God Blessed America: Lincoln and Thanksgiving
“Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord”
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Thanksgiving Day evokes strong images. Thanks to God. Macy’s parade, ending with Santa Claus ushering in the Christmas season. Thanksgiving Friday, biggest shopping day of the year. Our most traveled holiday. Family dinner. Turkey. Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys. Four days off work. How did this beloved Thanksgiving treasure become a national holiday? We owe it to Mr. Lincoln.
President-elect Lincoln, in his farewell address at Springfield, Illinois, pointed his listeners to God, a practice he continued in his speeches with amazing regularity throughout his presidency. “Today I leave you; I go to assume a task more difficult than that which devolved upon General Washington. Unless the great God who assisted him shall be with and aid me, I must fail. But if the same omniscient mind and the same Almighty arm that directed and protected him shall guide and support me, I shall not fail; I shall succeed. Let us all pray that the God of our fathers may not forsake us now. To Him I commend you all. Permit me to ask that with equal sincerity and faith you will all invoke His wisdom and guidance for me” (S.2.426).
Thoughts of God weighed heavily on Lincoln as he made his train trip from Springfield to Washington. At Lafayette, Indiana, Lincoln said, “We are bound together in Christianity, civilization, and patriotism.” Lincoln later heard from non-Christians who wondered since when the United States was limited solely to Christianity (S.3.39). In Columbus, Ohio, Lincoln said he was, for the difficult task ahead, looking “to the American people, and to that God who has never forsaken them” (S.3.46).
He would later recall from the first of the war “this government appealed to the prayers of the pious and the good, and declared that it placed its whole dependence on the favor of God” (S.5.371).
In his first inaugural he claimed, “Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him who has never yet forsaken this favored land, are still competent to adjust in the best way all our present difficulty” (S.3.133).
God-talk became the norm in Lincoln’s communications. He wrote to Iowa Quakers, “I am upheld and sustained by the good wishes and prayers of God’s people. No one is more deeply than myself aware that without his favor our highest wisdom is but as foolishness, and that our most strenuous efforts would avail nothing in the shadow of his displeasure.”
“In God we trust” was first used on USA coins in Lincoln’s administration (T.7). The currently embattled words in our Pledge of Allegiance, “under God,” were popularized by Lincoln, who spontaneously used them at Gettysburg.
In government dealings with Native Americans, he recommended to them “The elevated and sanctifying influences, the hopes and consolations, of the Christian faith” (S.4.482).
On a War Department paper about pardons he wrote: “On principle I dislike an oath which requires a man to swear he has not done wrong. It rejects the Christian principle of forgiveness on terms of repentance. I think it is enough if a man does no wrong hereafter” (S.5.484).
During his four years as President, Lincoln issued nine calls to public penitence, fasting, prayer, and thanksgiving: two in 1861, one in 1862, three in 1863, three in 1864. Lincoln was working on proclamation number ten when assassinated. Three days before his death, rejoicing over the fall of Richmond, he said, “He, from Whom all blessings flow, must not be forgotten. A call for a national thanksgiving is being prepared” (T.85).
Lincoln’s first call to prayer, August 12, 1861, set aside a Thursday, thereby establishing a pattern. But for two exceptions, Lincoln set each special observance on a Thursday, a day in the middle of the week not identified as any religious group’s day of worship. Thus the observances belonged equally to all the people, regardless of religious affiliation. The people were called, not as church members, but as Americans.
After victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the President issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation. “It has pleased Almighty God to hearken to the supplications and prayers of an afflicted people. It is meet and right to recognize and confess the presence of the Almighty Father, and the power of his hand.”
The proclamation set aside Thursday, August 6, 1863, as a day for national thanksgiving, praise, and prayer, for people to gather in their customary places of worship to render homage to the Divine Majesty (S.4.359).
On May 9, 1864, when good news came from General Grant, the President called for a time of thanksgiving. “Enough is known of army operations within the last five days to claim an especial gratitude to God” (S.5.46).
Lincoln told a crowd that evening, “I am indeed very grateful to the brave men who have been struggling with the enemy in the field, to their noble commanders who have directed them, and especially to our Maker. . . .We should, above all, be very grateful to Almighty God, who gives us victory” (S.5.47).
When Lincoln=s re-election chances seemed their dimmest, he received from General Sherman on September 3, 1864, the telegram that changed everything: “Atlanta is ours.” The President called for thanksgiving to be offered in houses of worship the next Sunday. When an Army Chaplain mentioned how pleased people would be at the proclamation, Lincoln said he would be glad to give such a proclamation every Sunday for weeks to come (S.5.230).
Lincoln’s thanksgiving proclamations were criticized by some as savage and vindictive because he was calling for thanks in a time of war (S.4.518), but during Lincoln’s term, a groundswell of interest in an annual national Thanksgiving celebration began to grow. It was an idea whose time had come.
The first national Thanksgiving was declared in 1777 by the Continental Congress. George Washington in 1789 issued the first presidential Thanksgiving proclamation. It celebrated our country’s new Constitution.
In the 1800s Thanksgiving Days became a regional observation. A number of states celebrated a Thanksgiving Day annually, each having its own set date.
In 1848, Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, the most influential ladies magazine of her day, began a multi-year crusade. She set herself with unremitting toil to the task of the USA having a unified national Thanksgiving Day.
Her words long fell on deaf ears, but eventually began to be seriously considered. In September 1863 Sarah Hale wrote a historic letter to the President, spelling out in detail her arguments for having “the day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival.” Lincoln, ever looking for ways to unify the nation, read Hale’s letter and passed it on to his Secretary of State, William Seward, who bought into the concept entirely.
One morning in October 1863 Seward told Lincoln, “They say, Mr. President, that we are stealing away the rights of the states. So I have come today to advise you, that there is another state’s right I think we ought to steal.” Lincoln asked what Seward wanted to steal now. Seward replied, “The right to name Thanksgiving Day!” He said states celebrated Thanksgiving on different days at the discretion of each state’s governor. Seward suggested it should be made a national holiday. When Lincoln said he supposed a President “had as good a right to thank God as a Governor,” Seward, who had already written a proclamation, handed it to Lincoln. It invited citizens to observe the last Thursday of November as a day to give thanks to our beneficent Father (G.577). Lincoln signed the proclamation, thereby unifying the scattered state observances.
As we celebrate the history and heritage of Thanksgiving Day, let’s not forget to commemorate and practice what the day is set aside for. Remember to give thanks to God.
Thanks-living is a powerful antidote against selfishness and sin. Never reflect negatively on God’s dealings with us. He is kind and good all the time. All His dealings with us are gracious.
“Give thanks in everything” (I Thessalonians 5:18a Holman). Thanksgiving refreshes our spirit. Discontent is dangerous. This is how Satan tripped Adam and Eve. They felt cheated. Once a heart turns sour, actions soon follow suit.
Thanksgiving combines in perfect balance seriousness and joyfulness. Gratitude to God is beautiful, exhibiting noble soberness about life’s meaning, and showing joyous buoyancy of spirit. A grateful person is a contented person, and a contented person is an attractive person.