Religious roots of Thanksgiving: Let’s not forget that we are one nation under God Print
Written by Mary Uhler   
Thursday, Nov. 28, 2013 -- 12:00 AM

Just as may be happening with Christmas, the religious aspects of our Thanksgiving holiday may also be fading in the United States with a growing secularization in our society.

That’s why it is important for us as Catholics to reflect upon the religious roots of Thanksgiving and perhaps to bring them up in discussions during our holiday observances at appropriate times.

Facts about the first Thanksgiving

It might be good for all of us to review facts about the first Thanksgiving. Most of us know that the Pilgrims and Native Americans celebrated the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth Rock in gratitude for a good harvest.

Although I’ve heard about the Pilgrims, I decided to check some background information on them. They were persecuted in England, where they separated from the established Church of England over matters of faith and doctrine. They believed that the Church of England had deviated from the purity of the Gospel message, so they formed their own church.

The Pilgrims settled for a time in Holland. However, they weren’t happy there because they felt their children were picking up Dutch customs and losing the English language. They decided to travel to the new world across the ocean, which they considered a land of freedom and opportunity.

They founded the Plymouth colony in 1620. During their first winter there, more than half of the Pilgrims died. However, when spring came, they met the English-speaking Native American Squanto and forged a treat with the Wampanoag tribal confederation that lasted for 50 years. The Native Americans helped the Pilgrims survive and taught them how to live on the new land and thrive.

The second year’s harvest was bountiful, so the Pilgrims — grateful to God and the Native Americans — celebrated the first Thanksgiving in November of 1621. Governor William Bradford invited their Wampanoag friends, especially Chief Massasoit, who brought 90 braves to the feast.

From then on, Thanksgiving became an annual holiday, especially in the New England states.

President Lincoln declares national holiday

Finally, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a recognized national holiday.
With the United States in the depths of the Civil War, perhaps President Lincoln was attracted to the idea of a holiday unifying the nation. Lincoln wrote a proclamation about Thanksgiving, issued on October 3, 1863. The New York Times published the proclamation two days later.

In that proclamation, President Lincoln acknowledged gratitude to God for the blessings he had bestowed on the United States. He said in part, “I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.

“And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.”

One nation under God

Even though we don’t have a Civil War today, we are experiencing conflicts and violence in our country. Even our Congress has trouble passing any laws!

We were founded as “one nation under God.” Even though faith has eroded in this country, we still have many Americans with a strong faith in God.

At Thanksgiving and throughout the year, let us pray that we may recover the sense of gratitude to God expressed by the Pilgrims and President Lincoln. We pray that God may continue to bless our nation as we protect the freedoms we have enjoyed, first among them being religious liberty.