Thanksgiving Day is an American holiday, but thanksgiving, the expression it celebrates and promotes, transcends national boundaries and cultures.
Indeed, gratitude is an attribute of godliness that holds deep significance for the Lord's covenant people in all ages and locales. Instinctively, the inclination to worship God carries with it an outpouring of heartfelt appreciation and love to the Giver of all good things.
Lehi's family, having been warned of God to leave their home in Jerusalem prior to the prophesied destruction of that city, suffered trials and afflictions in the wilderness before coming to a land they called Bountiful because of its abundance of resources needed to sustain life. Nephi's gratitude prompted him to write these words: "If it so be that the children of men keep the commandments of God he doth nourish them, and strengthen them, and provide means whereby they can accomplish the thing which he has commanded them; wherefore, he did provide means for us while we did sojourn in the wilderness" (1 Nephi 17:3).
The earliest settlers of the Salt Lake Valley must have felt a similar sentiment as they observed a day of thanksgiving and feasting on Aug. 10, 1848, about a year after the entry of the first company into the valley. They had survived a shortened growing season due to the late entrance into the valley in July, endured the first winter in their new home, learned from the Native Americans how to forage for edible plants, had overcome the effects of spring frosts, and had been divinely delivered from a ruinous infestation of crickets. There was much to celebrate.
Elder Parley P. Pratt wrote of the occasion: "There was a prayer and thanksgiving, congratulations, songs, speeches, music, dancing, smiling faces and merry hearts. In short, it was a great day with the people of these valleys, and long to be remembered by those who had suffered and waited anxiously for the results of a first effort to redeem the interior deserts of America, and to make her hitherto unknown solitudes 'blossom as the rose.' " (Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, p. 335.)
It is striking how closely the pioneers' observance parallels the experience both of Lehi's family and of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock in 1621, who held what Americans regard as the "first thanksgiving."
From these and other incidents, it would seem that gratitude swells greatest in mortal breasts after deliverance from tribulation and suffering. At such times, there is the greatest consciousness of one's dependence upon God.
In 1789, the year the U.S. Constitution was ratified, President George Washington proclaimed Thursday, Nov. 26, as a day of thanksgiving and devotion "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."
In 1863, in the midst of the war between the states, President Abraham Lincoln invited U.S. citizens to observe the last Thursday of November as "a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens" and commended "to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged." Congress soon thereafter established that day as the national holiday Americans enjoy today.
And in November 2001, two months after the infamous terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, President George W. Bush in a Thanksgiving Day proclamation acknowledged "especially now, our dependence on One greater than ourselves."
It would be well if gratitude to God would pervade human hearts at all times, not just following a period of crisis. "Thou shalt thank the Lord thy God in all things" is the commandment given in Doctrine and Covenants 59:6. And the apostle Paul prophesied that among the evils of the last days, men would be "unthankful" and "lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God." (See 2 Timothy 3:2, 4.)
To understand why our Father in Heaven places such a premium on gratitude, good parents need only consider their own inclinations toward their children. They wish to give them everything that will promote their well-being, happiness and contentment. At the same time, they recognize the problems that result from indiscriminate giving and temper their generosity accordingly. They desire their children to manifest the strength of character reflected in gratitude for what is received and an understanding of and appreciation for the sacrifice behind the gift.
This year, in the midst of the feasting, revelry, and televised football games on Thanksgiving Day, let those who live in the United States pause to express the gratitude they ought to feel toward a loving Heavenly Father. And may the hearts of people everywhere be drawn out in praise and thanksgiving to Him always.