America had much to be grateful for on October 3, 1863. Her Chief Executive, Abraham Lincoln, set his hand to formalize that gratitude in a national day of thanksgiving. States had celebrated individually, but the nation as a whole had never offered a unified voice of appreciation.
Among early American colonists, unified prayer, fasting, and thanksgiving had often been used. The Pilgrims, who had arrived in the New World in 1620, had successfully pled for relief from a 12 week drought that threatened them with winter starvation. In 1631, the Puritans unitedly fasted to speed the arrival of supplies, and the supply ship, the Lyon, arrived the day the last cornmeal was distributed. They fasted, again, fifteen years later, when, within hours, a sudden, mysterious caterpillar infestation began to devour their summer crop. They received an equally immediate, miraculous end to the pestilence, for which they gratefully offered thanks.
The gratitude of prayer saved colonial British America from French invasion. The citizens of Boston gathered in Old South Church on October 16, 1746, with the Reverend Thomas Prince. The arrival of French Duke d’Anville, with 70 ships, 10,000 troops, and orders to destroy the American seacoast from Boston to Georgia was imminent. Reverend Prince called on God, “Deliver us from our enemy! Send Thy tempest, Lord,,,Scatter the ships…Sink their proud frigates beneath the power of Thy winds!” Sunshine immediately gave way to roiling clouds. A sudden, shrieking wind set the church bell ringing “a wild and uneven sound” in the unattended steeple. The fleet was miraculously stopped: two frigates sank and the remainder were scattered, the men aboard developed a mysterious pestilential fever, and the Duke died at his own hand for the disgrace of it all.
President Lincoln had set a previous pattern for national gratitude when he closed the doors of the federal government for a day of fasting on September 28, 1861. National requirement, as stated in the Constitution’s First Amendment, was to keep government out of religion. Today, we misunderstand; we keep religion out of government, instead. This prevents us, as a union, from calling down the powers of heaven to help us in times of need.
In 1863, as the United States was locked into mortal North/South conflict, Lincoln focused his Thanksgiving Proclamation on the blessings they had received, despite the war. “In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude…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”. He explained that “Needful diversions of wealth and of strength…to the national defense, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines…have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore.”
The nation was being blessed, and President Lincoln, referring to the “blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. noted the source of their blessings. “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…they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.”
President Lincoln called upon the nation to join in a national day of gratitude on the last Thursday of each November. He counseled them to remember, “all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged”. In conclusion he called on the nation to “fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation… and to restore it…to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union”.
As residents of this marvelous place to live, we owe gratitude to the Divine Hand that has overseen our prosperity and peace. As we gather with our families this Thanksgiving Day, let us offer thanks to God who has made all things possible, and plead that He again “heal the wounds of the nation”.