Speaking of traditions, when my kids get a little older I want to read them the following story on Thanksgiving Day—not simply to educate them about the origins of the holiday (no, Thanksgiving wasn’t founded by the National Football League or The Food Network), but also to remind us all to thank God for the peace and prosperity that we enjoy.
“The Woman Who Brought Us Thanksgiving”
by Harold Ivan Smith
Most Americans associate Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims. Fifty-one survivors of the Mayflower gathered to celebrate after their first fall harvest. Governor William Bradford proclaimed it a day of thanksgiving.
But during the next century and a half, thanksgiving was an irregular celebration, varying from community to community, dependent at times upon the religious and political climates and the attitudes of individual governors.
Then the victory of the Americans over the British at Saratoga in October, 1777 prompted the Continental Congress to set aside December 18 as a day of thanksgiving and praise to be observed by all the colonies.
On September 28, 1863, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale wrote President Abraham Lincoln urging him to make the annual Thanksgiving “a national and fixed Union Festival.” By this time, she had built the circulation of her magazine, Godey’s Ladies Book to 150,000. Hale’s letter could not be ignored. Nor her editorials. Her annual Thanksgiving editorial in Godey’s opened with Nehemiah 8:10: “Then he said unto them, ‘Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy unto our Lord; neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’”
Hale argued, from her strong Episcopal faith, that if Nehemiah set aside a time of thanksgiving in a time of national stress, “in a time of national darkness and sore troubles, shall we not recognize the goodness of God never faileth, and that to our Father in heaven we should always bring the Thanksgiving offering at the ingathering of the harvest?”
Lincoln weighed the matter and decided that the timing was right for something that would promote national unity. He ordered Seward to draft the proclamation.
Early on October 3, Lincoln read the proclamation: “The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and helpful 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 cannot fail to penetrate and soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.”
Seward wrote, “No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gift of the most high God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”
Lincoln commended Seward for a project “well done” and then focused on the last paragraph: “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.”