I often wonder precisely when the disciples of Jesus realized their important role in Christian History. As these men sat at the feat of Jesus and listened to everything He had to say, did they realize they would someday testify to everything He said and did? Most eyewitnesses I’ve interviewed in my casework had no idea they would later be called into a jury trial to testify about what they heard or observed. As a result, they sometimes regret not paying better attention when they had the opportunity. But the disciples of Jesus had a distinct advantage over modern eyewitnesses in this regard. They were students of Jesus. Unlike spontaneous, unprepared witnesses of a crime, the disciples were desperately attentive to the words and actions of Jesus, and I imagine their attention to detail became even more focused with each miraculous event. For this reason, the authors of the gospels became excellent eyewitnesses and recognized the importance of their testimony very early.
While Jesus walked here on earth, His followers studied and learned from His actions and words. They were often mesmerized, confused and challenged by what they saw and heard. In spite of this, Jesus taught them and occasionally sent them out on their own. They memorized His teaching and relied on his wisdom when they weren’t with Him. We don’t know how much (if anything) these eyewitnesses wrote down during this time. Did the disciples take notes? Did they keep a journal? While Jesus was alive, the disciples likely felt no need to write down his words. The Word was witnessed in these incredible days, as men and women stood in awe of the Master, watching Him perform miracles and listening carefully to what He taught about God and eternal life.
During the first years following Jesus’s ascension, the apostles still may not have written immediately about Jesus. Why not? A careful reading of the Scripture will reveal a common theme: Many of the early authors of the New Testament expected Jesus to return before there would ever be a need for a multi-generational eyewitness record. They worked urgently to tell the world about Jesus, believing He would return to judge the living and the dead within their lifetime. In the days of the Apostles, the Word was heard, as the apostles preached to the world around them. But as the Apostles began to be martyred (and those who remained realized Jesus might not return in their lifetime), the need for a written account became clear. James, the brother of John was killed in 44AD (Stephen was killed even earlier), and not long afterward, the gospels began to emerge. The eyewitness gospel authors wrote down what they had seen so the world would have a record.
Following the deaths of the apostles, the early believers and leaders received the apostolic eyewitness accounts and regarded them as sacred. They knew the original eyewitnesses had vanished from the scene and they wanted to retain a faithful record of their testimony. From the earliest of times, these Christians coveted the New Testament writings. In the days of the early Church Fathers, the Word was read, as the sacred Gospels and letters were carefully protected. The earliest believers accepted the gospels and letters of the New Testament as eyewitness accounts because the authors of these texts considered their own writing to be authoritative, eyewitness Scripture:
1 Peter 5:1
Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed…
2 Peter 1:16-17
For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.
1 John 1:1-3
What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life – and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us – what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us…
The apostles understood their experiences as eyewitnesses were unique, and they called for these eyewitness accounts to be read by all believers. Paul recognized both the Old Testament writings and the New Testament writings were sacred and God-given. He considered both to be Scripture:
1 Timothy 5:17-18
The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and ‘The worker deserves his wages.’
In this passage, Paul quoted both Deuteronomy 25:4 and Luke 10:7 (“The worker deserves his wages”). He referred to both passages as Scripture. It’s clear the New Testament Gospels were already in place at the time of this writing, and it’s also clear that believers were reading these Gospels as Scripture. Peter also attested to Paul’s writings as Scripture when writing his own letters to the early Church:
2 Peter 3:14-16
Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.
In addition to this, it is clear the New Testament letters were being read and circulated among the churches as authoritative eyewitness Scripture and revelation from God:
After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.
1 Thessalonians 5:27
I charge you before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers.
The eyewitness authors of the New Testament gospels and letters understood the power of their testimony. They witnessed the Word in the days when a written record was unnecessary, spoke the Word when they thought Jesus would return imminently, and wrote the Word when they realized their eyewitness record would become Scripture for those who followed them. That’s how the ancient eyewitness accounts became the New Testament Scripture we cherish today.
