On Thursday, America will gather around the dinner table to celebrate Thanksgiving.
For those familiar with the holiday’s historical roots, the day invokes the spirit of gratitude the pilgrims of Plymouth, Massachusetts and the Wampanoag people displayed when they celebrated “The First Thanksgiving” in 1621. Families across America go around the table following the popular hymn’s instruction, “Count your blessings, name them one by one.”
Yet most of us miss one of the original purposes of Thanksgiving: observing a day of penitent prayer for America.
In fact, the first official call for a day of thanksgiving in the U.S., issued by the Continental Congress in 1777, enjoined Americans to offer both thanks and prayers of repentance to God.
“That together with their sincere acknowledgments and offerings, they may join the penitent confession of their manifold sins,” says the proclamation.
Twelve years later, George Washington issued the first presidential Thanksgiving proclamation, also calling for a day of unified prayer for America.
“Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th 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,” our first president said.
“… 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.”
Though proclamations for days of thanksgiving were issued throughout our nation’s young history by different presidents, the day didn’t become a national holiday until 1863.
As America found itself in the throes of the darkest days of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued the proclamation that established what is today’s Thanksgiving holiday. In it, he called the embattled nation to offer prayers “with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience,” especially praying for the widows and orphans of the Civil War.
In the following year’s proclamation, Lincoln again called Americans to “reverently humble themselves in the dust and from thence offer up penitent and fervent prayers and supplications to the Great Disposer of Events for a return of the inestimable blessings of peace, union, and harmony throughout the land.”
Rooted in the Puritan conviction that gratitude should lead to humble repentance, Thanksgiving was intended to be more than a day for expressing gratitude for our many blessings. It was intended to be a day when America would turn back to God and seek national healing and forgiveness.
In the culmination of a year that has been replete with division, I cannot think of a better call for my fellow Americans this Thanksgiving than repentance for our sin and prayer for the unity of our nation. Our grateful reflection on God’s innumerable blessings should always drive us to turn to God and seek to right our relationship with Him and with one another.
Government cannot fix us, and politics will not heal us. I’m convinced the hope for America is the same Providence Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln called to in their time of need.
This Thanksgiving, let’s do more than simply say, “thanks.” Let’s seek God with humility, repent for our sins, and pray that God will bind our wounds and unify our great nation.