Giving thanks to God for blessings—life, health, and a successful harvest—had led to a tradition of holding festivals throughout the colonies going back to the early 1600’s.
A century and a half later, both Presidents Washington and Madison called for days of thanksgiving. In November 1777, during the War of Independence, the Continental Congress declared a holiday for the thirteen colonies that began this way:
“Forasmuch as it is the indispensable Duty of all Men to adore the superintending Providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with Gratitude their Obligation to him for Benefits received, and to implore such farther Blessings as they stand in Need of: And it having pleased him in his abundant Mercy, not only to continue to us the innumerable Bounties of his common Providence; but also to smile upon us in the Prosecution of a just and necessary War, for the Defense and Establishment of our unalienable Rights and Liberties….”
On August 6, 1863, a month after the Battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln declared a Thanksgiving celebration. It was the height of the Civil War, and there was a deep need for national unification and healing. In late September, Lincoln received a letter from Sarah J. Hale, a women’s magazine editor and nursery rhyme author, who had campaigned for a number of years for a “national and fixed Union Festival.” On October 3, Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday to be celebrated annually on the fourth Thursday in November.
By the President of the United States
“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.
In the midst of a civil war of unequalled 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 had 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 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 voice by the whole American people. 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, tranquility and Union.
In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed. Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.”
Let us carry forward the nearly four centuries of American wisdom and gratitude for “innumerable bounties,” and continue to hold this day dear as an opportunity for “thanksgiving and praise.” There is no such thing as too much gratitude, too much giving thanks for blessings, or an excess of praise for the “Almighty Hand” that heals and uplifts. So let us on this day, above all, pause and give our heart-felt thanks for divine love and protection.
© 2012 Ilona Goin. All rights reserved.