Is there an LDS Thanksgiving identity?

November 29, 2003 | 12 comments
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As Gordon points out, we all seem to be enjoying our post-Thanksgiving naps just a little too much. Before moving too far on from the Thanksgiving theme, I think it is appropriate to reflect on what Thanksgiving means in particular, to Latter-Day Saints. However, the discussion of what Thanksgiving means to Latter Day Saints raises a threshold question:

Is there a distinct LDS attitude, approach, or spirit towards Thanksgiving — an LDS Thanksgiving identity — or are we as church members merely hangers-on to the broad Protestant Thanksgiving tradition?

The evidence seems to suggest that in many ways we are hangers-on. Our thanksgiving hymns, as published in the hymnal, are the normal Protestant standards. Our church talks the week of thanksgiving often focus on the Pilgrims and the Thanksgiving story as heard in churches all over the nation. We eat the turkey, bake the pies, and watch the football games, like everyone else.

On the other hand, I think that there are reasons why there should be a distinct LDS Thanksgiving identity. Church members, who have received the gospel, should be especially thankful for its restoration. A good number of church members are not many generations removed from the hardships that early LDS pioneers faced when crossing the plains. The remainder of church members are not many generations removed from conversions — of themselves, their parent, or grandparents. As church members, we have much to be thankful for.

In addition, the LDS canon contains rich scriptural passages on the subject of gratitude and thanksgiving, passages which can and should be mined to create an LDS identity in celebrating Thanksgiving. A personal favorite is Alma 34:38, which contains a phrase of great power and beauty:

That ye contend no more against the Holy Ghost, but that ye receive it, and take upon you the name of Christ; that ye humble yourselves even to the dust, and worship God, in whatsoever place ye may be in, in spirit and in truth; and that ye live in thanksgiving daily, for the many mercies and blessings which he doth bestow upon you.

The phrase “live in thanksgiving daily” is a wonderful admonition to be thankful, and to express that thatnkfulness through daily action. This idea alone could be the root of an LDS Thanksgiving identity.

I am unconvinced that a coherent LDS Thanksgiving identity does exist, but I feel that one certainly should exist. The development of an LDS Thanksgiving identity would enrich our culture as church members and allow us to contribute to the national discourse on Thanksgiving, rather than merely being hangers-on in the traditions of another group of religions.

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12 Responses to Is there an LDS Thanksgiving identity?

  1. Adam Greenwood on November 30, 2003 at 10:49 am

    I don’t know, Kaimi. As you point out, we do have our own causes for thanksgiving and our own scriptures on gratitude, but we don’t have a different view on gratitude than anyone else. i think Thanksgiving more than meets our needs for expressing gratitude and joining with family. So if the custom is congenial, why not adopt it wholesale?

    Also, I wouldn’t characterize Thanksgiving as Protestant so much as American, and we are an American religion.

  2. Russell Arben Fox on November 30, 2003 at 4:31 pm

    Kaimi, I’m not sure how to best think about what you call an “LDS Thanksgiving identity.” I suppose I have to piggy-back on what Adam said about ours being an “American religion.” Whether “Mormonism” (the religion, the culture, etc.) is “American” is an interesting question, touching on matters of philosophy and modernity which can be approached in any number of fruitful ways. Whether “Mormons” are “American” is a much simpler question: the answer is, a lot of us are. And in the same way that (American) Catholics and (American) Protestants and (American) Jews and even (American) secularists celebrate a “traditional” Thanksgiving, so can, and should, (American) Mormons.

    Thanksgiving is one of my very favorite holidays, because it is just about the only one left in the U.S. whose traditions have not been (and, practically speaking, cannot be) fully disestablished from the pious, religious vision of American life which dominated our public square from the early 17th century until about the mid-20th. Obviously, such facts are often far from our minds when we engage in our Thanksgiving rituals, and the sort of “thanksgiving” which is most common in most households across the U.S. is, I suppose, mostly personal: thankfulness for health, family, etc. On a personal level, obviously Mormons may and probably should incorporate and reflect a lot of their faith in their celebrations of the holiday. But is there something uniquely Mormon that could be added to our national discourse, as weak as it may be, of Thanksgiving? Well, perhaps some Mormon may write a hymn of thanksgiving that could, over time, enter the national “canon” as it were, but collectively we’ve no control over that. (And frankly, it’d have to be pretty good to hold a candle to some of the powerful hymns written by Christians in centuries past.) More broad, institutional contributions to the holiday might also be a possibility…but in my experience (I guess in contrast to yours, Kaimi) Thanksgiving is in fact very rarely discussed or sung about in our sacrament meetings, and that suggests to me that, in this case at least, we are a long way away from making our “Mormonness” into a cultural part of our actually lived lives. (You’ll hear more from me on this theme as Christmas approaches, I’m sure!)