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In Cold Case Christianity, I discussed the careful transmission of Biblical texts by tracing the New Testament “Chain of Custody” from the apostles to the Council of Laodicea. While it’s much more difficult to trace the lineage of Old Testament authors, it’s easy to examine the testimony of New Testament authorities and Church Fathers who trusted the Old Testament as authoritative. These leaders understood the meticulous process of transmission used by ancient Jewish scribes (a process since tested by manuscript discoveries). They were confident the Old Testament was accurate and had been reliably transmitted. They also considered these texts to be God-given scripture:
2 Timothy 3:16-17
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Paul and other New Testament writers consistently quoted from Old Testament scriptures or cited their nature and the spirit of their content. Other ancient figures also talked about the canon of Old Testament Scripture:
Prologue to Ecclesiasticus
This non-canonical book refers to a threefold division of books (namely,  the Law,  the Prophets, and  hymns and precepts for human conduct). This division of books was known by the author’s grandfather (dating it around 200BC).
The Alexandrian Philosopher (writing around 40AD) referred to the same threefold division.
This teaching house of rabbis (circa 90AD) discussed canonicity. Some of them questioned whether it was right to accept Esther, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon. These discussions affirmed the existence of the existing canon.
The Church Fathers
All (with the sole exception of Augustine in 400AD) accepted the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament.
Another compelling recognition of the Old Testament comes from the Jewish Historian, Josephus (37-100AD) who said the Jews held twenty-two books as sacred (this Jewish organization of Scripture included our present thirty-nine books of the Old Testament). It’s clear the Jews of Jesus’ day were using the same Hebrew texts we recognize today. As a matter of fact, Jesus Himself confirmed this for us.
The Testimony of Jesus
In Matthew 23:35, Jesus said, “that upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous bloodshed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.” This statement powerfully reveals the structure of the Old Testament in Jesus’ day. Remember the Hebrew Scripture at this time contained the same material we presently have in our Old Testament, although the books were divided and arranged differently. The ancient Jews placed Genesis at the front of the canon, but placed 2 Chronicles at the end. In this passage from the New Testament, Jesus referred to two murders; the murder of Abel and the Murder of Zechariah. Abel was murdered in the book of Genesis and Zechariah was murdered in the book of 2 Chronicles (in 2 Chronicles 24:20-22). In essence then, Jesus was saying “from the first to the last murder in the Scripture.” In this one statement, Jesus recognized the canon of the Hebrew Old Testament as it existed in His day.
The Old Testament Scriptures was accepted and affirmed by the ancients and by Jesus Himself. They were confident these texts were of Divine origin and transmitted faithfully. We can also have confidence the Old Testament has been preserved faithfully, organized carefully and transmitted to us with accuracy. While our Old Testament may be divided and organized differently, it is just as accurate as the Jewish text. We can be sure the sacred nature of the text has been revered and protected through the ages.
Related Posts In This Series:
Establishing the Reliability of the Old Testament: A Trustworthy Process of Transmission
Establishing the Reliability of the Old Testament: A Timely Test of Transmission
A Brief Sample of Old Testament Archaeological Corroboration
The Comparatively Rich Archaeological Corroboration of the Old Testament
From Reliable to Divine: Fulfilled Prophecy in the Old Testament
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In the midst of the holiday season, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I’ve been thinking about the nature of our traditions and the challenges we often face when engaging friends and family members during the holidays. Most of us, regardless of theistic or atheistic worldview, seek to conserve a number of traditions and values for one reason or another. In this limited sense, all of us have conservative inclinations; we simply disagree about what we choose to conserve and why we choose to conserve it. There are, however, a number of principles (typically associated with conservative, traditional Christians) embraced by just about everyone. I bet most of the atheist, secular friends and family members I’m going to see over the holidays would affirm the following conservative Christian principles as I apply them to myself:
1. I’m Not the Most Important Thing in the World
I understand my place in the world and I understand that I am not personally the most important character in the universe. There are causes, institutions, truths and even people worth defending and dying for. Sacrifice is a virtue. Humility is a necessity. It’s not all about me.
