Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues but the parent of all others” – Cicero
“What friendship, what generosity, what charity, would prompt us to do with universal approbation, is still more free, and can still les be exotorted by force than the duties of gratitude.” – Adam Smith
“To oblige him by force to perform what in gratitude he ought to perform,and what every impartial spectator would approve of him for performing, would, if possible, be still more improper than his neglecting to perform it.” – Adam Smight
In October of 1777, two of the most important battles for the American revolution were fought in the area of Saratoga, NY. British General John Burgoyne had just won a small but decisive victory over American forces and decided to press his weakened forces onward, hoping to break the backs of the ‘rebels’. It did not. Burgoyne was deafeated at Bemis Heights on October 7th, and 10 days later he surrendered. This, almost unrecognized battle in the American Revolution, legitimized the America’s strength and capabilities, whiched caused to the French to official enter the war as America’s ally.
The rest as they say, would be history.
Two months later Continental Congress and George Washington, Commander of the Continental army officially agreed to set aside a day “for solemn Thanksgiving and prayer” to commemorate the American’s victory at Saratoga. The celebration would be the first National (and arguably American) Thanksgiving day – December 18th, 1777. In Washington’s and other’s opinion, the hand of the Almighty had been at work through divine providence throughout the war, overcoming immense odds, difficulties and a more numerous and well-trained foe. A day of praise to their creator and of thanksgiving for the circumstances seemed only fitting. Later, on October 3, 1789 as the country’s first president, Washington would offically designate alongside Congress, Thursday, November 26th as a National Day of Thanks. Throughout the country newspapers announced the proclamation and public celebrations everywhere were held. For his part, Washington celebrated by attending St. Paul’s Chapel in New York City ( and subsequently donating beer and food to imprisoned debters in the city.
He’s hard not to like.
It could be said that gratitude (thanksgiving) is at the heart of freedom. That there is no more exceptionally true act of freedom than to willfully and purposefully express gratitude. It can also be said that it may be the most tragic and repulsive virtue when practiced under compulsion. Scottish Philosopher Adam Smith suggests that unshown gratitude would be far better:
“…To oblige [any person] by force to perform what in gratitude he ought to perform, and what every impartial spectator would approve of him for performing, would, if possible, be still more improper than his neglecting to perform it.”
In effect, gratitude cannot be forced on an individual or a society. Smith argued elsewhere that gratitude is a necessary factor to denote a truly free society, in fact it is the cornerstone. Without it, people couldn’t be considered truly free. In addtion we can also conclude that gratitude cannot be earned. If gratitude can only truly be expressed in the midst of freedom and not at the cost of it than it is dependent upon freedom but does not always flow from it. In otherwords, in order for gratitude to be expressed genuinely, there has to be an option not to express it absolutely.
Forced gratitude is disingenuous; earned gratitude is a scandalous; but freely given gratitude is marvelous.
Gratitude is also at the heart of the Gospel. As Christians we adhere to the truth that forced gratitude is impossible and earned gratitude impermissible. God can’t force us to love Him and has no desire to earn it. At the heart of the Gospel is a freely given, marvelous love that persuades and woos but is never forced or subversive. In short, God gives us the gift of His love through his son Jesus Christ and delights (not demands) in our response of faith in gratitude. And if we respond by faith it is truly gratitude because we are free to give it. It is in this freedom that we are able to express in wisdom, song, deed and joy, the gratitude in our hearts:
Colossians 3:15–20 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
But without Christ we are not free to express gratitude.
The Gospel makes a startling and somewhat offensive obvservation – that everyone sins and that sin is our master. In essence, the entirety of the human race does not have freedom apart from Christ. Aware and appalled of sin’s stranglehold on people God Himself comes as the Christ to “set the captives free” (Luke 4:18). It is in this freedom that God desires, but does not demand our gratitude expressed in faith. God gives the gift of freedom to all, though all have the option to reject it. He does not force gratitude and therefore faith in Him on anyone.
In fact it is most apparent in this freedom that gratitude can express itself rightly, justly and truthfully: To quote Adam Smith again:
“What friendship, what generosity, what charity, would prompt us to do with universal approbation, is still more free, and can still les be extorted by force than the duties of gratitude.”
Thanksgiving may be celebrated joyfully on a Thursday around a table with Turkey, friends and family; but it was ultimately given the freedom to be expressed genuinely on a Friday. With friends and family in attendance, the mood somber and the scene grimly, Jesus the Christ breathed his last and said ‘it is finished.’ The mastery of sin was finished and the freedom in Christ could begin.
It is this freedom that motivates the revolutionaries, the rebellious and the religious to express gratitude and joy not because of what they do because of what God did; even if it means suffering, hardship and hardfought battles so that others may experience this freedom for the first time:
2 Corinthians 7:7–9, 15″But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed….15 It is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.