Date: November 26, 1936
The Thanksgiving Prayer
Gracious God, Thou Giver of every good and perfect gift:
We come before Thee in humility and thanksgiving to praise Thee for Thy watchful care over our nation during the uncertainty and perils of this year and to acknowledge the bounty of Thy generous love, which, despite our unworthiness and repeated ingratitude, has led many from worry and sorrow to happier prospects. For the rich endowment of food, clothing, and shelter, for the gracious bestowal of all that we need for our bodies and this life, accept the gratitude of our innermost hearts. Preserve us from self-confidence and self-worship and teach us that our greatest good is the assurance of Thy love in Jesus Christ, our sin-bearing Redeemer, and the promise of full and free salvation granted to all penitent believers in His mercies. Help us to conquer all faithlessness, impatience, and doubt of His love. Keep us from thinking that our blessings are outnumbered by our afflictions. Rather may Thy Spirit strengthen us with the conviction that in contrite faith we can have Christ and with Him the answer to every question, the solution to every problem that may confront us. For these benefits, God of all mercy, our hearts are now raised, throughout the wide reaches of this festival broadcast, to praise and glorify Thee, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Accept our Thanksgiving prayer and bless us as Thou hast promised through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Be thankful unto Him and bless His name. – Psalm 100:4
ON this twenty-sixth of November the thoughts of America fly to the “stern and rock-bound” New England coast, where a group of exiles seeking religious liberty gathered for the first American Thanksgiving exactly 315 years ago today. Eleven months had passed since the Mayflower had weighed anchor and returned to England, leaving a hundred New World pioneers exposed to the winter’s rigor and the ravages of death, there on the “roaring ocean edge of the wilderness.” Within the first three months almost half of the Pilgrims died; during the winter seven times as many graves were made for the dead as homes for the living. Only four of the fifty-five survivors were women. Even when the rays of that first spring’s sun warmed the clearings, new disasters loomed. Seed corn, carefully imported from England, failed. The ship that was to bring food and relief brought thirty-five more mouths to feed, but not an ounce of provisions. For months, while hostile red men and the perils of the wilderness assailed them from without, famine stalked within, and the entire colony was forced to live on half rations. Yet the Lord of mercies was with that hunger-ridden band of exiles. Edward Winslow, one of the survivors, wrote: “I have seen men stagger by reason of faintness for want of food, yet ere night, by the good providence of God, we have enjoyed such plenty as though the heavens had been opened to us.” Unforgettable is the picture of Elder Brewster, rising before a Plymouth dinner, a plate of clams and a glass of cold water, to thank God “for the abundance of the sea and the treasures hid in the sand.” And when November came and the crops of Indian corn, grown from accidentally discovered seed, were harvested, with one accord these Pilgrims met for a solemn service of Thanksgiving and raised grateful hearts to their heavenly King.
This exiled band at Plymouth could not realize on that first American Thanksgiving that they were helping to lay the foundations on this continent for the world’s mightiest democracy. But how much more should we who survey the toils and triumphs of America’s three centuries believe that the blessings lavished by the mercies of Heaven upon us as upon no other nation today demand the Thanksgiving proclamation:
“AMERICA, GIVE THANKS!”
How much more than those solitary settlers on that bleak Massachusetts coast should we, the generation with unparalleled gifts and endowments, take to heart the Word of God that I give to you for a Thanksgiving resolution, from the fourth verse of the One-hundredth Psalm: “Be thankful unto Him and bless His name.”
THE NATION’S THANKS
This Thanksgiving asks in repeated and emphasized tones that we “be thankful unto Him and bless His name” because during the past year more than ever within the tragic seven years since the financial collapse of November, 1929, the sun of prosperity has dispersed many of the dark clouds that hovered over the nation. I do not wish to intimate that our national difficulties are over nor to prophesy that problems which have staggered the nation’s best minds are solved. Only a fool could look at the complex future and the problems of unemployment, social unrest, and mounting national deficits (a hundred years ago, in 1836, the entire national debt was paid and a surplus was distributed among the States, while today our Federal obligations soar into toppling billions); only an insane optimist, deaf to blaring realities and blind to the red flashes of warning, could laugh away the impending conflicts that beset our day, our nation, our world.
