Date: November 24, 1938
O God of all goodness, grace, and gladness:
Humbly we come before the throne of Thy mercy, and thankfully we bow before Thy presence on this day of our national gratitude, because Thou hast again proved Thyself the heavenly Provider, the constant Guardian of our people. With rain and sunshine in summer and winter, by day and by night, Thine endless mercies have enriched us. When we labored, Thou didst graciously look upon our efforts, and when we slept, Thy sleepless eye did protect us. Above all nations of the earth didst Thou prosper us, and despite wide poverty and unemployment Thou didst preserve peace unto us and remember our country with manifold endowments of Thy providential love. If for our correction Thou didst withhold Thy bounties, teach us in Christ to view our reverses as the manifestation of Thy love and find forgiveness by Thy promise in our precious Savior. Especially do we thank Thee that Thou hast preserved the Gospel of His grace unto us and our children; and, though we have not deserved it, protect Thy Church against all its enemies! Continue Thy love particularly to the afflicted and bereaved! Today many throughout the land are seized by grim discontent as they behold their losses and sorrows. Teach them, heavenly Father, that, if they have Christ, they can count all earthly gain loss and every affliction an advantage if only it brings them nearer to His refining love. Bless every searching heart today and bless us all as throughout the nation this mighty Thanksgiving assembly comes before Thee in Jesus’ name! Amen.
Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. – Ephesians 5:20
THE first recorded public Thanksgiving on our North American continent was not, as is popularly supposed, held by the Pilgrims at Plymouth. In 1578, fortythree years before the Massachusetts colonists assembled to raise their voices in gratitude to God, the members of the Frobisher expedition landed on Newfoundland to observe a lonely thanksgiving after a peril of six weeks’ storm and ice. In their own words they recount: “We highly prayed God and all together upon our knees gave Him humble and hearty thanks.” The chaplain, as this record continues, preached, “exhorting all especially to be thankful to God for a strange and marvelous deliverance in such strange places.” Surrounded by unnumbered dangers, confronted with the fear of sudden attack by savage Indians, the only white men on the entire northern part of this continent still assembled to praise their God!
In 1610, likewise before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, the little colony in Jamestown, Virginia, reduced in numbers from the original four hundred to only sixty, defeated by sickness, hunger, and death, were returning to England when, scarcely off the American shore, they met the relief ships sailing to their rescue. Gratefully they returned, disembarked, and knelt in the sand for a thanksgiving service.
Then came the well-known Pilgrim thanksgivings. The celebration in 1623, for instance, was likewise held in a fear-weighted crisis. Crop failures threatened new disaster for the coming winter. The relief ship was long overdue. Despondency seized the survivors. When finally the colonists agreed to set aside a day for fasting in which they could speak their complaints to God, hope suddenly triumphed over fear. Encouraging news arrived, and instead of a day of fasting, a day of thanksgiving was celebrated despite numerous unsolved problems.
I have given you the details of these three early American thanksgivings because we need the same spirit of praise in our country today. In the face of unparalleled efforts for the relief of suffering and the many billions of dollars spent to provide destitute masses with food and clothing and shelter, multitudes of my fellow-countrymen may be inclined to face this day with resentment. Now it is
THE HIGHER GRATITUDE
the rejoicing even in adversity shown by these early Americans, that I would discuss with you. Speaking across the broad stretches of this God-blessed nation, I ask you to raise your hearts in praise to our heavenly Father, even in these days that may be hard and empty for many of you, to show that spirit of acknowledgment which the great Apostle Paul urges in his heroic words (Ephesians, chapter five, verse twenty): “Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
IT IS GRATITUDE “IN THE NAME OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST”
As a nation we have enjoyed benefits so overwhelming that we should fall on our knees in ceaseless recognition of God’s bounty.
We have peace,—blessed peace, while only a few weeks ago the world trembled at the rumors of a bloody European war, which eventually might have engulfed this country. These dark clouds have been dispersed, and although we do not yet know whether the price paid for that truce was too high, today, as the smoke rises from a hundred devastated cities in China, the nation with one accord should look to heaven and say, “Thank God for this peace!”