2. I Can’t Have Whatever I Want, Whenever I Want It
There are lots of things I might like to possess, but there’s a difference between “want” and “need”, and I’d be wise to understand this difference. There are lots of things that are more important than the stuff I thought I wanted, and a life without struggle has little or no meaning. I may also have to wait for the things I need. People who don’t understand how to wait are a pain in the butt, and last time I looked, “patience” was considered a virtue by just about everyone.
3. I Must Accept Personal Responsibility
I need to stop asking others to take care of the things I’m supposed to take care of. I shouldn’t expect others to do for me what I could have done for myself. I understand some people fall on hard times. When that happens, I want to help personally. I’m not going to assign my charity to someone else (even when that someone else is the government).
4. I Need to Work Hard, Before I Play (or Spend) Hard
It’s OK to goof off, but not until I’ve taken care of my responsibilities. Work comes before play or I’ll have so much fun playing that I’ll never work! There is joy in work, and I have to make the conscious decision to find joy in the work I’ve decided to engage. I also have to live within my means. Yes, I often wish I had more, but credit needs to be reserved for the most expensive essentials of life (like housing). The only cards I better find in my wallet are debit cards.
5. My Charity Can’t Be Coerced
I’d like to think I’m a generous person and I understand the importance of contributing to our society’s infrastructure; I’m a civil servant, after all. I also want to help those who find themselves in need, but I’d like my charity to be honored rather than coerced. Forced charity is an oxymoron. I’d like the right to decide how best to help those with less.
6. My Character is More Important Than My Comfort
I expect to have to endure some tough times; I’m not afraid of hardship. In the midst of the hardship, however, I know something wonderful will emerge. I understand that character is developed during hard times, so bring it on.
7. I Know It’s Important to Be Thankful and Resist the Urge to Complain
No one likes a whiner. Yes, I might be going through some tough times, but there is always someone who has it worse than I do. So I’ll do my best to shut up and get through it without all the drama. I need to stop taking things for granted; I know I have more than I deserve and there is much to be thankful for. So, while it’s in my nature to complain and bellyache, I’ll do my best to adopt an attitude of gratitude.
8. I Need to Be Faithful
I found a “life mate” and I’m determined to stick with that person for life. That’s why we call them “life mates” in the first place. I have decided to love, even when I don’t feel like it. My marriage means more to me than the person I am married to (and I mean that in a good way). I understand the value of a promise and I want my promise to mean something.
9. Our Children Are of Utmost Importance
Kids are more than just fun to have around (in fact, sometimes their no fun to have around); they are our most important asset. It’s in the context of children that I’ve discovered what it is to sacrifice, wait, love, laugh, hurt and help with homework. I am dedicated to my children and I respect the institutions and traditions we have formed as a culture to protect our kids. When push comes to shove, kids must come first.
10. I Will Sometimes Have to Defend the Truth
Yes, I’m an old fashioned modernist. Truth does exist, even if that idea makes people uncomfortable. Get over it. There will be times when I will simply have to stand up for what’s right, because, after all, some things are right and some things are wrong (and it’s more than simply a matter of my opinion). It’s OK to defend yourself from attack, and it’s OK to take a stand when you have to.
I’ve only been a Christian for seventeen years, but I’ve embraced these core principles for as long as I can remember. As I continue to conserve these ideas and pass them on to my own kids, I recognize their ability to connect with people of differing worldviews. Almost everyone conserves these important principles in the context of their own lives, even though they may sound like distinctly traditional, conservative, Christian values. Because these values are nearly universal, I think they provide us with the perfect opportunity to start talking about the Christian worldview, especially as we sit around the holiday dinner table. Once we recognize and affirm these common conservative values, I think it’s reasonable to ask which worldview best accounts for them. Read back through this list and justify these values first from a Christian worldview, then from a secular, atheist, materialist worldview. Which worldview does a better job grounding these values? That’s a conversation we should have with the people we love during this holiday season.
