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Voice of Experience

Voice of Experience: November 2023 | Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving 2023

Douglas Denton Church

Thanksgiving 2023 Zigic

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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.

The request embedded in his spring-time proclamation bears very little resemblance to the reality of modern day Thanksgiving celebrations:

“…I do, by this my proclamation, designate and set apart THURSDAY, the 30th day of April 1863, as a day of National Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer. And I do hereby request all the People to abstain on that day from their ordinary secular pursuits, and to unite, at their several places of public worship and their respective homes, in keeping the day holy to the Lord, and devoted to the humble discharge of the religious duties proper to that occasion.”

I’m not sure when the idea of Thanksgiving being the celebration of the first harvest meal between the Pilgrims and their native American hosts became fashionable, but it is fairly clear to me that it was not that celebration that Lincoln had in mind when he issued the proclamation. No references to turkey, pumpkin pie, and the like. “Fasting” is by no means a call to gluttony! It is well known that even though Lincoln was a spiritual man, he was not an active member of any particular denomination, or for that matter, any particular religion. His long-time friendship with Abraham Jonas, a Jewish lawyer, was simply a friendship without regard to religion or ethnicity.  His appointment of Jews to important positions in the government was abnormal for the time but simply not an issue for Lincoln who sought the best person for the job. His frequent quotations from the Bible encompassed both the Old and the New Testament. A little known, but insightful event occurred in the early stages of the Civil War. General Grant issued a decree expelling “Jews as a class” from areas under his control.  Upon learning of this edict, Lincoln promptly had it countermanded.  It is meaningful to understand that while the references to God were frequent and sincere, they did not aim at what we now see in the culture war mentality.

Lincoln’s conclusion finishes with an expectation of a return to happier times:

“All this being done, in sincerity and truth, let us then rest humbly in the hope, authorized by the Divine teachings, that the united cry of the Nation will be heard on high, and answered with blessings, no less than the pardon of our national sins, and restoration of our now divided and suffering county to its former happy condition of unity and peace.”

Thanks to Abraham Lincoln, we have a national holiday which we now call Thanksgiving instead of a Day of Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer. His proclamation on October 20, 1864 details the essence of Thanksgiving rather than Humiliation:

“It has pleased almighty God to prolong our national life another year, defending us with his guardian care against unfriendly designs from abroad, and vouchsafing to us in his mercy many and signal victories over the enemy, who is of our own household. It has also pleased our heavenly Father to favor as well our citizens in their homes as our soldiers in their camps, and our sailors on the rivers and seas, with unusual health. He has largely augmented our free population by emancipation and by immigration, while he has opened to us new sources of wealth, and has crowned the labor of our working-men in every department of industry with abundant rewards. Moreover, he has been pleased to animate and inspire our minds and hearts with fortitude, courage, and resolution sufficient for the great trial of civil war into which we have been brought by our adherence as a nation to the cause of freedom and humanity, and to afford to us reasonable hopes of an ultimate and happy deliverance from all our dangers and afflictions.

Now, therefore, I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, do hereby appoint and set apart the last Thursday of November next as a day which I desire to be observed by all my fellow citizens, wherever they may be then be, as a day of thanksgiving and praise to almighty God, the beneficent Creator and Ruler of the universe. And I do further recommend to my fellow-citizens aforesaid, that on that occasion they do reverently humble themselves in the dust, and from thence offer up penitent and fervent prayers and supplications to the great Disposer of events for a return of the inestimable blessings of peace, union, and harmony throughout the land which it has pleased him to assign as a dwelling place for ourselves and for our posterity throughout all generations.”

All things being equal, I suspect Lincoln would be delighted to know that, notwithstanding the many challenges faced by our country in 1863, we have continued to strive for the happy condition of unity and peace for which he prayed. I am also reasonably sure that he would not hesitate to remind us that we continue to believe that all of the blessings we enjoy are the product of the misplaced belief in our superior wisdom and virtue rather than acknowledging the great good fortune we have by virtue of our birth or relocation to this marvelous country.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving this year, perhaps it would be a hopeful sign if we took a few minutes before sitting down to the overburdened dinner table to offer thanks for the riches we have inherited from the land we live on and those who came before us who strove and died to make it better.  And we should seek forgiveness for our vanity and our hubris and hope for an acknowledgement of the grace which has enabled us to enjoy the peace and prosperity of this remarkable country. Thanks President Lincoln and Happy Thanksgiving to you all!