Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; His love endures forever.
In my anguish I cried to the LORD, and He anwered me by setting me free.
It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in man.
The LORD has chastened me severely, but he has not given me over to death.
You are my God, and I will give you thanks; you are my God, and I will exalt you.
Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; His love endures forever.
As you know, over the past weeks I have been describing what I would like to propose as the “Ten Greatest Prayer Events in US History,” a series of articles inspired by James P. Moore’s book One Nation under God: a History of Prayer in the United States. The fifth prayer event of the series is the Thanksgiving Proclamation of October 3, 1863 written by Secretary of State William Seward under the guidance of Abraham Lincoln.
You might suppose that Thanksgiving Day has been as much a fixture of our national life as the Stars and Stripes or the Declaration of Independence. All of us who read about Thanksgiving in elementary school have an indelible image of Pilgrims and Indians sitting down together for the first Thanksgiving feast in the fall of 1621. While it is true that several of the colonies had thanksgiving celebrations from time to time and that President George Washington himself issued a proclamation for the celebration of a national day of thanksgiving and prayer for Thursday (a day that could be safely considered not to favor the holy day of any religious group), November 26, 1789, there was no annual observance of Thanksgiving as a national holiday until the Lincoln administration began it in the years 1863-1864.
You are well familiar with another work by Sarah Josepha Hale, the author of Northwood, even though you may not be aware of it. She wrote what may well be the best-known poem in the English Language. It begins, Mary had a little lamb, whose fleece was white as snow . . .” Her most lasting influence on American Society, however, has to do with prayer. For nearly forty years she patiently, persistently, and singlehandedly lobbied for an annual day of Thanksgiving and prayer, writing innumerable letters to the state governors and to every president from John Tyler to Lincoln.
After her successful novel, Sarah Hale was offered the editorship of a Ladies Magazine in Boston. This modestly successful enterprise blossomed after the magazine was bought out by a Philadelphia publisher who then hired Mrs. Hale as editor of the Godey’s Lady’s Book, a magazine that achieved a circulation of 150,000 in the ante-bellum United States. The magazine is now most famous for the lavish color plates showing the latest women’s fashions (Sarah Hale despised these, but Mr. Godey insisted on them because, like simsuit models of today, they boosted circulation), but in its own time it was most significant for being the first magazine to draw mainly from American writers rather than British ones. Sarah Hale edited this magazine until her retirement in 1877 at the age of 89, and used her editorials to seek support for the idea of a national Thanksgiving.
As the Civil war neared, Mrs. Hale’s campaign grew in intensity and urgency. She saw Thanksgiving as a national prayer event with great potential political repercussions. As editor of a national magazine, Sarah Hale had to be very cautious in her political or religious pronouncements. Godey’s Lady’s Magazine hardly acknowledged the Civil War even as it was being fought. Nonetheless, more than most she saw the need to maintain the Union. She wrote in 1859, “If every state would join in Union Thanksgiving on the 24th of this month (November), would it not be a renewed pledge of love and loyalty to the Constitution of the United States?” She believed that united prayer thanking God for the Union would save the Union.
This was a belief that Abraham Lincoln came to share heartily. Lincoln issued nine separate calls for national prayer, fasting, and thanksgiving during his presidency. In 1861 and 1862 the emphasis was on fasting and repentance, seeking God’s mercy in the midst of the cataclysm of war and the almost unmitigated string of disasters the Union faced during the first two years of that war. After the Emancipation Proclamation and the Battle of Gettysburg, however, Lincoln issued his first Thanksgiving Proclamation for Thursday, August 6th. Reflecting on both the disasters and the victories, Lincoln wrote: “It is meet and right to recognize and confess the presence of the Almighty Father and the power of His hand equally in these triumphs and these sorrows.”
Notice that word equally. After President Grant made the celebration of Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November permanent, Sara Hale wrote a poem which captures the spirit of the day as it has come to be celebrated in the U.S.A.:
“Our National Thanksgiving”
All the blessings of the fields,
All the stores the garden yields,
All the plenty summer pours,
Autumn's rich, o'erflowing stores,
Peace, prosperity and health,
Private bliss and public wealth,
Knowledge with its gladdening streams,
Pure religion's holier beams:
Lord, for these our souls shall raise
Grateful vows and solemn praise.
This poem is positive all the way through. Lincoln, however, understood that both the triumphs and the disasters came from God’s hand, and that Thanksgiving day could not be complete if thanks for the blessings were not tempered with an accounting for the challenges.
The greatest and most obvious corporate sin in 1863 to our minds (and to many of Lincoln’s contemporaries) was slavery, practiced by the South and tolerated by the North. With slavery abolished, we might be tempted as a nation to think ourselves absolved of sin. We do, indeed, frequently speak of the United States as the “most righteous nation” in the world. If we do so, we turn the celebration of Thanksgiving into the Pharisee’s prayer “I thank thee, Lord, that I am not as other men are.” Lincoln, however, perceived the heart of our national sin, when he wrote in the August 6th proclamation the following: “I invite the people of the United States to assemble on that occasion in their customary places of worship . . . (to) render the homage due to the Divine Majesty for the wonderful things He has done in the nation’s behalf . . . and (to) invoke the influence of His Holy Spirit to subdue the anger which has produced and so long sustained a needless and cruel rebellion . . .” Lincoln was not fighting first to end slavery but to sustain the Union. He recognized that what was undermining the Union was sin—the perverse selfishness that would lash out in anger if my views, my customs, my state was offended.
I humbly suggest that it would be a good idea for Christians and their churches to return to Mr. Lincoln’s idea of Thanksgiving as a day of prayer for thanks to God for his blessings and of repentance before Him for the anger that we have perpetually and needlessly been part of in the midst of our political, religious, social, and ethnic affiliations.