Thanksgiving Day—How It Began
The first European settlement in North America was Fort Caroline at St. John’s River in Florida, founded by French Christians known as Huguenots. On June 30, 1564, this group of pioneers celebrated a day of Thanksgiving. Their record of that event reads:
We sang a psalm of thanksgiving unto God, beseeching Him that it would please Him to continue His accustomed goodness towards us.
On September 21, 1950, Rep. Charles E. Bennett sponsored a bill to establish Fort Caroline National Memorial. He recounted the history of this settlement:
The 425th anniversary of the beginning settlements by Europeans . . . [was] renamed from Fort Caroline to San Mateo, to San Nicolas, to Cowford, and finally to Jacksonville in 1822. . . .
Three small ships carrying 300 Frenchmen led by Rene de Laudonniere anchored in the river known today as the St. Johns. . . .
On June 30, 1564, construction of a triangular-shaped fort . . . was begun with the help of a local tribe of Timucuan Indians . . . [as a] Home for this hardy group of Huguenots. . . . [T]heir strong religious . . . motivations inspired them.
Fort Caroline existed but for a short time. . . . Spain . . . captured . . . the fort and . . . slaughtered most of its inhabitants in September of 1565.
Fast-forward to October 3, 1789, from New York City, the then nation’s capital, President George Washington issued the first Proclamation of a National Day of Thanksgiving and Prayer to Almighty God. Just one week earlier the first session of the U.S. Congress had approved the First Ten Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights. These limited the power of the Federal Government.
The First Amendment begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” From that beginning flow all the subsequent rights—freedom of speech, of assembly, of the press, the right to bear arms, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, the right to a jury trial, and several other key rights.
President Washington’s Proclamation read, in part:
Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the Providence of Almighty God . . . we may . . . 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 . . . duties properly . . . to render our national government a blessing to all the People, by constantly being a government of wise, just and constitutional laws . . . and to bless them with . . . peace and concord . . . and the increase of science . . . and . . . to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.
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 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 . . . Thursday, the 26th day of November . . . to be devoted by the People of these United 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 the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed . . . to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue.
Presidents down through history declared national days of Thanksgiving. For example, on October 25, 1887, President Grover Cleveland proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving and Prayer in these words:
The goodness and the mercy of God, which have followed the American people during all the days of the past year, claim their grateful recognition and humble acknowledgment. . . . By His omnipotent power He has protected us from war and pestilence and from every national calamity, by His gracious favor the earth has yielded a generous return. . . . by His loving kindness the hearts of our people have been replenished, . . . and by His unerring guidance we have been directed in the way of national prosperity.
To the end that we may with one accord testify our gratitude for all these blessings, I, Grover Cleveland, President of the United States, do hereby designate and set apart . . . a day of thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by all the people of the land.
On that day let all secular work and employment be suspended, and let our people assemble in their accustomed places of worship and with prayer and songs of praise give thanks to our Heavenly Father for all that He has done for us, while we humbly implore the forgiveness of our sins and a continuance of His mercy.
In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed a national Day of Thanksgiving, recognizing the tradition that had been developing for several decades:
The season is at hand in which it has been our long respected custom as a people to turn in praise and thanksgiving to Almighty God for His manifold mercies and blessings to us as a nation. . . . In the year that has just passed . . . we have seen the practical completion of a great work at the Isthmus of Panama. . . .
“Righteousness exalteth a nation” and “peace on earth, good will towards men” furnish the only foundation upon which can be built the lasting achievements of the human spirit. . . .
Now, therefore, I, Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States of America, do hereby designate . . . a day of thanksgiving and prayer, and invite the people throughout the land to cease from their wonted occupations and in their several homes and places of worship render thanks to Almighty God.
In 1939, 1940, and 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt issued proclamations designating the third Thursday in November as the federal Thanksgiving holiday. Some historians note that he intended to lengthen the Christmas shopping season; before the Great Depression, Thanksgiving had customarily been observed the last Thursday of the month.
In the controversy that followed, Congress passed a joint resolution requiring that Thanksgiving be observed on the fourth Thursday in November. (Sometimes this is the last Thursday; less often, it’s the next to last.) On December 26, 1941, President Roosevelt signed this bill and for the first time made the date of Thanksgiving a matter of federal law.
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