Last year, I posted a part of George Washington’s Thanksgiving Day proclamation, posted at the request of Congress on Oct. 3, 1789:
“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…
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; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favor, able interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness…the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed… and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.”
Especially humbling is Washington’s plea for government, asking God to “pardon our national and other transgressions…and render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed.”
As eloquent as Washington’s proclamation is, however, it wasn’t the first. The first Thanksgiving proclamation was issued by Governor William Bradford in 1623:
“Inasmuch as the great Father has given us this year an abundant harvest of Indian corn, wheat, peas, squashes and garden vegetables, and made the forest to abound with game and the sea with fish and clams, and inasmuch as he has protected us from the ravages of the savages, has spared us from the pestilence and granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience, now I, your magistrate do proclaim that all ye Pilgrims, with your wives and ye little ones, do gather at ye meeting house, on ye hill, between the hours of nine and twelve in the daytime on Thursday, November ye 29th, of the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred and twenty-three, and the third year since ye Pilgrims landed on ye Plymouth Rock, there to listen to ye Pastor and render Thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all his blessings.”
Thanksgiving didn’t immediately become an annual event, as the next Thanksgiving on record wouldn’t happen until June 1676. The governing body of Massachusetts implored clerk Edward Rawson, to decree a day of thanksgiving:
“The Holy God having…brought to pass bitter things against his own people in this wilderness, yet so that we evidently discern that in the midst of his judgements he hath remembered mercy…If it be the Lord’s mercy that we are not consumed, It certainly bespeaks our positive Thankfulness…The Council has thought meet to appoint and set apart the 29th day of this instant June, as a day of Solemn Thanksgiving and praise to God for such his Goodness and Favour…that the Lord may behold us as a People offering Praise and thereby glorifying Him.”
Washington’s proclamation gets attention because it was the first national proclamation. Yet it was Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation on Oct. 3, 1863 that set into effect the recurring national holiday we know today at the end of November.
Exactly 54 years after Washington’s original decree, Lincoln writes from the heart of the American Civil War, with his characteristically eloquent bluntness and melancholy:
“The year that is drawing toward 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 can not 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 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 theater of military conflict, while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.
… Population has steadily increased notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.
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…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…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.”
Most amazing is the depths of turmoil from which Lincoln penned such a resolution – only six weeks later, he would deliver the Gettysburg address.
The fact that an American president plagued by depression could look up when a young nation is crumbling around his ears in one of the bloodiest battles ever fought – stop, and give thanks – is remarkable in a era where live races at a frantic pace, and thanksgiving for the evening meal has nearly fallen out of social vogue.
In their proclamations, Bradford wrote with gratitude that the settlers didn’t starve, Rawson for survival against perpetual Indian war, Washington wrote with gratitude for the establishment of a peaceful government and Lincoln wrote with gratitude that the nation hadn’t imploded on itself.
Lincoln would write one more Thanksgiving proclamation in 1864:
“It has pleased Almighty God to prolong our national life another year, defending us with His guardian care against unfriendly designs from abroad and vouchsafing to us in His mercy many and signal victories over the enemy, who is of our own household…
He has largely augmented our free population by emancipation and by immigration, while He has opened to us new sources of wealth and has crowned the labor of our workingmen in every department of industry with abundant rewards.
Moreover, He has been pleased to animate and inspire our minds and hearts with fortitude, courage, and resolution sufficient for the great trial of civil war into which we have been brought by our adherence as a nation to the cause of freedom and humanity, and to afford to us reasonable hopes of an ultimate and happy deliverance from all our dangers and afflictions.
Now, therefore, I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, do hereby appoint and set apart the last Thursday in November next as a day which I desire to be observed by all my fellow-citizens, wherever they may then be, as a day of thanksgiving and praise to Almighty God, the beneficent Creator and Ruler of the Universe.”
To put it in Lincoln’s own words, “I recommend to my fellow-citizens” that they “humble themselves in the dust and from thence offer up penitent and fervent prayers and supplications to the Great Disposer of Events for a return of the inestimable blessings of peace, union, and harmony throughout the land which it has pleased Him to assign as a dwelling place for ourselves and for our posterity throughout all generations.”
This is the last thanksgiving proclamation he would write, as less than six months later, Lincoln was brutally killed in Ford’s Theater.
If these four men were here today, they would simply tell us that there is thanksgiving to be had in our darkest moments – when we don’t feel grateful, when it feels like our very existence is clinging by a thread.
Today’s Thanksgiving has taken a milder approach, 150 years after Lincoln’s last resolution. Now marked by a parade and a flurry of Thanksgiving night shopping fliers, it’s hard to know which is the harder task – getting people to slow down and be thankful, that they shouldn’t miss the holiday, or convincing them they should be thankful in the first place.
To put it in the simpler, contemporary words of a holiday song:
Somedays we forget
To look around us
Somedays we can’t see
The joy that surrounds us
So caught up inside ourselves
We take when we should give.
So for tonight we pray for
What we know can be.
And on this day we hope for
What we still can’t see.
It’s up to us to be the change
And even though we all can still do more
There’s SO much to be thankful for.
(Thankful, Josh Groban):
While Groban’s song wasn’t exactly plumbing the depths of a nation’s soul like Lincoln, the words remind us what Bradford, Rawson, Washington and Lincoln all four knew – it’s up to us to be the change, and even though this world needs so much more, there’s so much to be thankful for.
And that, dear friends, is the serious business of Thanksgiving.
*Sources taken from The American Presidency Project: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=69900