The True Origins of Thanksgiving
by Rev. Paul J. Bern
Each one of us was taught back when we were kids that the tradition of Thanksgiving has its origins dating back to the early 1600’s when the Pilgrims celebrated it for the first time. But did you know that the first Thanksgiving celebration was based on the Bible due to the deeply held Christian beliefs of those Pilgrims? There are many examples of Thanksgiving throughout the Bible dating all the way back to the ancient Israelites, and the first Pilgrims were drawing on this religious heritage, using it as a frame of reference for their own celebration back in 1621. Allow me to elaborate, using the Bible as a backdrop in order to bring these examples of thanksgiving into the light. As you will see, there is more to Thanksgiving than its first celebration near Plymouth, Massachusetts. We can start with the Old Testament first, starting near the front of the Bible and working our way back.
“Give thanks to the Lord, call upon His name; make known among the nations what He has done. Sing to Him, sing praises to Him; tell of all His wonderful acts.” (I Chronicles 16: 8-9 NIV)
“Give thanks to the Lord for He is good; His love endures forever. Cry out, ‘Save us O God our savior; gather us and deliver us from the nations, that we may give thanks to His holy name, that we may glory in your praise’.” (I Chronicles 16: 34-35 NIV)
In these examples, the praise and thanksgiving is so strong that the Israelites are literally begging God to give them a reason to be thankful so they can praise Him all the more. “Gather us and deliver us from the nations, that we may give thanks to His holy name…” And now I will give two examples from the book of Psalms.
“Let us come before Him with thanksgiving, and extol Him with music and song.” (Psalm 95, verse 2 NIV)
“Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to Him and praise His name.” (Psalm 100, verse 4 NIV)
Notice that coming to the Lord’s temple to worship is predicated on being thankful. The thankfulness comes first, followed by entry into the gates of the temple at Jerusalem. Entry into the inner courts where worship was held came last. One cannot enter the temple courts without a thankful heart, otherwise one’s worship will not be acceptable to the Lord. One cannot worship God in the truest sense of the word without first being thankful. So now we can see that the tradition of thanksgiving dates back as far as the early settlement of what is now modern-day Israel, and that thanksgiving to God was incorporated into their praise and worship. At the very least it dates back to the time of King David approximately 3,000 years ago, around the time David was writing the book of Psalms. Let’s go now to the New Testament where we find even more examples among the early Christians.
“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12: 28-29 NIV)
Once again we see thanksgiving coming before worship in this example (“let us be thankful and so worship God…”). This quote, written by the apostle Paul, sets forth the proper priorities for having a thankful heart. As you can see, Paul reiterates the same spirit of thanksgiving used in the previous Old Testament examples. In so doing, we “worship God with reverence and awe”, which is just as it should be whenever we worship or pray. Now let me give you three more quotes from Paul’s letters to the Corinthian church of the first century, and these date back to approximately 60 AD.
“But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (First Corinthians 15:57 NIV)
“But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of Him.” (2nd Corinthians 2:14 NIV)
And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift! (2nd Corinthians 9:14-15 NIV)
The phrase ‘thanks be to God’ is prominent in all three of the above verses. It proves that thanksgiving in the early church was a prerequisite to worship as well as prayer, just as it was during the days of Israel’s golden age and the first temple in Jerusalem. It reaffirms Thanksgiving as being a time-honored tradition that is much older than what is being “taught” today.
“Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (I Thessalonians 5: 16-18 NIV)
“Give thanks in all circumstances”. In the Christian faith, giving thanks is not something that is reserved for Thanksgiving day. Giving thanks is done on a daily basis out of habit through prayer. It also means that we are to be content with little or with much, understanding that the sum total of our material possessions is meaningless in the overall scope of life, not to mention in the sight of God. It’s a lot easier to be thankful if we detach ourselves from the material world and begin to live a simpler life. It comes automatically to true Christians, but it is something we must work on every day as we exercise our faith. In a modern society that is obsessed with materialism and the accumulation of wealth, maintaining our focus on Christ can be challenging at times. But the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that happens when we ask Him to come into our hearts gives us the supernatural ability to endure anything, especially temptations.
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4: 6-7 NIV)
In this passage, look what happens when we are thankful. When we are thankful on a daily basis for whatever we obtain or receive, it is impossible to be anxious or worried about life and what the outcome might be from day to day. Peace will guard our minds and our hearts, and tranquility will replace worry. Peace and long life are the natural outcomes of being thankful, as well as being the end result of having a closer walk with Christ. So it works both ways, you see. Moreover, this same peace transcends all human understanding.
“For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.” (I Timothy 4: 4-5 NIV)
All things are to be received with thanksgiving because the earth belongs to God. He made the earth and everything in it. Therefore all things ultimately come from God. That’s why we are to be thankful and we must maintain a thankful attitude towards God at all times. So now you know the true tradition of Thanksgiving, and that the whole idea dates back at least 3,000 years. Keep this in mind as you celebrate the holiday. It’s the best place to start on the way to achieving internal peace. Be thankful at all times and you will have the peace of Jesus Christ that is otherwise incomprehensible. This is one sure way to make life noticeably better. Everyone wants a better life. Why not try this starting today? Life truly is much better when we live it with continuous thanksgiving towards God.