In a few days, folks will gather together to observe, even if in some small way, the American tradition of Thanksgiving. Or as some people call it, turkey-day. But in the flood of parades, food, football, family, and friends we often neglect to pause and take the time to really give thanks. I mean, we don’t want the mashed potatoes to get cold, do we?
As I read the Thanksgiving proclamations of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, I find that we’ve marginalized, forgotten, and pushed aside what Thanksgiving Day is all about. Both Presidents acknowledged that the nation’s thanks were to be directed towards God. Washington said in part that Thanksgiving Day was “to be devoted by the people of these States 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; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country…” (George would have never survived Twitter) Seventy-four years later Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamation said, “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.” It’s good to thank each other but let’s also remember to thank God for the blessings of the past year.
Now, giving thanks may be overshadowed, but it’s not totally ignored. There is, however, another part to both President’s proclamations that has been completely forgotten. Washington said, “And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions…” A note which Lincoln’s proclamation also struck as it encouraged thanksgiving to be offered “with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience.” Not only was Thanksgiving to be a day of offering thanks but a day of repentance as well. A day to confess our personal and national sins before God.
There was a third part of Lincoln’s proclamation that is also neglected but seems even more important today. The Battle of Gettysburg had been fought the previous July, but the war tearing the nation apart was far from over. His Thanksgiving Proclamation was signed on October 3rd of 1863. In six weeks Lincoln would travel to that battlefield and give us his famous Gettysburg Address. Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamation concludes, “(Let us) commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and Union.”
Maybe we should set aside more time than just a rushed giving of thanks before the meal. Perhaps it would be good to find a quiet moment to really count all the blessings of the previous year and thank God for them, to consider and confess our sins and the sins of our nation, to ask God to heal wounded hearts, and implore God to bring peace, harmony, tranquility, and unity in our divided nation.