  3. Anonymous on October 16, 2004 at 4:33 am
  4. UKAnn on November 20, 2005 at 5:49 am

    Yes – but only if the church in England can have a ‘harvest festival’ Sunday!

  5. Jettboy on November 20, 2005 at 12:38 pm

    You know, I never thought of Thanksgiving as a Religious Holiday as much as National Holiday based on a questionable historical event. I suppose that prayer and supplication are very Religious activities, but never a matter of Christianity. Personally, as was said before, I don’t think that Thanksgiving is anything more than a broad Christian (or generically religious) ideal of praising the divine blessings. There is nothing especially “Mormon” about it unless we force new significants.

    To be honest, I feel the same about Christmas. There is no special “Mormon” identity with that holiday other than what each family brings into the celebration. In some ways there is such little LDS Christmas identity that I have enjoyed watching the spectical of Catholic Mass in order to feel a specialness to the holiday. However, that might be simply a response to the highly materialistic response to the season by all participants.

  6. El Jefe on November 20, 2005 at 2:02 pm

    I was told by a friend in England that their Thanksgiving was July 4th. (lol).

  7. Kelly Knight on November 20, 2005 at 5:55 pm

    I think that Alma does sum it up nicely, we should be a thanksgiving people DAILY. That is what should separate us from the typical celebration of thanks on the last Thursday of November each year.

    It is not unlike Christmas or Easter, when much of the world goes to church, and for the other 50 weeks of the year worship at the alter of professional sports and/or recreation.

  8. LisaB on November 21, 2005 at 3:13 pm

    I think this perspective on the Fall give unique LDS perspective to Thanksgiving:

    And in that day Adam blessed God and was filled, and began to prophesy concerning all the families of the earth, saying: Blessed be the name of God, for because of my transgression my eyes are opened, and in this life I shall have joy, and again in teh flesh I shall see God.

    And Eve, his wife, heard all these things and was glad, saying: Were it not for our transgression we never should have had seed, and never should ahve known good and evil, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient.

    And Adam and Eve blessed the name of God, and they made all things known unto their sons and their daughters. Moses 5:10-12

  9. RoAnn on November 21, 2005 at 4:11 pm

    In my experience, after living in many countries, I agree with those who commented above that Thanksgiving is mainly an American holiday, and is not generally celebrated by the Saints in other countries. American members usually get together and try to scrounge up the closest equivalents to the traditional ingredients for the dinner; and the meal is usually eaten in the evening, because the husbands are at work during the day (US government employees and American schools get the day off, but others usually don’t). These gatherings uniformly display much gratitude for having the gospel in our lives, and also great thankfulness for our association with the U.S.A., despite its many faults. All countries have their virtues, and we have truly enjoyed every place we have lived; but my appreciation for the many good things about the U.S. continues to grow as I witness the trials and challenges the Saints face in other places.

  10. Ian M. Cook on November 21, 2005 at 5:38 pm

    One word… Jello.

    A staple at any mormon activity.

    Yes, Thanksgiving is a U.S. Holiday. I don’t see why other countries would want to be thankful for the pilgrims surviving. It is probably appropriate to post George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation, for the true meaning of thanksgiving. I find it enlightening and may quote from it from now on for thanksgiving.

    “Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me “to recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:”

    Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States 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; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enable to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted’ for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

    And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have show kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.

    Given under my hand, at the city of New York, the 3d dy of October, A.D. 1789.

    –G. Washington “

  11. LisaB on November 23, 2005 at 11:27 am

    Thanks for posting that Ian. We’ve printed it out for our family Thanksgiving scrapbook.

  12. Naiah Earhart on November 23, 2005 at 6:30 pm

    As Thanksgiving is a US holiday, and not a ‘holy-day’ per se, it would not make sense for our observancve thereof to differ from that of other eccesiastical citizens (churches). Yes, having the gospel is something unique and precious for us to be thankful for, and certainly something to be mentioned as everyone at the table takes turns, but I do not see how our history as Latter-day Saints sets us apart from other Americans, requiring new traditions. We are Americans, and it is an American holiday, and we shoudl celebrate it as such–mindful of all that we have, including the fullness of the gospel.

    Our hymns are not so different from many of the protestants’ standards, and even include many of them. That first hymnal (with little exception) was compiled by Emma, not written. I would rejoice in a new Thanksgiving hymn by a Latter-day Saint, but no moreso than one written on any other topic.

    We are a people apart, but not so far as that.