Everything I learned about America’s Thanksgiving holiday came from stories of the the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Rock. Scenes of pilgrims with their black frocks, buckled shoes, and white collars breaking bread with their Indian neighbors left an indelible imprint. From an early age I learned to give thanks in all things. But being a student of history I was intrigued when I learned something new about the holiday we celebrate as Thanksgiving and the lesson came from one of my favorite subjects – Abraham Lincoln.
As noted in Jayme Metzgar’s article in The Federalist, in America’s early days, thanksgiving celebrations were sporadic and mostly regional affairs. The popularity of the holiday began to grow, however, in the 1840s and ‘50s. One author and poet, Sarah Josepha Hale, advocated a national, unified Thanksgiving Day. She lobbied state governors and wrote to one President after another.
As domestic affairs in the U.S. grew increasingly dire, Hale wrote in 1860: “Everything that contributes to bind us in one vast empire together, to quicken the sympathy that makes us feel from the icy North to the sunny South that we are one family, each a member of a great and free Nation, not merely the unit of a remote locality, is worthy of being cherished… We believe our Thanksgiving Day, if fixed and perpetuated, will be a great and sanctifying promoter of this national spirit.”
By 1863, with the tide turning in a bitter war, Hale’s cause suddenly broke through at the White House. Shortly after receiving a letter from Hale, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation calling for a national day of thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday that November. So November 26, 1863, marked the first in a now-unbroken line of American Thanksgiving holidays.
Lincoln’s wartime Thanksgiving proclamations of 1863 and 1864 are worth the read. They teach us what it means and how it helps to give thanks in the midst of national strife.
One of the first lessons of Lincoln’s address was its religious tone. It was not vague or general. He called for “thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens,” and even more strongly in 1864, “thanksgiving and praise to Almighty God, the beneficent Creator and Ruler of the Universe.” Lincoln couldn’t have been clearer in his belief that thanksgiving must have an object, and that the proper object—the Giver to whom thanks is due—is Almighty God. Lincoln knew it because he was a student of scripture – the Bible speaks of thanksgiving as an antidote to anxiety.
While proclaiming a day of thanksgiving, Lincoln also called for repentance. In his 1863 proclamation, he calls on Americans to pray “with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience.” The following year he sounds even wearier, asking citizens to “reverently humble themselves in the dust and from thence offer up penitent and fervent prayers.”
What’s most interesting is what isn’t said — no finger-pointing, no claiming of the moral high ground, no shaming of the evildoers. Lincoln speaks not of “their” but of “our” perverseness and disobedience. In the same sentence, he acknowledges the human toll of the conflict, asking for prayers on behalf of “widows, orphans, mourners, [and] sufferers.” It’s a passage that speaks not of anger or blame, but of deep sorrow and self-examination.
Finally, Lincoln points out that even in the midst of unimaginable trial, there are daily mercies for which we can give thanks. His proclamations list many of them: fruitful fields and healthful skies; peace with foreign nations; a flourishing industrial economy; health on battlefield and home front; growth of the free population “by emancipation and by immigration”; and the fortitude to withstand the trial at hand.
This history lesson taught me more about true Thanksgiving than anything I’ve read. In a world filled with chaos, dissension and conflict, couldn’t we all put this Thanksgiving lesson to work?
Psalm 100:4 “Enter His gates with thanksgiving And His courts with praise. Give thanks to Him, bless His name.”