Thanksgiving: America’s religious holiday

In an age in which students can get suspended for wearing religious T-shirts to school and pre-game prayers have been dropped lest they offend someone, it is a wonder the Supreme Court has not ruled Thanksgiving unconstitutional. It is, after all, an official recognition of religion.

To deny Thanksgiving’s religious basis is to ignore the spark that ignited the Pilgrims’ productive labors. They worked hard, and the bounty this work created was the product of human exertion. But their efforts were not entirely motivated by a desire for prosperity.

In his 1995 book, “Creating the Commonwealth,” historian Stephen Innes argues that the secret to Massachusetts Bay’s economic success — for which the colonists gave thanks — was its religious underpinning. “Massachusetts Bay was a commonwealth that flourished in large part because its notion of redemptive community endowed economic development with moral, spiritual, and religious imperatives,” he wrote. “The settlers’ providentialism — the belief that they were participating in the working out of God’s purposes — made all labor and enterprise ‘godly business,’ to be pursued aggressively and judged by the most exacting of standards.”

The Pilgrims did not work only to feed, clothe, and house themselves. They worked to glorify God, and work so motivated produced abundant profits.

Ironically, the 1621 harvest feast on which Thanksgiving is based was not a religious day. It was a secular harvest festival, which lasted three days and included wild fowl shot by the Pilgrims and venison brought by the Indians. The colonists ate for a week on the fowl alone, one wrote.

A century and a half would pass before an official day of thanks was proclaimed in Massachusetts. This, the first official Thanksgiving, was established in 1774 by a committee that included John Winthrop and John Hancock. As often happens with American traditions, it blended the religious (the day of thanks) with the secular (the harvest festival).

Thanksgiving remains a blend of the secular and religious. If it were put together any other way, it would not be Thanksgiving. Today, we are thankful for many things. One of them is that this great national holiday based on giving thanks to God has survived as long as it has without the Supreme Court stripping away its religious meaning. We pray that it stays that way.

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