Our farmlands, gardens, and orchards have yielded bounteous harvests, in some cases the largest on record, so overwhelming that hundreds of tons of cherries, thousands of crates of oranges, vast acreages of vegetables, and other fruits have been destroyed or left to rot. As we ask God to forgive us this wanton waste and unholy destruction, should not the mighty anthem swell its way heavenward: “Thank God for this bounty!”?
From the four quarters of the earth ships carrying heavy gold bullion and cargoes of silver have steered straight to our shores; hidden safely away in underground fortresses, and stacked in national treasuries, we have more bars of precious metal than the rest of the civilized world combined. Though we realize that this may be the cause of future difficulty, yet for the grace of our God, who has enriched us above measure, let this chorus of praise ring throughout the nation: “Thank God for this munificent blessing!”
Ours is a representative government, without the terrors of tyranny; and as we contrast our liberty with the persecution suffered by millions in Europe, must we not glorify the Ruler of the nations and exult: “Thank God for the heritage of this freedom!”?
Our churches can carry on their work for the kingdom of God without governmental interference. Think, however, of the fiendish rebellion against Jesus Christ that has locked many thousands of religious buildings in Russia or dragged ministers and priests before Soviet firing-squads. Remember the vast army of atheists across the sea systematically molding the plastic minds of children by the patterns of their bestial creeds, and you, too, will honor the Almighty by declaring: “Thank God for our religious liberty!”
We have our American homes, far more comfortable than those in any other nation; and as we witness the hellish program of Communism seeking to destroy the family, does not a higher urge within us, seated as most of us are at this time in congenial family circles, demand that we bow before the Lord and say: “Thank God for the preservation of our home-life!”?
True, this picture has another, less attractive side. Some of you men will tell me that business is poor, that taxes are high and prospects of improvement low; but as you look at the facts, will you not agree that industrial conditions are better in this country—with all the disturbing factors—than in England, France, or Germany; decidedly more hopeful than in Russia, where the state has absorbed all private business? Some of you farmers feel like answering me and saying, “No matter how many others had good crops, we in this dust-bowl or in this drought-stricken belt harvested less than the seed we planted in the spring.” Yet, did ever a nation do as much for the farmer—whether in the wise way or not—as our Government with its vast agricultural relief program? About twelve million of our fellow-Americans, with the high ambitions shared by many of them, still cannot find steady work and earn enough to support their families. But how many have actually been homeless, without clothing, deprived of shelter? A report that some time ago escaped the rigors of censorship tells us that 5,000,000 human beings died of starvation in the Ukraine during a single winter, so that the watchword of the mothers in the hunger-stricken towns became: “Better not to have children than to see them die of hunger.” Eyewitnesses in the famine-stricken areas of China report cannibalism, frantic children chewing bark off trees or other scenes too horrible to mention. On the other hand, billions of American dollars are spent for public relief, so that no one in this country need be hungry, helpless, shelterless. Admitting the prevalence of sin in our land today, conceding the failure of many plans suggested for our return to prosperity, with allowance for corruption in high and low governmental and judicial circles, without minimizing the intense seriousness of all the dangers confronting us, I do not hesitate to say that we are living in the most lavishly endowed nation in the world. Particularly because God has bestowed these signal blessings upon us although we have not deserved them the emphasized appeal of this Thanksgiving Day is: “All glory to the almighty and allloving God!”
It is easy enough, of course, to give thanks when all goes well. No moral courage is required to praise God if you can sit down to a Thanksgiving dinner and enjoy a fare so sumptuous that tables of crowned royalty itself two or three generations ago could hardly have equaled it. If you are healthy and happy, if business is good, troubles trivial, and a roseate horizon frames the view, it will not be difficult to hold your head high and sing lustily, “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow.” But if everything goes wrong; if you are sick in body and sad in mind; if your unpaid bills are accumulating, your money diminishing; if you are lonesome, misunderstood, and slandered; if your conscience is restless because of disturbing sins, it will take something more than the recitation of these national benefits to give you a sense of thanksgiving.
