To read more from Daniel, visit his blog: Sic Et Non.
The gospel of Luke (17:11-19) records that, on one occasion, as Jesus was traveling through the Galilee and Samaria en route to Jerusalem, he encountered a group of ten lepers. Having presumably heard of his miraculous healing powers, they begged for his help. He gave it, and all ten were freed from that horrible disease. But only one of them—as it happened, a Samaritan—“returned to give glory to God.”
Probably most of us have experienced ingratitude at one time or another. So has God. “And in nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things, and obey not his commandments” (Doctrine and Covenants 59:21). By contrast, “he who receiveth all things with thankfulness shall be made glorious; and the things of this earth shall be added unto him, even an hundred fold, yea, more.” (D&C 78:19.)
We’ve arrived once again at the season of Thanksgiving, and, accordingly, minds like mine turn naturally to etymology, to word origins. Please be patient. There’s method in my madness.
The origin of the word “religion” is obscure, and it has been much debated. But all suggestions on the subject seem to agree that remembrance and an awareness of dependence and obligation are at the core of what it means to be religious. The ancient Roman politician, orator, and writer Cicero derived the word from the Latin verb “legere,” “to read,” believing that “religion” meant “to go over” something again in the sense of “re-reading,” “re-thinking” or considering it very carefully. Other writers, both ancient and modern, have connected it with the Latin “religare,” “to bind fast,” from which we also receive our modern verb “to rely.” They emphasize the bond between humans and the divine. Still others suggest a distant relationship to the archaic English verb “to reck” or “to reckon,” meaning “to pay attention to,” or contend that it stems from the Latin adjective “religiens,” “careful” or “mindful,” which is the opposite of “negligens.”
Most if not all religions are saturated with exhortations to remember, and with practices designed to help us do just that. The liturgical year of many Jews and Christians, for example, is a profound teaching device centered on events (e.g., Passover, Easter, the Day of Atonement, the Feast of Tabernacles, Hannukah, and Christ’s Nativity) that are charged with deep meaning for believers. The Qur’an continually encourages its readers to “remember,” and not to be “neglectful” or “heedless” of the mighty acts of God, and it condemns those who fail to reflect on the lessons of the past.
In the Book of Mormon, the narrative of the Jaredites illustrates my point well: Good and godly kings remember God’s might acts and are grateful for them:
“And it came to pass that Orihah did walk humbly before the Lord, and did remember how great things the Lord had done for his father, and also taught his people how great things the Lord had done for their fathers.” (Ether 6:30)
“And there were no more wars in the days of Shule; and he remembered the great things that the Lord had done for his fathers in bringing them across the great deep into the promised land; wherefore he did execute judgment in righteousness all his days.” (Ether 7:27)
“And it came to pass that Shez did remember the destruction of his fathers, and he did build up a righteous kingdom; for he remembered what the Lord had done in bringing Jared and his brother across the deep; and he did walk in the ways of the Lord.” (Ether 10:2)
The Jaredites, of course, were non-Israelites. Accordingly, for them, the supreme demonstration of God’s saving power wasn’t the Exodus from Egypt, which was yet to come, but his bringing them across the ocean to the land of promise.
In the modern Latter-day Saint context, perhaps the most obvious example of memorializing is the weekly sacrament. Those who partake are to do so “in remembrance” of Christ’s suffering on their behalf, and are to “always remember him.” Significantly, what we Latter-day Saints call “the sacrament” is known in many other Christian traditions as the “eucharist,” from the Greek noun “eucharistia,” “thanksgiving.” (Still today, the Greek equivalent of English “thank you,” with modern Greek pronunciation, is “efharisto.”)
A direct line runs from the Latter-day Saint sacrament back through the Last Supper of Christ described in Matthew 26:17-30, Mark 14:12-26, Luke 22:7-39, and John 13:1-17:26 to the story of the Passover given in the biblical book of Exodus. The Last Supper was, in fact, a commemorative Passover meal. And there is a thematic link connecting them, as well: The Passover “seder” or ritual meal service recalls God’s delivery of his people from Egyptian bondage; they had been designated for deliverance by the blood of unblemished sacrificial lambs marking the doorframes of their houses (see Exodus 11-12). The sacrament—the “eucharist” or ordinance of “thanksgiving”—remembers God’s even greater deliverance of his people from the bondage of sin and death through the blood of the unblemished Lamb of God.
The earliest written account of the Last Supper may be that given by the apostle Paul at 1 Corinthians 11:23-25:
“For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, this cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.”
