On October 3, 1789, less than six months into his presidency, George Washington gave the new nation its first presidential Thanksgiving Proclamation. He began with these words:
“Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor, and Whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me ‘to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.’
“Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, Who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be. That we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks, for his kind care and protection of the People of this country previous to their becoming a Nation..."Sadly, nothing better exemplifies America's transition from being a religious and civic people to being a domestic and commercial people than the average American observance of Thanksgiving today. Rather than offering thanks to Him who has bestowed upon us blessing after blessing, our focus is upon it which we are about to eat - and thus Thanksgiving is reduced to "turkey day." But the reduction does not stop here. The elevation of "family time" - a great good to be cherished - threatens to diminish our observance of Thanksgiving when it isolates and divorces itself from the larger civic and religious character of Thanksgiving. Indeed, it is our "focus on the family" that often drives us from the dinner table on Thanksgiving Day to the shopping malls on "Black Friday" - and were it not for the commercialization of "Black Friday," it is without a doubt that Thanksgiving would have succumbed to the same sad fate of so many other important civic holidays and found itself transferred to a Monday.
People rightly complain that "Christ" has been taken out of Christmas, but where is the religious and civic defender of Thanksgiving? Perhaps because religion and politics have become so separated in our society - which is often tacitly accepted by our religious and secular leaders alike - that there are so few defenders of a truly religious and civic holiday among either conservatives or liberals. How could a "Big Business Conservative" and a "Godless Liberal" ever agree to promote Thanksgiving as a religious and civic holiday for a people under God rather than a day of preparation for shopping sprees and sales?
It wasn't always like that, however. Abraham Lincoln's 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation came at a point in the Civil War where the death toll had already been catastrophic and the numbers would only climb ever higher by 1865. As then, as it always is, we seem to be more thankful when so much of the good things we have are taken away or are threatened.
Here is a thematic presentation of Lincoln's 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation worth reflecting upon today:
Lincoln sees the Providence of God despite the conflict: 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, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.As we respond to the call of Washington and Lincoln, let us not stop at merely "counting our blessings," but rather as a civic and religious people give thanks to Almighty God. Let this day be a day of re-orientation and conversion, turning in thanks to Him from whom all blessings come while turning away from our sins and asking for forgiveness. On this day, as a people and a nation under God, let us with one voice proclaim: "Blessed be God forever!"
Although the war continues, Lincoln notes the many particular blessings of God: In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. 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; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.
For these reasons, Americans ought to thank God for his divine mercy despite our national sins: 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.
Lincoln implores us to give thanks to God, do penance, and pray for the nation's union and those who have sacrificed to uphold that union: 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 for such singular deliverances and blessings, 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.