Abraham Lincoln’s first proclamation of the national day of Thanksgiving was issued on October 3, 1863 during the midst of the Civil War. Although other presidents had set aside similar days, Lincoln’s was the first that established the national holiday.
It’s interesting to me that he was able to find a heart of gratitude and encourage it in the whole nation at such a devastating time in our history–a time when not even today’s political sparring can compare to the bitterness that existed between differing ideologies. Just three months prior to the proclamation (to the day) the bloodiest battle in American history ended in the fields of Gettysburg, PA. Lincoln firmly believed in the cause of unity and the freedom of all men, but it did not make him popular. Even in the Union camp, he wasn’t a golden boy. In fact, he was only a last minute addition to the podium when he gave his profound speech dedicating the battleground at Gettysburg as a National Cemetery–the follow-up speaker, no less. Yet, despite criticism and the weight of the conflict, he was able to adopt a thankful spirit. He obviously felt that being thankful was very important. I have read that during his administration, he often declared days of thanksgiving for his staff. The 1863 proclamation just extended this practice to the entire nation.
Although it seems paradoxical, sometimes the most perilous times are when we realize we have the most to be thankful for. It’s when we have the most to lose that we realize how much we really have. Troubled times reveal what is truly important. When circumstances spin out of our control, we are keenly aware of our own helplessless. When mistakes and missteps come so quickly, we are overwhelmed by our own inadequacies. At these times in life, we can often more easily recognize the blessings in our lives that we had no hand in creating. Maybe it gives me a sense of control, or maybe it just settles my spirit to think of something basic, but for me, when the big things seem to be in peril, I find comfort (and sanity) by looking at the small things–the simple blessings and joys that inspire gratitude.
When I read Lincoln’s proclamation, I noticed a few things he seemed to understand about thanksgiving, God and people:
1. Learning to recognize bounty is important.
2. We tend to forget the source of our blessings while we’re being blessed.
3. We almost always have more to be thankful for than we realize.
4. Blessings should soften our insensitive hearts.
5. God is ever-watchful.
6. Knowing Who to thank is important.
7. God is merciful.
8. Setting aside time for thanksgiving is important.
9. Being thankful together has power.
10. Thanksgiving is all-inclusive. Everyone can participate.
11. Thanksgiving is inevitably entwined with praise.
12. God is higher than we are.
“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…
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 one 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…”
~ Abraham Lincoln, October 3, 1863