Thanksgiving is dead. For all practical purposes, as a time when society as a whole pauses to thank God for His manifold blessings, it does not exist. And it didn’t die of natural causes either. It was brutally murdered by a three-headed beast which, by the way, is also killing society as a whole. Thanksgiving was but one of its victims.
Don’t believe me? Read on.
Every year around this time I am given the opportunity to talk about the Thanksgiving holiday to a group of English students at a local university. Usually the lecture begins with a description of modern Thanksgiving traditions, followed by an overview of the circumstances surrounding the first Thanksgiving. I then talk about how the holiday has become commercialized, especially with the advent of Black Friday.
As I prepared for this year’s presentation, I began to reflect on what forces had wrought this change – from humble thanks offered to Almighty God, to a mad scramble for that “discounted” big screen TV. Put another way, how did our society go from gratefulness to greed in such a short period of time? At the end of this post I have put a list of books which influenced my thoughts here, but let me acknowledge at the outset my debt to Richard M. Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, which has helped me put into place some missing pieces of the historical and philosophical puzzle.
First, some preliminary observations.
It is helpful to remember that the very first Thanksgiving celebration happened after the Pilgrim Fathers had survived what can only be described as a horrific year. Arriving, as they did, when it was too late to plant or harvest crops, close to fifty percent of their number died due to disease and undernourishment. For our society, paralyzed as it is in the face a disease with a near 99% survival rate, the idea of giving thanks after the loss of almost half of the population seems utterly amazing.
From what I can gather, the idea and purpose of the Thanksgiving celebration remained largely intact from 1621 up through the Civil War. Though not an official American holiday until 1863, various groups celebrated it and presidents, including George Washington, issued official Thanksgiving Day proclamations.
In that year of 1863 Abraham Lincoln released his own declaration of Thanksgiving, and that document shows that, in his mind at least, Thanksgiving retained it’s original meaning of thanks to God for His manifold blessings. Written at the height of the Civil War, Lincoln even follows the Pilgrim pattern of expressing gratefulness to God during what can only be described as dire circumstances.
The next major Thanksgiving-related event in US history happened 76 years later. In 1939 Franklin Roosevelt attempted to extend the Christmas shopping season – thus injecting more money into the economy – by moving Thanksgiving back one week. The “Franksgiving” debacle demonstrates that the remarkable change in attitude towards the holiday, at least on the part of US presidents, took place within those three-quarters of a century between the Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt administrations. Thus, it is in those decades that we will focus our hunt for the killer of Thanksgiving.
It is important to remember that, at the time, the Civil War was largely seen as a spiritual struggle. Slavery was a great evil, and the Northern armies were God’s instrument sent to free them. Union soldiers sang “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free…” as they marched off to do just that.
But if the Union Army was an instrument of justice in God’s hand (and I believe that it was), another equally effective instrument was the incredible industrial power of the North. Historians are pretty much agreed on the point that the South never stood a chance, given the unmatched manufacturing power of the northern cities.
This was all well and good. And yet, once the conflict ended, it was easy for Americans to see their newfound strength and prosperity, not as gifts from God, but as the natural results of Industrialization. And so, slowly but surely, that which had been the tool for doing God’s work became an idol that replaced God.
With industrialization came urbanization. A World War, followed by unparalleled prosperity in the 1920s, only served to confirm that the secret to the nation’s greatness lay, not in her small communities with their churches, but in the great cities with their factories.
The connection to Thanksgiving should be obvious. The farmer and small businessman are in a better position to understand their dependence upon God, and to express their gratefulness to Him for His constant blessings. The city-dwelling businessman or factory worker, while in reality no less dependent upon Him, has constructed several layers of insulation between himself and the “forces of nature”. This false sense of security makes it easy to go about daily life while giving nary a second thought to spiritual matters.
For American society, that sense of security came crashing down with the stock market in 1929. But instead of seeking out the true God, they turned to another idol they had been cultivating since Civil War.
One of the results of the War Between the States was a strengthened federal government. As historian and author Shelby Foote has pointed out, prior to that conflict it was common to refer to the country in the plural, “the United States are…” After the war, it changed, and to this day we say “the United States is…”
A strong federal government was one of the tools used to bring an end to the evils of slavery. A fractured South could never muster the strength necessary to defeat a centralized North – a fact recognized and lamented at the time by no less than Jefferson Davis.
