unto the LORD; for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever. O give thanks unto the God of gods: for his mercy endureth for ever. O give thanks to the Lord of lords: for his mercy endureth for ever. (Psalm 136:1–3)
Give thanks, His mercy endureth forever: this phrase appears in many of the psalms, but when you find the same phrase three times in a row, you can safely conclude that the writer was trying to make a point, and he thought the point was important. I know of no passage in the Bible where any other phrase appears three times in succession.
Thanksgiving Day is an old tradition in the United States. Although it was not the first such thanksgiving feast, the holiday had its origins in Plymouth Colony, in the fall of 1621, when the Pilgrims who had survived the first year invited Chief Massasoit to a feast, and he showed up with 90 braves and five deer. The feast lasted three days.
There had been a thanksgiving day of prayer and a feast in Maine in 1607. The tiny colony was abandoned a year later. There had also been a thanksgiving service in Jamestown in 1610, but it did not involve a feast.
The first official Thanksgiving Day was celebrated on June 29, 1676 in Charlestown, Massachusetts, across the Charles River from Boston. But Gov. Jonathan Belcher had issued similar proclamations in Massachusetts in 1730 and in New Jersey in 1749. George Washington proclaimed a day of thanksgiving on October 23, 1789, to be celebrated on Thursday, November 27. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln officially restored it as a wartime measure. The holiday then became an American tradition. It became law in 1941.
Lincoln was a strange contradiction religiously. He was a religious skeptic, yet he invoked the rhetoric of the King James Bible—accurately—on many occasions. His political rhetoric, which had been deeply influenced by his reading of the King James, was often masterful. For example, when he spoke of the cemetery of the Gettysburg battlefield as “this hallowed ground,” using the King James word for holy, as in “hallowed be thy name,” he was seeking to infuse the battle of Gettysburg with sacred meaning – a use of religious terminology that was as morally abhorrent as it was rhetorically successful. It is the sacraments that are sacred, not monuments to man’s bloody destructiveness. In that same year, 1863, he used biblical themes in his October 3 Thanksgiving Day proclamation.
It is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God; to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations are blessed whose God is the Lord.
He went on, in the tradition of a Puritan jeremiad sermon, to attribute the calamity of the Civil War to the nation’s sins, conveniently ignoring the biggest contributing sin of all in the coming of that war: his own steadfast determination to collect the national tariff in Southern ports. In his proclamation, he made an important and accurate theological point.
We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven; we have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity; we have grown in numbers, wealth and power as no other nation has ever grown.
But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us.
This observation leads to the same question that Moses raised long before Lincoln’s proclamation: Why is it that men become less thankful as their blessings increase?
Less than a decade after Lincoln’s proclamation, three economists came up with the theoretical insight that provides an answer.
Recommended further reading:
William Bradford: Of Plymouth Plantation
Gary DeMar: America's Christian Heritage
Charles B. Galloway: Christianity and the American Commonwealth
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