Yet on Thanksgiving our thoughts must be focused on the brighter side, on the unmistakable improvement in business and in industry, the extra dividends, the almost unprecedented salary increase, the preparation for the social security program, the many humanitarian programs now being completed (and within the last decade more has been done for the laborer and the farmer and for the average American in this respect than perhaps during the last century); and if there is one mandate that comes to the one hundred and thirty million richly blessed who call themselves Americans, it is this ancient appeal of the psalmist to our modern world: “Be thankful unto Him and bless His name.”
Let us not becloud the happiness of this festive day by drawing unfavorable comparisons with the greater prosperity and comfort that many of us may have had in a more affluent past. If comparisons are in place today, let me remind you that despite our reverses and hardships this nation, as compared with the rest of the world, is preeminent in the enjoyment of comforts, liberties, and many other blessings. Contrast the peace that reigns within our borders with the bloody, destructive civil war raging in Spain; think of Ethiopia, almost forgotten since its tragic defeat, of Europe plunging itself into further bankruptcy as it aims for the next war,—and the spirit of gratitude cries out, “America, give thanks!” Compare the liberty that each citizen in the United States enjoys with the restriction of civil rights imposed by Fascism in Italy and Germany; the freedom to worship our God with the revolt against religion that has risen to unholy control in Russia, where Christians have been persecuted with a cruelty that recalls the days of Nero. Picture for a moment conditions in two of Europe’s most highly cultured nations: France gripped in the struggle of class hatred; England, where, according to a recent survey, 82 per cent. of the twelve million British families today are without the minimum income required for a reasonable standard of living; and then, this morning, on your way to church, survey the blessings that surround you: comfortable homes, an automobile for every sixth person, more telephones than the rest of the world, tax-free radios by the millions, and all the other items in the long and imposing list of American comforts and conveniences before which the people of other nations stare in wide-eyed amazement. We have poverty, it is true; but we have the greatest relief program history has ever known. We have unemployment; but we have vast public-works projects throughout the land that have kept millions in profitable occupation. We have not been spared sickness and disease; but compare the death-rate in American cities, fifteen for each thousand inhabitants, with India’s forty-three for each thousand. And as you behold vast and unnumbered blessings even in this restricted prosperity, you will join me in repeating: “America, ‘be thankful unto Him and bless His name!’”
This thanksgiving must not be a disguised form of national boasting, as though we owed to ourselves, to American ingenuity, to the brains in the United States and not to the pure and undeserved grace of God, the outpouring of these manifold gifts. Well did George Washington, in one of his Thanksgiving proclamations, solemnly intone the necessity of beseeching God “to preserve us from the arrogance of prosperity.” If God had dealt with us according to our sins; if He had not tempered His justice with His mercy and for Jesus’ sake overlooked our pride, our self-worship, the reign of crime and godlessness in all its appalling forms, the breakdown of hundreds of thousands of American homes, the apostasy in many American churches, we should have been cast down into national sorrows and adversities unspeakably more disastrous than the worst we have ever known. The greatest impulse to follow the Thanksgiving proclamation of the Bible, “Be thankful unto Him and bless His name,” should be the fact that our heavenly Father, in spite of our unworthiness and ingratitude, in the face of our selfishness, has not withdrawn the hand of His fatherly protection from the United States; that He has not closed the outpouring of plenty from the cornucopia of His providence. When the streams and mountains, the farmlands and cities, the homes and schools, of our country on this day cry out, “America, give thanks!” may we echo the resounding doxology of a grateful nation.
OUR INDIVIDUAL THANKS
As we penetrate into the homes of the nation and lift the screen that conceals the deep heart sorrows of weary, grieftorn men and women, we face the great Thanksgiving problem: How can underprivileged, brow-beaten masses give thanks to God on this day? How can they celebrate Thanksgiving who have been robbed of the most precious treasures of life, who have been rebuffed by adversity upon adversity and have suffered loss upon loss?
