November 24 is Thanksgiving Day, at least for those of us who live in the U.S. For our Canadian friends Thanksgiving Day will by this time be past, since the Canadian Thanksgiving Day is celebrated on the second Monday in October. Thanksgiving Day is a national holiday. It is also a day on which we hold special worship services. The holiday and worship services are designed to be expressions of thanksgiving to God especially for the completed harvest. It is a day on which we give special thanks for God’s care of the seed that was sown in the Spring, His causing the seed to sprout and to grow, and His providing another harvest in order to meet our earthly need for food.
Thanksgiving Day has a long history. The civil authorities of Europe for many centuries had, on various occasions, called for special days of thanksgiving. One such day was called by the authorities in Leyden, Holland on October 3, 1575, the first anniversary of the deliverance of that city from siege. From Europe, the custom was carried over into our own country. After the first harvest of the Pilgrims, in 1621, Gov. Bradford called for the observance of a special day of thanksgiving. He also sent four men out fowling, that they “might after a more special manner rejoice together.’’ This celebration of thanksgiving by a great festive meal has been carried on down to our own day. In July, 1623, the governor appointed a special day of thanksgiving for rain which had brought an end to an extended drought. During the American Revolution, a yearly day of national thanksgiving was recommended by the Continental Congress. It was in 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln appointed a national day of thanksgiving. Since then the day has been set aside and each president has issued an annual Thanksgiving Day proclamation. Custom has fixed that day as the last Thursday of November.
Not only is Thanksgiving Day a national holiday, but it is also observed by the church as a special day of worship. Our churches are bound to do this by our Church Order, which in article 67 included Thanksgiving Day among those special days which the churches are to observe in addition to Sunday. This means that on Thanksgiving Day our consistories are to call our people to an official worship service, like the services of worship on Sunday.
Historically there has been difference of opinion in Reformed churches regarding the observance of these special days. Many of the Reformers, including Calvin, Zwingli, and Knox, favored only the observance of the Lord’s Day. They called for the churches to set aside all of the special days which had been observed in the Roman Catholic Church. Van Dellen and Monsma, in The Church Order Commentary, give the following reasons for this stand of these Reformers: “The festive days are not ordained of God but are a human invention; they minimize Sunday, the God-ordained weekly day of rest; they lead to paganistic celebrations and promote licentiousness,’’ (p. 273). In light of the present day observance of many of these holidays by the general populace and even many church members, it must be admitted that the contention of the Reformers in their last point has certainly proved to be correct. The present celebration of most of these Days is more pagan than Christian.
Nevertheless, the churches have gradually moved away from the position of the early Reformers and made a place in the official life of the church for these special holidays, including Thanksgiving Day. It must be admitted that there certainly is nothing as such wrong in the observance of these days, at least in a sober and Christian way, as distinguished from the revelry of the world. Worship services on these days were introduced exactly in order to prevent the people from spending these days in idleness or worldliness.
As far as Thanksgiving Day itself is concerned, it is certainly fitting that the Church observe a special day of thanksgiving to God. Time and again the Scriptures call us to thankfulness. Thankfulness is something that we owe to God and something which we ought always to be giving to God. In I Thess. 5:18 the Apostle exhorts Christians, “In everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.” In Eph. 5:20 he writes, “Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The Psalms are full of exhortations to God’s people to be thankful and to give thanks. Psalm 92:1 is just one example: “It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord, and to sing praises unto thy name, 0 most High.” In I Chron. 16:8, 9 David calls upon the people of God to give thanks to God: “Give thanks unto the Lord, call upon His name, make known His deeds among the people. Sing unto Him, sing psalms unto Him, talk ye of all His wondrous works.” Rom. 1:21 exactly lists the outstanding sin of ungodly men that, although they knew God, “they glorified Him not as God, neither were thankful.” So, thanksgiving to God is the outstanding mark of the believer. Really, this is why God has saved him, so that he may give thanks unto Him.
On Thanksgiving Day, we especially thank God for those things which He has given us in the realm of our natural life. We thank God for food, clothing, shelter, health, strength, and work. These too are good gifts which come down to us from the Father of lights, James 1:17. For these too we are to be thankful.
In the Old Testament, there were similar special days of thanksgiving. There was the Feast of First-Fruits, which marked the beginning of the harvest, and the Feast of Pentecost which marked the conclusion of the harvest. Now it was certainly the case that there was a spiritual, typical significance attached to these feasts. But there certainly was also the unmistakable element of thanksgiving to God for His provision of the natural life of His people. God not only provides for the salvation of the soul, but also the life of the body.
Surely the thanksgiving of God’s people does not end with their thanksgiving to God for the things of this natural life. Nor are these things even the main thing for which we are and ought to be thankful. Certainly the main thing for which we must be thankful is our salvation in God’s Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. If we do not possess this gift of God, if this is not the main thing for which we are thankful in our life, no matter how many good things we may have received from the Lord, no matter how rich we are or how great our harvest is, we really have no reason to be thankful. Apart from salvation, these things in themselves are of no value to a man whatsoever. The Heidelberg Catechism emphasizes this in its explanation of the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer. The Catechism says in Lord’s Day 50 that neither our care nor even God’s gifts can profit us apart from God’s blessing. There are times, such as the time recorded in Ps. 106:15, when God sends abundance of earthly things but at the same time sends “leanness of soul.” Then in spite of all the abundance there is no reason, neither is it possible for a man to be thankful.
Just because our spiritual salvation is the main thing for which we believers are thankful, we can be thankful in all circumstances of life. We never lose our salvation. We may suffer the loss of our earthly possessions, the loss of our crops, the loss of our own health, but since we have our salvation it is still possible for us to be thankful. Our thankfulness does not depend on the outward circumstances of our life, as does the “thankfulness” of the world. We are able to say with the prophet Habakkuk in Hab. 3:17, 18, “Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labor of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.”
Yet, we believers are to be thankful to God for His care of and provision for our earthly life. We look to Him for the preservation of our life. And when He is pleased to provide for our earthly needs, giving us our daily bread and all that is included in that daily bread, we ought to return thanks. This was something Jesus Himself did. Before He distributed the loaves and the fishes to the multitude in Matt. 15:36, we read that He gave thanks. Paul says in I Tim. 4:3 that God has created and given us meats “to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth.”
It is therefore fitting and proper that the people of God come together one day out of the year to render special thanks to God. The observance of Thanksgiving Day has a legitimate place in the life of the Church. But then let’s use the day for that purpose. Let the day not be a day merely of fun and relaxation, certainly not a day of gluttony and revelry. But let us use the day for thanksgiving, expressing to God the thanks which He deserves for the bounties He has given us.