The U.S. national holiday of Thanksgiving originated with the historical declarations of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Washington issued his on October 3, 1789 and Lincoln during the Civil War which was made into law by Congress in 1941.
Following a resolution of Congress, President George Washington proclaimed Thursday the 26th of November 1789 a day of “public thanksgiving and prayer” devoted to “the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.” Reflecting American religious practice, Presidents and Congresses from the beginning of the republic have from time to time designated days of fasting and thanksgiving. The Thanksgiving holiday we celebrate in November was established by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War and made into law by Congress in 1941.
Here is part of Lincoln’s proclamation issued on October 20, 1864: “Now, therefore, I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, do hereby appoint and set apart the last Thursday in November next as a day which I desire to be observed by all my fellow-citizens, wherever they may 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.”
In setting aside a day for Thanksgiving, Washington established a non-sectarian tone for these devotions and stressed political, moral, and intellectual blessings that make self-government possible, in addition to personal and national repentance. Although the First Amendment prevents Congress from establishing a religion or prohibiting its free exercise, Presidents, as well as Congress, have always recognized the American regard for sacred practices and beliefs. Thus, throughout American history, Presidents have offered non-sectarian prayers for the victory of the military and in the wake of catastrophes. Transcending passionate quarrels over the proper role of religion in politics, the Thanksgiving Proclamation reminds us how natural their relationship has been. While church and state are separate, religion and politics, in their American refinement, prop each other up.
Lincoln speaks openly about God, the beneficent Creator and Presidents, along with those recently campaigning for the office, end many speeches with “God bless you and God bless America.” Is it merely tradition or does it have any ring of authenticity? Our Thanksgiving celebrations range from deep and sincere expressions of gratitude to some rather superficial and commercial illustrations including “Black Friday” promoting sales that are intended to increase profits into the plus column. The Thanksgiving feasts around a table laden with all kinds of food were originally a celebration of the harvest and what has been retained are families gathering for this celebration making Thanksgiving one of the most heavily traveled days of the year.
So what are we to make of all of this? Regardless what we might believe about God having blessed all of us, there are precious few among us who “humble ourselves in the dust…and offer up fervent prayers and supplications….” However, that said, many do offer genuine expressions of thanksgiving to loved ones, to friends and colleagues and recognize how fortunate we are to live in a country that is relatively free and open and we pledge ourselves to “liberty and justice for all.” If we truly mean that, then what should we be about in this coming year in terms of our commitments, our actions and in our nation as a whole? While that question about Thanksgiving might keep us focused on what needs to be done, how we get there is an even bigger question.
My own sense, based on my experience of the past 70 years, is that this will take concentrated, individual and collective effort, common vision, common purpose and common goals. It will be extremely difficult given divergent views and opinions but if we’re committed to finding common ground where we can stand together, we can take some big steps toward what Lincoln called the “inestimable blessings of peace, union, and harmony throughout the land.” That’s my Thanksgiving prayer for 2016.