Peace and praise will never be found in the folly of fatalism, the desperate lie according to which you and I are controlled by unbreakable laws of nature and are helpless grains of humanity ground on the eternal millstones of a heartless destiny. What ray of hope can cheer a man on Thanksgiving Day if, as he staggers under the impact of adversity, some skeptical Doctor of Divinity suggests, “Others have suffered the same thing; it just happened to strike you. Cheer up because you can’t escape it anyway”? That doctrine of despair leads to suicide. Again, you cannot discover cause for thanksgiving in yourself, in your determination to meet misfortune courageously, to rise after every defeat. Will it help a person suffering a heart-breaking loss to be told: “Show your will power! Grit your teeth! Square your shoulders!”? All this bravado cannot take away the numb, aching pain in his bereaved heart.
For comfort at the height of affliction and in the depths of sorrow we must have—and this is the heart of my Thanksgiving message—the blessed assurance that our heavenly Father is a God of Love, that in Jesus Christ, as our God and Savior, we can find that higher gratitude which rejoices even in adversity. Looking at Thanksgiving from God’s own revelation in His errorless, faith-imparting Bible, we should believe that God who created us in His image, as the masterpieces of His omnipotence; God who loved us with such devotion that He provided a bounteous world for mankind, enriched with all the resources His provident power could create; God who, when we had sinned and banished ourselves from His presence—came down to this earth for that most glorious demonstration of mercy, the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. We are saved freely by faith in His grace, saved fully, with all sins atoned, saved eternally, with all doubts removed. On Thanksgiving His cross testifies that God loves you, and from the moment you penitently acknowledge Him your Savior, He graciously provides for you, and guards your precious soul with heavenly vigilance as He preserves it for a blessed eternity. All this Saint Paul puts into our Thanksgiving text when he speaks of “giving thanks . . . in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” that is, with faith in the power of His holy, precious blood.
Think what this love of God means to us! His divine heart lavishes such care upon every one of us that, when we turn off the right path, He often permits sorrow to overtake us and lead us back. When we become self confident and tell ourselves that we do not need God, He often humbles us to show how small we really are. When we incline toward sin or stretch our hands toward wrong, He frequently permits sudden reverses to rebuke us. For we are His, and His promise “Neither shall any man pluck them out of My hand” assures us that Christ watches over us by day and by night, so that we are not destroyed by ourselves, so that our joys, sorrows, and everything He sends us becomes part of a divinely rounded program for our spiritual growth. As a child of God in Christ nothing can come to you by pure accident. Nothing merely happens in your life, for Christ is with you always. If sometimes He restrains or withholds, if occasionally He uses sickness, poverty, loneliness, affliction, even death itself, still for His children His ways are always the right ways and His direction the cause for unceasing praise. Think of Christ Himself rejoicing in spirit only a few hours before the agonies of sorrow almost kill Him in the Garden; Saint Paul in a prison-cell singing hymns of praise through the dark midnight; the martyrs entering the blood-soaked arenas with hymns of thanksgiving on their lips; remember others who triumphed over sorrow and pray God for the same trust in Christ by which you, too, can praise Him even in adversity.
IT IS GRATITUDE “ALWAYS FOR ALL THINGS”
Those of you who think that there can be no sorrow like yours, whose hearts on the day of national Thanksgiving are steeped in bitterness, approach the cross once more to see how the Crucified there died for your glory, peace, and salvation. Trusting Him, you can hallow your suffering and follow our text in “giving thanks always for all things.” Many of you are worrying about operations, grieving over the loss of your health; with Jesus you, too, can give thanks. Sixty years ago Elizabeth Prentiss, a chronic invalid, died in Christ. The days of her earlier life that were free from pain were few. As the years went on, sleeplessness added its burden; yet looking to her Redeemer, she could join Saint Paul in thanking God for her affliction. In the depths of her sorrow she wrote her famous book Stepping Heavenward to strengthen others with the glory of this higher gratitude. As new burdens were added, her thoughts winged their way to her Savior, and she penned the beloved hymn of trust “More Love to Thee, O Christ!” In the same spirit, if you who are weak in body and despondent in heart will put your trust in the divine Physician, you may find health, if health be for your ultimate good; but always, without exception, you will find rest for your soul.