And yet once again, post war, the tool became the god. More and more, society looked to a powerful state for the solutions to her ills. By the time the depression hit in 1929, revealing an inherent weakness in what Kipling termed “the gods of the marketplace”, another god was ready and more than willing to receive the disaffected worshipers.
“Franksgiving”, mentioned above, is a perfect illustration of society’s transformation at the feet of these two false deities. It was a part of a pragmatic plan by a centralized government, not to turn people’s eyes towards their Heavenly Father, but to get them to spend more money at Macy’s.
But, one might ask, how did a nation with such strong Christian roots allow itself to be taken in by these twin idols? The answer to that question lies in the third head of our Thanksgiving-killing leviathan.
By the time General Lee was affixing his signature to the terms of surrender at Appomattox, another, far more portentous surrender was already in the works in the large denominations and religious institutions of the North. The good news of the Gospel was slowly being replaced by the good news of social reform. Theologians and pastors began to fill their classrooms and pulpits with optimistic notion that, if the stain of slavery could be removed from society, so could other social ills – alcohol, poverty, disease – you name it. Miracles were replaced by science, and the supernatural, transformative, redemptive message found in Scripture was replaced by a man-centered message of reform and progress.
As this new head grew, it began to work in tandem with the other two heads to form a new national religion with a new unholy trinity – industry, government, and social reform. Working together to dominated the education system – which eventually replaced the church as the center of the community – these three behemoths effectively removed any practical notion of dependence upon God from American society.
Hence, when the Great Depression descended upon the nation, only marginalized voices were calling people to repentance and renewed trust in God. Instead, a compromised church was urging her faithful to look for a New Deal. God-given “freedoms of” were eclipsed – and ultimately replaced by – artificial “freedoms from”, which were to be provided by industry and guaranteed by government.
Which brings us to now…
In 2010, on our first furlough, I was struck by just how much Black Friday had supplanted Thanksgiving in the cultural mind. Ten years on, this has only increased. The pilgrims of 1620 would be aghast if they knew that their festival to thank the Almighty had morphed into the orgiastic feeding frenzy that happens in Wal-Marts around the country. They would certainly not want to be associated with it in any way. Black Friday is not the cause of our societal ills, but it is certainly one of the symptoms.
Can Thanksgiving be revived?
Is there a way back? Culturally, I don’t know. A society that is so intent upon self indulgence that it allows the systematic slaughter of its most innocent members is not a society that God is apt to bless with repentance any time soon.
But individually, and as local churches, I believe there is. Recognizing the devastating effects of industrialization and urbanization, we can begin, in our families and congregations, to restore the community and sense of dependence on God that once existed. Not everybody can move back to the farm, but every believer can resist the secularized urban mentality.
We can also resist the encroaching power of the state. No, I do not advocate marching on the White House with torches and pitchforks. Rather, we must insist on the family and the local church being the best centers (for they are indeed the God-ordained centers) of charity and social betterment.
It is also absolutely essential that we return to preaching the Gospel – the salvation of sinners through the work of Christ on the cross – unadulterated by human additions, be they the old “social gospel” or the new “social justice gospel”.
And finally, we must take back Thanksgiving. I’m not talking specifically about the holiday, although that may be a good place to start. Rather, I am referring to a general attitude of giving thanks. In Romans 1:21, Paul identifies the lack of gratefulness to God as one of the fatal seeds that grows the poison plant of a sinful society. To reverse it, God’s people must be known as a thankful people.
Thankful in the midst of a pandemic.
Thankful in the face of political disappointment.
Thankful while surrounded by cultural disintegration.
Thankful in spite of personal loss.
And it’s possible that this thankfulness to the true God on the part of His people just might point others away from the three-headed monster.
I have necessarily painted with a broad brush in this post. Here are some of the books that helped form some of the thoughts in this article, and which might help add some details to the canvas:
On the Civil War
Shelby Foote’s Civil War trilogy continues to be one of my go-to sources of information about that conflict.
The Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson is another great Civil War resource.
What This Cruel War was Over by Chandra Manning gives extensive research into the actual reason for the Civil War. Hint: it was slavery.
They Knew They Were Pilgrims by John G. Turner. The most in-depth study of the Pilgrim Fathers that I have read to date.
The Great Good Thing by Andrew Klavan. A Jewish man shares about his conversion to Christ. Relevant to this discussion is the centrality of gratefulness to his spiritual awakening.
On Cultural Shift
Ideas Have Consequences by Richard M. Weaver. There are many other good books that talk about these issues, but start with this one.
***Edited to correct some typos.
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