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The pilgrims who came over from England in 1620 were, in many ways, ordinary men and women. Some of them were members of the English Separatist Church (a Puritan sect of Christianity). These Separatists originally fled England and sailed to Holland to escape the religious intolerance and oppression of their homeland. In their day, the Church and the State of England were one, and independent congregations who desired to explore their own, differing relationship with the Christian God were unable to practice their faith independent of the State Church. Separatists had come to the conclusion membership in the Church of England violated Biblical teaching. They fled their homeland so they could pursue God in a way they considered to be truer to the teaching of the Bible. This group successfully escaped religious persecution from the Church of England, but eventually became disenchanted with the Dutch way of life. They observed the lifestyles of those around them and believed they were in an ungodly land. So once again, they pushed on toward a new place where they could both worship the Biblical God of Christianity and live in a way honorable to this God.
The Mayflower held more than just the Separatist Puritans. The ship also contained other pilgrims who still remained loyal to the Church of England but came to the new world for economic reasons or because they sympathized with the Puritans in one way or another. But one thing was certain about everyone on the ship. Whether they were part of the Puritan group or simply along to assist them and make a new life for themselves, everyone shared a fervent and pervasive Protestant faith permeating all aspects of their lives. So, when the pilgrims made ground at Plymouth Rock on December 11th, 1620, they were also grounded in their faith as Christians. In less than a year, they suffered the loss of 46 of their original 102 members, but they never lost their faith.
At the end of the harvest of 1621, the pilgrims decided to celebrate. The pilgrims brought with them both religious and secular customs from their homeland. Among these customs were the tradition of a secular harvest festival and the tradition of a religious holy day of thanksgiving. These were two separate celebrations for the original pilgrims, but both celebrations had strong religious overtones. Even the secular harvest celebration included a religious component of thanks to the Christian God who had provided the harvest. In addition to this celebration, the pilgrims also dedicated a day of thanksgiving that was purely religious in nature.
When pilgrim Edward Winslow described these thanksgiving celebrations, his description included the following Biblical themes:
Nevertheless he left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
With these passages certainly in mind, Winslow described the first Thanksgiving setting:
"Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent four men on fowling [bird hunting] so that we might, after a special manner, rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as... served the company almost a week... Many of the Indians [came] amongst us and... their greatest King, Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted; and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought... And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God we are... far from want”
Thanksgiving was one of only three Christian holidays celebrated by the pilgrims (the Sabbath, the Day of Humiliation and Fasting, and the Day of Thanksgiving and Praise). In these early days, Thanksgiving was not celebrated on a regular basis, but only in direct response to God’s Providence.
Thanksgiving celebrations followed for many years, and often became part of the political and corporate life of larger groups as the colonies grew and formed in the New World. On June 20, 1676, the governing council of Charlestown, Massachusetts, met to decide how to best express their thanks to God in a corporate celebration of thanksgiving. They had just established themselves as a community and they wanted to thank God in a public way. The council unanimously voted to instruct clerk Edward Rawson to proclaim June 29th as a Day of Thanksgiving, and his proclamation reflected the following Biblical passages:
O LORD, I have heard thy speech, and was afraid: O LORD, revive thy work in the midst of the years, in the midst of the years make known; in wrath remember mercy.
Ye that fear the LORD, praise him; all ye the seed of Jacob, glorify him; and fear him, all ye the seed of Israel.
