The following offers a little perspective about the origin and religious roots of Thanksgiving. Often we associate the Pilgrims with the tradition of Thanksgiving in America, but Thanksgiving as we know it today did not start until much later in America’s history, and it took a woman and two U. S. Presidents to create this uniquely American holiday.
While U. S. Presidents and/or Congress have celebrated random days of thanksgiving since the birth of our nation, it was not until 1863 that it became a official annual event.
Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the popular magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, lobbied for the idea of a national day of thanksgiving for years, persistently petitioning President Abraham Lincoln as well as his predecessors. (It can also be noted that Sarah Hale wrote the famous poem Mary Had a Little Lamb.)
While in the middle of the Civil War, President Lincoln saw Sarah Hale’s concept as a possible way to help unify the country and on October 3, 1863 issued a proclamation calling on Americans to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November as a day of thanksgiving.
Decades later on December 26, 1941, less than a month after the attack at Pearl Harbor plunged the United States into World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress passed a law declaring the fourth Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day, where it remains to this day. The slight shift from the last to the fourth Thursday in November was in part for economic reasons, since it sometimes lengthens the Christmas shopping season.
While Lincoln and Roosevelt both had pragmatic reasons to establish Thanksgiving as a holiday, it was Lincoln that made the spiritual connection. Following is the text of Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation, which may have been actually written by his secretary of State, William Seward. (From the Lincoln papers in the Library of America series, Volume II, pp. 520-521)
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 defense, 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.
While Lincoln’s proclamation was obviously written in the context of the Civil War, we should observe its profound reverence for God and the implications for our country. As Thanksgiving is increasingly just seen as the start of the Christmas shopping season, we should take the time to properly celebrate Thanksgiving Day in the spirit intended, which includes remembering from Whom our blessings flow.