The American Tradition of Giving Thanks to God


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Guest editorial by frequent contributor Paul Kengor is from our archives.


“More than three centuries ago, the Pilgrims, after a year of hardship and peril, humbly and reverently set aside a special day upon which to give thanks to God for their preservation and for the good harvest from the virgin soil upon which they had labored. Grave and unknown dangers remained. Yet, by their faith and by their toil, they had survived the rigors of the harsh New England winter. Hence, they paused in their labors to give thanks for the blessings that had been bestowed upon them by divine Providence.”

So began the first national proclamation for Thanksgiving Day given by a Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, on Oct. 28, 1961. Quoting Scripture, Kennedy affirmed: “‘It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord.’”

Kennedy continued, saying that Americans of his day likewise had, “as in the past, ample reason to be thankful for the abundance of our blessings.” They should be grateful for the “blessings of faith and health and strength” and for the “imperishable spiritual gifts of love and hope.”

The United States’ first Catholic president also gave thanks for America’s freedoms and for the “heritage of liberty bequeathed by our ancestors.” That heritage, said Kennedy, needed to be preserved for “our children and our children’s children.”

We today are those children. Those words ring especially true now, when the religious liberty bequeathed by this nation’s founders is under threat. In acknowledging Thanksgiving, America’s Catholic president was carrying on a tradition started by previous presidents, all of them Protestant, beginning with America’s first, George Washington, who, in the opening year of his presidency in 1789, proclaimed a “day of public thanksgiving and prayer.” Washington implored heaven to “pardon our national and other transgressions” and urged the citizenry not only to seek those pardons, but to practice “true religion and virtue.”

For Washington, religious freedom was at the heart of American liberty. He called religion and morality “indispensable supports” to “political prosperity.” Religious freedom was imperative, and giving thanks for it was also imperative. One the most respected founders in Washington’s time was a prominent Catholic, “Charles Carroll of Carrollton,” as he is known from his unique signature upon the Declaration of Independence. He hailed from an outstanding Catholic family. Among the Carroll family was Charles’ cousin, John Carroll, America’s first Catholic bishop, who gave his blessing to Washington, that “his administration may be conducted in righteousness,” that it encourage “due respect for virtue and religion” and that it execute laws “restraining vice and immorality.”

This was an America where our leaders, spiritual and political, never shied from admonishing the public to practice virtue and religion and to eschew vice and immorality. Of course, it was easier to encourage this behavior among a populace where a culture of Christendom was the consensus and where there was a common understanding of what was virtue and what was vice. But, above all, urged America’s early leaders, citizens should give thanks.

Naturally, giving thanks is easy to do when things are going well. It’s a much harder task when things are going badly — sometimes really, really badly. That was the challenge of President Abraham Lincoln, when, amid the horror of the Civil War, America’s greatest bloodletting, he implored his countrymen to set aside the last Thursday of November 1863 to formally give thanks for their blessings. And if they needed help coming up with things to seem thankful for as death raged among them, the Republican president gave them some suggestions in a wonderful statement.

Lincoln gave thanks for the “blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.” He gave thanks that “needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry,” necessary for national defense during wartime, had not “arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship.” He gave thanks that “the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements” and that the mines, as well as the iron and coal industries, had yielded “even more abundantly than heretofore.” Lincoln was further grateful that, despite the stench of death sieging the battlefield, the general population in the country had managed to steadily increase. And, finally, said the president, the people should expect a continuance of the freedom they had long enjoyed.

And to whom or what should they be giving thanks? “No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things,” assured Lincoln. “They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.” Thus, said Lincoln in this official proclamation, “It has seemed to me fit and proper” that the American people should solemnly set apart and observe the last Thursday in November “as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father, who dwelleth in the heavens.”

It was classic Lincoln — short, simple, poignant, eloquent and everywhere thankful. If people were struggling to think of things to be thankful for, with misery strewn all around them, their president lent a hand. He came up with a list. In fact, it’s not a bad idea still today: Come up with a list; write one down. Maybe do just that with your family around the dinner table this Thanksgiving Day. But note to whom Lincoln, other presidents and our founders were thankful — they gave thanks to God.

I’m reminded of a rueful conversation I recently had with a friend who has worked for years at a Barnes & Noble. A devout evangelical, she always flags me when I come near her section — children’s books. Knowing my interest in education, history and faith, she always eagerly briefs me on the latest lamentable political correctness and rank secularism pervading the litany of books offered by publishers to “educate” our children nowadays. Last year, I asked her about the stock of Thanksgiving books she was loading on the shelves.

“How are they?” I asked. “You don’t want to know,” she groaned.

“Yes, I do,” I answered.

She gave a deep sigh and told me that she could find only one book where thanks is given to God.

“Well, then,” I asked her, “what are they giving thanks for, or to?”

“They’re just thankful,” she said vaguely. “They’re simply thankful.”

“Thankful for what?” I answered.

She again emphasized: “They’re just thankful.”

I reminded her of what she already knew — namely, that Thanksgiving in America was never about being merely thankful; it was about being thankful to God. How far this nation has drifted.

John F. Kennedy closed his first Thanksgiving Day proclamation with this: “I urge all citizens to make this Thanksgiving not merely a holiday from their labors, but, rather, a day of contemplation.” The Catholic president asked the “head of each family to recount to his children” the story of the first Thanksgiving, in order to impress upon future generations “the heritage of this nation born in toil, in danger, in purpose” and to understand that “right and justice and freedom” can persevere “with the blessing of God.”

Amen to that. We can honor this nation, its roots and its founders by celebrating Thanksgiving in the way they intended: by giving thanks to God.

Paul Kengor, Ph.D., is a professor of political science and executive director of

The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.