Thanksgiving is in many ways a unique American holiday. It is one of those holidays when families gather together, many traveling long distances to join in the holiday festivities. It is a holiday for many that calls out those famous recipes from aunts, mothers, grandmothers, etc., that we only prepare on Thanksgiving! The special pecan pie, the candied yams with bourbon and dried cherries, the special twist on the turkey that only Uncle Jack can impart, and so on.
What words come to mind easily when we think of Thanksgiving? Food, family, fellowship for starters. What others do you think of? How about these words: Confession of sins, transgressions, repentance, humiliation? Those are the words that Abraham Lincoln wove into the fabric of his Proclamation which preceded his establishment of a day of Thanksgiving. Context, of course, is important here. The Proclamation for a Day of Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer was issued on March 30th of 1863. (It is noteworthy that his predecessors in the office of the President of the United States had issued similar proclamations during their tenure in office.) The Civil War was nearing its second anniversary, and it was a rare village or town that had not experienced the loss of many of its young men in battle. Lincoln was fully committed to see the war through to the end which did not come until two years later on April 9, 1865, and the result of that commitment was the savagery and death that accompanied the war effort. In addition, he had experienced the death of his son, Willie, not that long before, presumably from typhoid fever on February 20 of 1862. His melancholy was well known to those around him and considering the many losses with which he was recently familiar, the need to unburden himself as well as the country writ large and to offer some ray of hope in this otherwise bleak landscape motivated the decision to make the proclamation. He let us know in the first full paragraph that it was his intention to seek a positive conclusion: “…in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon...” But then he makes his argument in a far more prayerful tone:
“And, insomuch as we know that, by His divine law, nations, like individuals are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world, may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war, which now desolates the land, may be but a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole People? We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven. We have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power as no other nation has ever grown. Be we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us!”
Lincoln had lived a full life before ascending to the Presidency. His early childhood and teenage years were spent in Indiana in somewhat primitive surroundings. His schooling, such as it was, was by and large the result of his voracious appetite for reading anything and everything. He had experienced loss and love, but more loss. First his mother, then his first girlfriend, and later the loss of one of his children as an infant. But, he had always maintained a positive outlook and his many speeches on various subjects open a door to his thought process that was always upbeat and promising. His references to the Founding Fathers frequently were in the context of acknowledging the hopefulness of the foundational documents upon which this country was imagined…the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights.