Gary Scott Smith on America as a Blessed But Not Chosen Nation – Thanksgiving 2019

Today is the last in the series of articles by historians posted during Thanksgiving week. I deeply appreciated the contributions of my distinguished friends and colleagues John WilseyJared BurkholderBarry HankinsAndrew MitchellFred Beuttler, and today Gary Scott Smith.
Happy Thanksgiving!
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Dr. Gary Scott Smith formerly chaired the history department at Grove City College and is now professor emeritus there. He is the author of “Faith and the Presidency From George Washington to George W. Bush” (Oxford University Press, 2009) and “Heaven in the American Imagination” (Oxford University Press, 2011) and “Suffer the Children” (Wipf and Stock, 2017) about worldwide poverty.
Thanksgiving Revisited: A Blessed But Not a Chosen Nation
In November 1620, 102 English Pilgrims arrived at Cape Cod after an arduous 66-day voyage across the Atlantic. The first winter, half of their company died. Nevertheless, after the residents of Plymouth gathered their first harvest the next November, Governor William Bradford invited Chief Massasoit and other Wampanoag Indians to join them for a feast that lasted three days. Describing the first Thanksgiving in “A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth” in 1621, Edward Winslow thanked the “goodness of God” for the venison, wild fowl, and other food they enjoyed.
In 1777, during another trying time in American history, the Continental Congress issued the first official Thanksgiving Proclamation. Twelve years later George Washington proclaimed a national Thanksgiving to give gratitude to God for the newly ratified Constitution. The first president urged Americans to render unto “that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be” “our sincere and humble thanks—for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country … for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence,” evident in the nation’s “tranquility, union, and plenty.”
This belief that God has specially blessed America has been widespread in our history. Many Americans have insisted that this country has a unique calling from God. This theme is evident in the nation’s sacred ceremonies, quasi-sacred scriptures, and presidents’ inaugural addresses. Strongly identifying with ancient Israel, many Americans have concluded that God chose us to play a principal role in bringing his kingdom on earth.
The Puritans contended that they had a “divinely appointed errand in the wilderness.” John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, whose residents came ten years after the Pilgrims, declared in his 1630 sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people upon us.” Jonathan Edwards, America’s greatest theologian, expected a “great work of God” to soon begin in America. His grandson Timothy Dwight, an early president of Yale, claimed that the new nation was “by Heaven designed, the example bright to renovate mankind.”
Numerous presidents have argued that God selected the United States to perform a special mission: to spread democracy, liberty, and biblical morality to the world. They asserted that its seemingly miraculous birth; rapid spread across the continent; remarkable increase in population, industry, affluence, and might; successful assimilation of millions of people of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds; modeling of republican government; and pivotal role in deciding the outcome of international wars all testified to God’s choice, use, and blessing of America.
Washington announced in his first inaugural address that “the destiny of the republican model of government” depended on America’s success. Thomas Jefferson labeled the American experiment “the last best hope of mankind,” and Abraham Lincoln called the Union “the last best hope of earth.” “Upon the success of our experiment,” alleged Theodore Roosevelt, “much depends … as regards the welfare of mankind.” “Our nation is chosen by God and commissioned by history,” declared George W. Bush, “to be a model to the world of justice.”
The United States’ success and support has encouraged people in countries around the globe to throw off the shackles of despotism and embrace democracy. As Dwight Eisenhower put it, “The American experiment has, for generations, fired the passion and the courage of millions elsewhere seeking freedom, equality, [and] opportunity.”
Although the conviction that God has selected the United States for a special mission in the world has contributed to some good results, it is biblically suspect. The Bible provides no basis for believing that any nation enjoys a unique relationship with God, as Israel did in Old Testament times. This Thanksgiving (and continuously) we should thank God for the many blessings our nation has enjoyed. Our geographical location, rich resources, fertile soil, unique blend of peoples, numerous liberties, and outstanding leaders have indeed been great blessings.
At the same time, we must reject the idea that we are God’s chosen people, a conviction that has helped motivate and vindicate America’s actions at home and abroad. Belief that God has assigned the United States a mission has helped inspire Americans to engage in countless acts of self-sacrifice, generosity, and charity. However, it has also contributed to imperialism, concepts of racial superiority, cultural insensitivity, and unwarranted interference in the affairs of other nations. It has stimulated Americans to fight injustice at home and abroad, but it has also contributed to simplistic moralizing, overlooking of our national flaws, ignoring moral complexities, and a hatred abroad of American hubris.
Therefore, while we celebrate Thanksgiving and give gratitude to God for his bounty, let’s remember Christ’s statement, “to whom much is given, much is expected.” Hopefully this will motivate us to reach out in compassion to the needy throughout our world
For more from this Thanksgiving in history series, please click the links below:

John Wilsey on the Past as a Foreign Country

Jared Burkholder on Politics And The First Thanksgiving

Barry Hankins on Thanksgiving as the Perfect Civil Religion Holiday

Andrew Mitchell: Reclaim the Spirit of Thanksgiving

Fred Beuttler on the First Federal Thanksgiving

Barry Hankins on America’s Perfect Civil Religion Holiday – Thanksgiving 2019

The third post today is a brief note from Barry Hankins. Hankins is Professor of History and Director of Graduate Studies, Department of History and Resident Scholar, Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University.

Christians can celebrate Thanksgiving by infusing it with all kinds of religious and national significance.  But, people of other faiths and of no faith at all can celebrate the holiday equally.  Christians have no corner on being thankful.  Moreover, Thanksgiving has an advantage in this respect over Christmas and Easter.  Although those holidays, especially Christmas, are commercialized and secularized to a large extent, they are still specifically Christian.  In fact, they are the two central events of the Christian liturgical calendar, which means that to celebrate them commercially non-Christians have to ignore their potent religious meaning.  Not so for Thanksgiving, which commemorates a national event, not a religious event.  So, Thanksgiving is what I call “America’s perfect civil religion holiday.”

To read all articles in this series, click Thanksgiving 2019. Tomorrow I have a post from retired Grove City College history professor and first professor emeritus from the school, Gary Scott Smith on America as a blessed but not chosen nation.

Andrew Mitchell: Reclaim the Spirit of Thanksgiving – Thanksgiving 2019

Today’s second guest post is from friend and Grove City College colleague Andrew Mitchell who is an associate professor of history at the college. 

Reclaim the Spirit of Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving is one of only two holidays Americans celebrate that consciously looks back to a colonial past.  It also happens to be the only national holiday that is relatively free of political implications, at least on first glance.  That is quite remarkable, since Americans are, and have been, a diverse group of people—of different ethnicities and faiths—who have agreed to unite over a number of political principles.  It has been our commitment to those principles, rather than to specifically religious or economic ones, that has helped the nation endure for close to 250 years.  Recently, historians, following the general trend of academia, have directed their research at exploring American diversity, and holiday celebrations have not escaped scrutiny. By stripping away the legends associated with “Pilgrim Fathers,” a fascinating story emerges.

It is quite evident now that the first “American” Thanksgiving celebration did not take place in 1623 at Plymouth, nor in 1619 at Berkley Hundred, nor in 1610 at Jamestown, but rather on 8 September 1565, in present-day St. Augustine, Florida.  On that day a group of Spanish-speaking Catholics gave thanks to God for their safe travel across the ocean and afterwards held a modest feast, inviting the local tribe of Timucuan Indians to join them.  In fact, regardless of whether the Plymouth Separatists were giving thanks to God or to Massasoit and the Wampanoags, it is clear that the Puritans of New England and their descendants ignored them entirely.  The word “Pilgrim” to describe the Plymouth colonists only shows up in 1799; the record of their 1623 celebration first published in 1841, during a time when New Englanders and Southerners were ransacking historical sources, engaged in a fierce fight to prove that their traditions (and theirs alone) were authentically “American.”  In light of this, Abraham Lincoln’s 1864 proclaiming a “day of thanksgiving” on the last Thursday in November appears more controversial—an affirmation right before his reelection that the Northern (New England-influenced) side had won.  Indeed, despite subsequent presidents continuing Lincoln’s tradition, most Southern states did not acknowledge the day, or develop any rituals around it, until the last decades of the nineteenth century.

Sadly, the history of Thanksgiving is not devoid of political wrangling and gamesmanship.  Franklin Roosevelt—in this as in other elements of his presidency—deviated from the traditions established by his predecessors, by moving Thanksgiving a week earlier in 1939.  Roosevelt was acting on the recommendation of his Secretary of Commerce who was concerned that the lateness of Thanksgiving (30 November) would compromise Christmas-season retail sales.  The president’s decision created a significant uproar across the country.  In a response that demonstrated how politicized America had become, nearly one-half of the states ignored the presidential declaration and celebrated a “Republican Thanksgiving,” instead of “Franksgiving.”  The following year, 16 states kept to the traditional date.  In 1941, after conclusive evidence that retail sales had not significantly improved, Congress passed a joint resolution declaring the fourth Thursday in November as “Thanksgiving Day.”  Nevertheless, the reality of rationing during the Second World War meant that most Americans did not come to share in Norman Rockwell’s idealized depiction of until 1945.

Rather than being disconcerted by revisionist demonstrations that popular conceptions about our national celebration is little more than a peculiar New England tradition writ large and embellished, traditionalists should see in them a chance to celebrate.  Despite the diversity of language and creed, all European colonists to the Americas acknowledged their need for giving thanks, and demonstrated their joy through unusual periods of festivity, whether the religious ceremony was accompanied by culinary indulgence or not.  Furthermore, all of these thanksgiving celebrations, from Florida to Virginia to Massachusetts, included guests: strangers who were made welcome and encouraged to share in the community’s bounty, and for a few moments, perhaps, united in fellowship.  For these people, most of our ancestors, thanksgiving was not a single day made special through capitalization, but one of life’s essential rituals, too important to practice only once every 365 days, and too special to keep to one’s own.

With increasing evidence from the realm of psychology that giving thanks is good for the mind as well as the body, perhaps this provides Americans today with something solid to grasp.  In a society whose members are increasingly concerned about diversity and yet increasingly isolated from one another, whose daily call to self-indulgence tends to dull our physical and spiritual palates, perhaps we need to focus on the thankful theme that has united us in the past.  By scaling back our own daily consumption (starting, perhaps with the last Friday in November), by beginning to reach out in loving hospitality to the strangers in our midst, we might be able reclaim some of that attractive spirit—and lifestyle—of giving thanks that all our ancestors (and their guests) shared.

For further reading, Dr. Mitchell recommends:

Diana Appelbaum, Thanksgiving: An American Holiday, an American History.
Kathleen Curtain, Sandra Oliver, and Plimouth Plantation, Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History, from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie.
Robert Emmons, Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier.

To read all articles in this series, click Thanksgiving 2019.

John Wilsey on Thanksgiving and the Past as a Foreign Country – Thanksgiving 2019

Today’s first guest post is from John D. Wilsey. Wilsey is Associate Professor of Church History at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of One Nation Under God: An Evangelical Critique of Christian America and American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea.

One of the fascinating things about the Thanksgiving celebration is its endurance in the national memory. From the “first Thanksgiving” in the autumn of 1621 to our own day, Thanksgiving as a civil religious high and holy day offers us a cultural and religious artifact in considering the process of change that occurs in a national community. Just think of Thanksgiving in terms of three benchmarks in history—1621, 1863, and the present day.
Here’s a little perspective: when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, he was more distant in time from the 1621 celebration than we are in 2014 to Lincoln. How much had changed in North America from the first Thanksgiving to the Civil War? And how much has changed from the Civil War to the present? As many historians like to point out, the past is a foreign country—but perhaps it is more accurate to say that the past is made up of many foreign countries.

It is good to remember that our present day context is different than that of the past. As a Christian, I remember that many things in the human experience do not change, namely, human nature itself. But I also remember that trying to draw a straight line from the Pilgrims to the present in an effort to make some point about “restoring America” can be dangerous, and in some ways, contrary to my own Christian tradition. That does not mean that we ignore the past. We can glean wisdom from the past without using it to advance an agenda. Considering Thanksgiving as a cultural and religious artifact helps us to do just that, while we celebrate and enjoy it in our own homes on November 27.

For all articles in this series, please click Thanksgiving 2019.

Fred Beuttler on the First Federal Thanksgiving – Thanksgiving 2019

Today’s guest post is by Fred W. Beuttler, Ph.D., the former Deputy Historian of the U.S. House of Representatives. Fred is Associate Dean of Liberal Arts Programs at University of Chicago, Graham School.

The First Federal Thanksgiving
Today, November 26, 2019, marks the 230th anniversary of the first Federal Thanksgiving in 1789, “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer” to “Almighty God” for the U.S. Constitution.

In late September, 1789, on one of the last days of the first session of the First Federal Congress, the most productive in history, Congressman Elias Boudinot of New Jersey proposed that the American people should “with one voice” give to “Almighty God their sincere thanks for the many blessings he had poured down upon them.”   Boudinot  introduced a resolution for the President to recommend “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a Constitution of government for their safety and happiness.”

Predictably, as it was Congress, there was some grumbling.  One congressman complained that it was “mimicking of European customs,” while another suggested that maybe the people were not inclined to give thanks for the Constitution, at least until they could see if it did give them safety and happiness.  It was a state, not a federal function, one argued, “a business which Congress have nothing to do; it is a religious matter, and, as such, is proscribed to us.”  This could have been a significant objection, as the previous day the House had passed what would become the First Amendment, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”

But the members of Congress did not see this call for a national day of thanksgiving as at all contradicting religious freedom.  Roger Sherman of Connecticut justified the practice of a day of thanksgiving as laudable in itself, referring to “holy writ” at the dedication of Solomon’s temple, an example “worthy of Christian imitation,” and Boudinot cited precedents “from the practice of the late Congress.”

The House of Representatives carried the resolution in the affirmative.  The Senate agreed a couple of days later, and that same day they also agreed to transmit copies of the Bill of Rights to the several states.  A joint committee of Congressmen and Senators called on President George Washington to recommend a day of national thanksgiving to “Almighty God” for the Constitution.

A few days later, President Washington submitted the following proclamation, calling upon the American people to assign Thursday, November 26, 1789, as a day of public thanksgiving for the national Constitution:

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 favor; 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 public 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 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 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 enable 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 favors 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 public 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 shown kindness to 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 3d day of October, A.D. 1789.
georgewashsign

So this Thanksgiving of 2019, remember that the First Congress and our first President called upon all American citizens to observe “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer” to “Almighty God” for the U.S. Constitution and our civil and religious liberty.  That is something for which truly to be thankful.

(End of Dr. Beuttler’s post)

My (Throckmorton) sentiments would have been with the Congressman who objected on grounds that Congress should not direct religious activity. In fact, I think this was a mistake and not in keeping with the First Amendment passed just the day before. However, as Fred documented in his post, the Congressmen had their justifications and the majority prevailed.

My view is that Jefferson and Madison (after he left the presidency) were correct about national days of thanksgiving as religious observances. Jefferson refused to commemorate them saying:

I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct its exercises, its discipline, or its doctrines; nor of the religious societies that the general government should be invested with the power of affecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. Fasting & prayer are religious exercises. The enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, & the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the constitution has deposited it.

Although Madison observed days of prayer during his presidency, he later expressed regret about it.

They seem to imply and certainly nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion. The idea just as it related to the Jewish nation under a theocracy, having been improperly adopted by so many nations which have embraced Christianity, is too apt to lurk in the bosoms even of Americans, who in general are aware of the distinction between religious & political societies. The idea also of a union of all to form one nation under one government in acts of devotion to the God of all is an imposing idea. But reason and the principles of the Christian religion require that all the individuals composing a nation even of the same precise creed & wished to unite in a universal act of religion at the same time, the union ought to be effected through the intervention of their religious not of their political representatives. In a nation composed of various sects, some alienated widely from others, and where no agreement could take place through the former, the interposition of the latter is doubly wrong.

I do understand how judges now interpret the First Amendment through the actions of the Congress. However, I think Jefferson and Madison had the right application.

Note:

In 2014, I asked several historian colleagues to opine about what the public should know about Thanksgiving. This is one post in that series The series will run through at least Thanksgiving Day.

To read all articles in this series, click Thanksgiving 2019.

Jared Burkholder on Thanksgiving and Politics – Thanksgiving 2019

In 2014, I asked several historian colleagues to opine about what the public should know about Thanksgiving. Five years later, they are still good words to us. The series will run through at least Thanksgiving Day. Today, Jared Burkholder briefly discusses the political aspects of the first thanksgiving.
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Jared S. Burkholder is Associate Professor of History and Chair of the Department of History and Political Science at Grace College, Winona Lake, Indiana. He co-edited The Activist Impulse: Essays on the Intersection of Anabaptism and Evangelicalism (Wipf and Stock, 2012) and Becoming Grace: Seventy-Five Years on the Landscape of Christian Higher Education in America (BMH Books, 2015).

It is good to remember that the “First Thanksgiving” probably had more to do with politics than fellowship, especially if seen through native eyes. Although we might be tempted to think of New England’s native residents as falling into categories of either “friendly” or “hostile” depending on how they got along with Europeans, Indians were, like most of us, intent on protecting their assets and gaining advantages. Treating foreign peoples, including Europeans, as either friends or foes was based on strategic self-interest.

Constructing their settlement at Patuxet (Plymouth) in 1620, the pilgrims had thrust themselves into the middle of a complex system of tense rivalries and alliances among various Indian nations. The Wampanoag, which had been devastated by sickness as a result of earlier contact with Europeans, likely saw their interaction with the pilgrims as an opportunity to garner allies that could help defend against the neighboring Narragansett, who had escaped the plague of 1616 and were powerful enemies. Even Tisquantum (“Squanto”) was playing politics, as Governor Bradford admitted, likely attempting to leverage relationships for his own purposes. Thus, the first thanksgiving was not so much a Sunday afternoon potluck of food and good feelings, but rather an opportunity for testing boundaries and political posturing.

Want a good read on the political angles of the “First Thanksgiving”? See this engaging Smithsonian article, Native Intelligence.

I echo Jared’s recommendation of the Smithsonian article. It paints a substantially different portrait of the first Thanksgiving as a kind of standoff with benefits. From the article:

By fall the settlers’ situation was secure enough that they held a feast of thanksgiving. Massasoit showed up with “some ninety men,” Winslow later recalled, most of them with weapons. The Pilgrim militia responded by marching around and firing their guns in the air in a manner intended to convey menace. Gratified, both sides sat down, ate a lot of food and complained about the Narragansett. Ecce Thanksgiving.

Here’s hoping your Thanksgiving is less tense.

For all articles in this series, click Thanksgiving 2019.