When Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving Day in 1863, he was not thinking about feasting or relationships between Pilgrims and Indians. At the time Lincoln made his Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, this nation was in the middle of a bloody Civil War that would last another year and a half. The Battle at Gettysburg– the largest and most devastating of that war–with total casualties numbering over 50,000–had been fought. Three months later, when this Proclamation was declared, the process of reburying the thousands of bodies that had been shallowly interred on the battlefield had begun but was not yet complete. Even so, Lincoln recognized the blessings bestowed on the United States while in peril. In a time filled with uncertainty, we can learn much from President Lincoln’s perspective as he recognized God’s hand of grace and mercy during the perilous times of a country at war with itself. That Proclamation included the following:
“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 . . . (so) 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 invite and to provoke . . . aggression (from other nations), peace has been preserved . . . order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict. 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 . . . . Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battle-field . . . . 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 one 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, 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 . . . .”*
There is much that can applied to our own times as we contemplate Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation:
- True thanksgiving is not about what we are thankful for but WHO we are thankful to.
- True thanksgiving remembers God’s grace and mercy extended in countless ways despite our sin or our circumstances.
- True thanksgiving is meant to be a lifestyle rather than a yearly occasion.
While writing this post the hymn, Now Thank We All Our God, came to mind. Written more than two centuries before Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation, it captures the essence of what true thanksgiving is meant to be about to this day:
Now thank we all our God
with heart and hands and voices,
who wondrous things has done,
in whom His world rejoices;
who from our mothers’ arms
has blessed us on our way
with countless gifts of love,
and still is ours today.
O may this bounteous God
through all our life be near us,
with ever joyful hearts
and blessed peace to cheer us,
to keep us in His grace,
and guide us when perplexed,
and free us from all ills
of this world in the next.
All praise and thanks to God
the Father now be given,
the Son and Spirit blest,
who reign in highest heaven
the one eternal God,
whom heaven and earth adore;
for thus it was, is now,
and shall be evermore.
Words: Martin Rinkart (1586-1649), 1636
trans. Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878), 1858
As President Lincoln said, we have much to give thanks to God for. We also have much to repent of–fear, selfishness, pride, arrogance, lack of mercy for the suffering of others. As we observe Thanksgiving in repentant faith, we can look to the future with the same confidence and hope as the Apostle Paul:
“Now to Him who is able
to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine,
according to His power that is at work within us,
to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus
throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”
All to His Glory!
*To read Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Day Proclamation in full see: http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/thanks.htm