A Puritan Perspective on Christian Thanksgiving

John Flavel (c. 1630-1691)

The giving of thanks is a very important part of the Christian life, but true Christian thanksgiving is something quite different from what is depicted on the annual TV Thanksgiving specials. John Flavel, a seventeenth-century English Presbyterian minister, once preached a very helpful sermon on the giving of true thanks, and the following are a few excerpts from it (the full text can be found in publically available editions of his collected works under the title “The Seaman’s Return”).

Flavel begins by reminding us that it is the duty of all men to give thanks to God for His mercies to them and of how terrible an offense it is not to do so: “Why, how is it imaginable they should not? He hath the heart of a beast, not of a man, that would not. Did I say the heart of a beast? Give me that word again. There is a kind of gratitude even in beasts to their benefactors.” He then goes on to give six characteristics of the nature of true thanksgiving, which is, he maintains, much more “than a customary, formal, cold, ‘God be thanked.’”

Whoever would give thanks to God aright, Flavel argues, must first of all “be a heedful observer of the mercies he receives. This is fundamental to the duty. Where no observations of mercies have been made, no praises for them can be returned . . . . It is God’s charge against Israel, ‘She did not know that I gave her corn, and wine, and oil, and multiplied her silver’ (Hos. 2:8), i.e., she did not observe and take notice of these mercies as coming from My hand . . . .”

“Secondly, the thankful man . . . must particularly consider [those mercies] in their natures, degrees, seasons, and manner of conveyance.” In other words, we must meditate on God’s mercies in order to appreciate just how good they are in all of their details; for, as Flavel writes, “He hath little pleasure in his meat that swallows it whole without chewing.”

“Thirdly, the thankful person must duly estimate and value his mercies.” This is especially necessary with everyday blessings, for “the commonness or long-continuance of mercies with us, which should endear them the more and every day increase our obligation to God, causes them to seem but cheap and small things.”

“Fourthly, the thankful person must faithfully record His mercies . . . . Forgotten mercies bear no fruit; a bad memory in this case makes a barren heart and life.” He admits “that the mercies of God are such a multitude, that a memory of brass cannot retain them”: it is as “impossible to recount all of our mercies” as it would be “to number the drops of rain that fall in a shower.” But that is no excuse, and Flavel urges us to use “all the helps to memory” that we can find to help us in this endeavor.

“Fifthly, the thankful person must be suitably affected with the mercies he receives.” True Christian thanksgiving is not just an intellectual “but an affectionate remembrance” of God’s blessings. “Then God hath His glory, when the sense of His mercies melts our hearts into holy joy, love, and admiration.”

“Sixthly, the thankful person must order his conversation [manner of life] suitably to the engagements that his mercies have put him under. When we have said all, it is the life of the thankful, that is the very life of thankfulness. Obedience and service are the only real manifestations of gratitude.”