I was talking recently to a high school student about Thanksgiving Day. She praised the “Pilgrim Fathers” for “making this an annual holiday.”
That got me started with filling in some history about Thanksgiving Day that she had never heard before. It is a history that Americans should remember with great pride.
The earliest thanksgiving celebration for a good harvest was held by the 53 surviving Pilgrims at Plymouth in the early autumn of 1621. It was a custom of the English to give thanks to God for a bountiful harvest.
The Pilgrims, however, did not refer to this harvest festival as a “Thanksgiving,” even though they gave thanks to God. To them, a Day of Thanksgiving was a religious event. Their first recorded religious Day of Thanksgiving was in 1623 in response to a providential rainfall.
Over time, the religious Day of Thanksgiving and the harvest festival evolved into a single event.
History books tell us that, in 1789, the Episcopal Church formally recognized that the U.S. president and governors of states had the authority to proclaim a thanksgiving holiday. Some presidents proclaimed these, while others did not.
On Oct. 3, 1863, however, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that there would now be a fixed time for a “Thanksgiving Day” to be celebrated annually.
At the time, Lincoln was dealing with the horrors of the Civil War that put brothers against brothers. He spoke out, asking the nation to remember the blessings they had “of fruitful fields and healthful skies.”
He said: “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.”
Lincoln spoke then of good things going on in the nation despite the horrible war. He mentioned peaceful industry, the abundant mines giving us iron, coal and precious metals; a great increase in population, “notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battlefield.”
Let us not forget that on Jan. 1 of that same year, Lincoln had written and signed the Emancipation Proclamation, ending the slavery of human beings.
Because of his faith, Lincoln believed slavery should be ended, and he expressed his faith again in his proclamation that created Thanksgiving Day: “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.”
Continuing, Lincoln invited citizens “in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea, and those 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.”
I have read books about Lincoln that contend he wasn’t a churchgoer. But “Lincoln’s Devotional,” which was signed by Lincoln on the inside cover and re-published in 1957, contains scriptural and other inspirational messages that “he used and cherished,” wrote the poet/writer Carl Sandburg in the book’s introduction.
Sandburg also recalled that, 80 years after Lincoln’s death, a printed statement in Lincoln’s handwriting was discovered “in which he answered election campaign charges that he “was an open scoffer at Christianity.”
Responded Lincoln: “I have never denied the truth of the Scripture. … I do not think I could myself, be brought to support a man for office whom I knew to be an open enemy of, and scoffer at, religion.”
On Thanksgiving Day, let us thank God that he gave us Abraham Lincoln.