Rawson’s words represent his Christian beliefs and Biblical understanding:
"The Holy God having by a long and Continual Series of his Afflictive dispensations in and by the present War with the Heathen Natives of this land, written and brought to pass bitter things against his own Covenant people in this wilderness, yet so that we evidently discern that in the midst of his judgments he hath remembered mercy, having remembered his Footstool in the day of his sore displeasure against us for our sins, with many singular Intimations of his Fatherly Compassion, and regard; reserving many of our Towns from Desolation Threatened, and attempted by the Enemy, and giving us especially of late with many of our Confederates many signal Advantages against them, without such Disadvantage to ourselves as formerly we have been sensible of, if it be the Lord's mercy that we are not consumed, It certainly bespeaks our positive Thankfulness, when our Enemies are in any measure disappointed or destroyed; and fearing the Lord should take notice under so many Intimations of his returning mercy, we should be found an Insensible people, as not standing before Him with Thanksgiving, as well as lading him with our Complaints in the time of pressing Afflictions: The Council has thought meet to appoint and set apart the 29th day of this instant June, as a day of Solemn Thanksgiving and praise to God for such his Goodness and Favor, many Particulars of which mercy might be Instanced, but we doubt not those who are sensible of God's Afflictions, have been as diligent to espy him returning to us; and that the Lord may behold us as a People offering Praise and thereby glorifying Him; the Council doth commend it to the Respective Ministers, Elders and people of this Jurisdiction; Solemnly and seriously to keep the same Beseeching that being persuaded by the mercies of God we may all, even this whole people offer up our bodies and souls as a living and acceptable Service unto God by Jesus Christ."
The founding fathers of our country also embraced and affirmed the notion God alone is ultimately responsible for our provision and success. That’s why the first founders and presidents all affirmed the Thanksgiving celebration. The original 13 colonies joined together in October of 1777 to celebrate their first joint Thanksgiving Holiday. It was much like the occasional pilgrim Thanksgiving celebrations following an act of God’s provision. In this case, the colonies were thanking God for their recent victory of the British at Saratoga. But national celebrations of Thanksgiving didn’t end here. They continued throughout the first years of our national history. In fact, they were endorsed by the federal government which, in turn, affirmed the role God played in providing for His people. George Washington proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving in 1789, and once again it was filled with Christian overtones harvested directly from the Bible:
Jehovah upholdeth all that fall, and raiseth up all those that are bowed down. The eyes of all wait for thee; and thou givest them their food in due season. Thou openest thy hand, and satisfiest the desire of every living thing.
Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever.
For the kingdom is the LORD's: and he is the governor among the nations.
Washington’s words clearly reflected a Christian theology and notion about God as the Provider of all things, unchanging, and ruling the nations:
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 favour; 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 PUBLICK THANSGIVING 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 TWENTY-SIXTH 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 favours 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 publick 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 shewn kindness unto 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 third day of October, in the year of our Lord, one thousand seven hundred and eighty-nine.
(signed) G. Washington
Over the years, and even as the nation became more and more secular, there was a popular outcry to continue the holiday. This was recognized by a number of presidents along the way, particularly by President Abraham Lincoln who, in 1863, established Thanksgiving as a national day of celebration and prayer to be celebrated on the last day in November. Once again, Lincoln revealed his Christian upbringing as he crafts a proclamation that echoes Christian themes:
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.
Know ye that the LORD he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name. For the LORD is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endureth to all generations.
Lincoln’s famous proclamation reiterated the Christian themes first expressed by George Washington, restated in the context of the civil war:
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.
No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend 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, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.
Regardless of how people may feel about the Thanksgiving Holiday, one thing should be obvious to even the most casual observer of history: Thanksgiving was (and still is) founded on the Christian notion we have something to be thankful for and someone to be thankful to. These first observers of Thanksgiving understood who it was they were to thank. Over and over again, through the early years of the colonies to the most difficult days of our national history, believers and leaders have affirmed and humbled themselves to the providence and protection of God. Those who initiated this national holiday intended it to be a day of thanksgiving and prayer; a day in which all of us could offer thanks to the God of the Universe.
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