When we think of the history of Thanksgiving, we usually think of Pilgrims and Native Americans in Massachusetts. While that feast was certainly of historical note, our official national celebration began much later.
It was Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation on October 3, 1863, that began our national tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November. His proclamation was issued in the midst of the Civil War.
In July of that year, the Union won the pivotal and brutal battle of Gettysburg. Later that same month, there were draft riots (with racial overtones) in New York City. At least 120 people were killed. And then in mid-September, the South trapped the Union Army at the battle of Chickamauga.
The war was far from over. There was still great peril. But Lincoln decided that it was not a time to plea for mercy or help or rescue, but to give thanks.
He began with giving thanks for “fruitful fields and healthful skies” that produced bounty throughout the land. Such gifts were likely to be taken for granted, Lincoln said, and the nation should remember that these were gifts from God.
Despite the war, Lincoln noted that the economic engine of the nation was still intact and growing. And the domestic laws were obeyed, and harmony generally prevailed—except on the battlefield. The nation’s borders were even expanding—the frontier was being advanced.
What was the cause of these great advances and blessings in the midst of the war? Lincoln leaves no doubt:
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.
For as long as I have been politically active, politicians of both parties have been quick to claim credit for all such forms of good news. Some have gone so far as to claim that government, rather than private action, is the source of virtually all economic advancement.
There is no doubt that there is an important role for private effort in the success of a nation. And a nation that does not follow the rule of law cannot expect to thrive.
But without the blessing and protection of God, the hardest workers and the best laws would never alone produce bounty in the midst of war and conflict.
Our nation is in a moment of intense ideological conflict. There are attacks on our most fundamental freedoms and an unacceptable rise in violence. Even so, things are no worse now than they were in October of 1863.
Lincoln got it right. We should give thanks at all times—in good times and in bad.
We aspire to be one nation under God. Yet we see a constant rejection of God and His standards today. There’s little wonder why we don’t seem much like one nation anymore.
The best path for national harmony would be for us all to come together and acknowledge that God is the source of our nation’s blessings and bounty.
As we celebrate Thanksgiving this year, may we all praise God for the countless blessings he has bestowed upon us. And may you and your family have a truly blessed and happy Thanksgiving.