Some of you complain because of financial hardships; and while I would be the last to make light of the tragedy on account of which many of you fathers and mothers do not know how you can provide your children and yourselves with the necessities of life, I assure you in the name of God that, if with all your hearts you seek Christ and His kingdom, everything you need will “be added unto you.” While I cannot do what others have done in the name of religion, dazzle you with the promises of earthly benefit and money gains derived from faith in Christ, I can promise you something higher. With Christ in your home, though it may be small and empty, you will be able to give thanks “always for all things.” With Christ you will be, to use the words of eternal promise, “poor, yet making many rich, . . . having nothing and yet possessing all things.”
Others among you approach thanksgiving with resentment because you feel yourselves the victims of men’s hatred and prejudices. I think of many Negroes, for example, who with much reason may feel that their white neighbors have taken advantage of them. To those who have suffered discrimination I wave no red flag of revolution that promises the abolition of private property. Instead I point them to the Savior, who draws no color line. Here in Saint Louis a Negro woman of culture and refinement, her husband and children, all college graduates, felt keenly the enmity toward her race. In addition, she was without spiritual foundation; but when the light of Christ’s Gospel broke upon her, that resentment disappeared. She told her pastor, “The old Gospel is all that I and my family needed. In Christ and His Church I have found peace, beautiful peace!” She made hers a life of outstanding service to her afflicted fellow-men. By the same faith you, too, will be able to thank God “always for all things.”
Those who view Thanksgiving with the deepest misgiving are the bereaved. How crushing to endure earth’s most cutting anguish at a time when joyful hearts are to echo the praise of thankful lips! You whose homes have been touched by the plight of death need more than the hazy, ill-defined hope of a “beautiful isle of somewhere.” With Christ you can have positive assurance. Believing that Savior, you can dry your tears, stifle ugly suspicions, and thank God “always for all things,” especially for a blessed death in Jesus. Harriet Beecher Stowe had that faith. She not only wrote of others’ sorrows in her immortal Uncle Tom’s Cabin; she experienced deep heartache in her own life. During a fatal cholera epidemic that swept through Cincinnati her youngest son, a baby, was snatched away. Not long afterwards her eldest son, a freshman at Dartmouth, was drowned. A few years more, and a third son, wounded in the head at Gettysburg, had his mind permanently injured. Yet later, recalling all this grief, she could write: “I thank God that there is one thing ringing through all of these from the time I was thirteen years old, and that is the intense, unwavering sense of Christ’s educating, guiding presence and care.” She thanked God “always for all things,” even for death.
You, too, my fellow-redeemed, may have the same joy of heart by which you can give thanks “always,” even in the darkest hour, “for all things,” even for the grinding harshness of life since the same promise of sustaining grace is yours in Christ. If your conscience is burdened by the wrong in your life, lift up your eyes to the all-merciful Savior and trust Him when He pledges that through faith your sins with all your guilt are forever removed. If you feel deserted, a solitary pilgrim on a lonely path, remember that His never-to-be-broken promise “I am with you alway” was meant especially for you. If it seems that you have suffered everything with which a heartless world can burden life; if you think that you have lost all that makes the battle worth the fighting; if you tell yourself that you have destroyed the last hope that can cheer your fear-gripped soul, then in the name of our God of love I plead with you on this Thanksgiving Day—and what a blessed day for a return to our heavenly Father!—Take Christ at His word! Make Him yours! Rise above darkness and disappointment, pain and penalty, sin and sorrow, wretchedness and wrong! Find at the cross “peace . . . which passeth all understanding,” joy for your aching heart, strength for your weary soul. Beholding that blessed Savior’s grace, even through eyes misty with tears, you, too, can give “thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” May this be the higher gratitude of your Thanksgiving Day, for that Savior’s sake! Amen!
Published with the permission of The Maier Center, Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105.