I know it will be hard for a mother in Indiana who writes that she lost her husband and her baby within a few months and is now left destitute to raise her heart to God; I know that many of you bereaved and destitute fathers will be disturbed by “fightings and fears within, without”; I know that you farmers who have fought through a bitter year, with flood or drought or plague destroying the fruit of your untiring labor, will not be able to banish the question-mark that surges within our all too human hearts; that you who have not had a steady job for years and have lived from day to day in that cruel hand-to-mouth existence or who have seen the happiness of your home crumble before your eyes and the joy of marital loyalty transformed into the cold ashes of unfaithfulness or who have been held on beds of sickness,—all of you who count your adversities instead of your blessings will ask with wounded, embittered souls, “How can I be thankful?”
There is only one answer, that granted to us freely by God Himself, through our faith in Jesus Christ. Human reason stands baffled before the sufferings of life. But as soon as your trusting heart finds in Jesus (and this, I pray God, every one in my Thanksgiving audience may believe) the Son of God, the Friend of sinners, the Savior of the race, the Companion of every redeemed soul, the King of our hearts and lives; just as soon as you and I commit our souls and our bodies to Jesus for redemption, for strengthening, for protection and safe-keeping, we are showered with an outpouring of the deeper spiritual blessings that makes us cry out:
O that I had a thousand voices,
A mouth to speak with thousand tongues!
and that makes us proclaim:
Thousand, thousand thanks shall be,
Dearest Jesus, unto Thee!
Then we know that through the atoning love of Christ our blood-bought souls are safe for eternity; then we realize that, if the malignant forces of this earth combine to do their worst and an avalanche of sorrows sweeps over us, we have Christ, and through Him we can banish all besetting gloom by repeating the divine promise: “All things work together for good to them that love God.”
I pray God that this confidence is yours, that none of you will grovel in the depths of darkness today instead of raising your eyes to the hills whence cometh your help, particularly to that hill where your blessed destiny was decreed nineteen centuries ago, to Calvary, where the Son of God died that you might have life, and that in spite of family trouble, money difficulties, health problems, loneliness, mistrust, you may have life “more abundantly.” The greatest men of God have been the most thankful. St. Paul suffered as few have ever suffered for Christ; yet I find, as I read his words in the New Testament, that he thanks God as no other apostle; that shortly before the detachment of Roman soldiers leads him to the place beside the Ostian Way, where he is to be beheaded as the reward of his loyalty to Christ, he thanks and praises God. If my heavenly Father would grant to me one Thanksgiving petition, it would be this, that you who are wondering why and how you can thank your God be endowed with that spirit of Christian heroism which exults: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . . Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us.”
The thankful life is the victorious life. I leave with you a remarkable story which suggests itself as a Thanksgiving Scripture-lesson. It is found in the twentieth chapter of the Second Book of Chronicles. The Israelites are confronted with a coalition of powerful forces. By the advice and instruction of the prophet the Israelites go out to battle with the most astonishing implements of warfare that history has ever seen, the weapon of thanks and praise to God. We read: The king “appointed singers unto the Lord . . . that should praise the beauty of holiness as they went out before the army and to say, Praise the Lord; for His mercy endureth forever.” Were these hymns of thanksgiving able to overcome the arrows and the spears and the firebrands of the Moabites, the Ammonites, and their allies? The Bible answers: And when Israel “began to sing and to praise, the Lord set ambushments against the children of Ammon, Moab and Mount Seir, . . . and they were smitten.” And in the name of this same God of triumph and truth I tell you that the victory is yours if you make every day Thanksgiving and in firm faith in Christ face life, its blessings and adversities, with this undaunted refrain: “Give thanks unto the Lord; . . . for His mercy endureth forever.” God grant you, every one of you, my friends in Christ, this prevailing courage for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Published with the permission of The Maier Center, Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105.