But other examples abound of divinely-instituted “mnemonic devices,” methods of bringing vitally important things to our remembrance. The ordinances of the temple remind us, for instance, that the creation of the world was purposeful, and that we can only enter into his presence again through the wounds that he suffered in his atoning sacrifice. The scriptures were essential, Alma taught his son Helaman, because they “enlarged the memory of this people” (Alma 37:8). Had they not been preserved, explained King Benjamin (in Mosiah 1:3-5), the Nephites would have fallen into “ignorance” and “dwindled in unbelief.” And, in fact, the Book of Mormon provides us with a case where precisely that had actually occurred. The Mulekites, says Omni 1:17, “had brought no records with them.” Perhaps not surprisingly, therefore, “they denied the being of their Creator.” Hence the vital importance, even today, of repeatedly immersing ourselves in the scriptures, which continually admonish us to “remember.”
Even such modern programs as Pioneer Day celebrations throughout the church and reenactments of the emigrant handcart treks—in Africa, Europe and the Philippines, as well as in Wyoming—allow us to “remember,” and to make ourselves one with our spiritual progenitors (whether or not we are biological kin). Just as the nineteenth-century pioneers saw themselves as a modern Israel led by an American Moses, we are to identify with them, and, thus, with the ancient people of the Exodus. Latter-day Saints are to relive the experience, in their own way, of former-day Saints. “I did liken all scriptures unto us,” Nephi explains, “that it might be for our profit and learning” (1 Nephi 19:23).
Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation of a national “day of Thanksgiving and Praise,” issued nearly 160 years ago on 3 October 1863, was an explicitly religious summons to reflection on the many blessings that the American people had received even amidst the sadness, death and destruction of the still ongoing Civil War. While it says precisely nothing about turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, or pumpkin pie, it calls upon the nation to remember “our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens” and, in “humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience,” to seek his caring help for all those who were suffering.
On this coming Thanksgiving Day, accordingly, it is worthwhile to recall that the English verb “to thank” derives from the same root as the verb “to think.” (Compare the equivalent German words “danken” and “denken.”) With all the busyness and the rush of the day, even amidst the demands of preparing a complex, special meal (often for an unusually large group), we should still try to find time to reflect.
That’s the most important thing, actually. Because Thanksgiving isn’t about eating. It isn’t even, really, about spending time with family and friends, important as those are. It is, or should be, about thinking, about contemplation. Giving thought. From its very origin, it was about considering the debt that we owe to God and to the others who laid the foundation of the blessings and prosperity that we enjoy, about reflecting, repenting, and seeking to extend those blessings to others.
“And he who receiveth all things with thankfulness shall be made glorious; and the things of this earth shall be added unto him, even an hundred fold, yea, more” (D&C 78:19) “Thou shalt thank the Lord thy God in all things” D&C 59:7).
Even on “ordinary” Sabbath days, the Lord asks us to prepare our food “with thanksgiving, with cheerful hearts and countenances.”
“Verily I say, that inasmuch as ye do this, the fulness of the earth is yours, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and that which climbeth upon the trees and walketh upon the earth;
“Yea, and the herb, and the good things which come of the earth, whether for food or for raiment, or for houses, or for barns, or for orchards, or for gardens, or for vineyards;
“Yea, all things which come of the earth, in the season thereof, are made for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart;
“Yea, for food and for raiment, for taste and for smell, to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul.
“And it pleaseth God that he hath given all these things unto man; for unto this end were they made to be used” (D&C 59:16-20).
But if common Sunday dinners are to be occasions for “thanksgiving,” how much more so should be Thanksgiving Day itself! Moreover, gratitude to God and enjoyment of the good material things of this life, thankfully received, go perfectly hand in hand:
President Ezra Taft Benson sometimes told a story that he heard as a young man. Elder Joseph F. Smith, not yet president of the Church, had come to Idaho for a conference of the Oneida Stake and, as was common in that time of three-day conferences, he visited the home of President Benson’s grandfather, who was serving then as a bishop.
At one point, the bishop’s large family was gathered at suppertime around a richly laden table. “Just before they were ready to start the meal, Elder Smith stretched his long arms over the table and turned to my grandfather and said, “Brother Benson, all this and the gospel too!””
Most of us have a very great deal for which to be thankful, and not only on Thanksgiving Day. Let us be grateful, not merely hungry. Let us be mindful and not heedless.
[Two short articles by Louis C. Midgley, which include numerous supporting scriptural and other references and which can both be found online, will serve as helpful further discussions of this topic: “O Man, Remember, and Perish Not,” and, at slightly greater length,“The Ways of Remembrance.” Ezra Taft Benson’s talk “All This and the Gospel Too” is available online at https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/new-era/1991/11/all-this-and-the-gospel-too?lang=eng.]