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We’re all familiar with the modern traditions surrounding Thanksgiving in America: parade, family, turkey, football, pumpkin pie, and …shopping like maniacs the following day.

We may even take a few moments to give thanks or remember that iconic feast shared by the Pilgrims and American Indians nearly 400 years ago.

But for most of us, our understanding of the holiday doesn’t go much deeper than that.

And now it’s 2020.

We’re living in a pandemic, watching tensions mount between different groups of Americans, and trying to see straight in the aftermath of a vicious and confusing presidential election.

For some of us, this Thanksgiving may look like holidays-as-usual. We’ll gather with all the family, thankful for our health and thankful that our state hasn’t locked us down again.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

For others, we may begrudge the restrictions in place that cramp our traditions–or maybe we’ll voluntarily cancel trips and gatherings.

For still others, there’ll be at least one empty chair at the table. A chair that was warm just last week.

We Americans have some common experiences this year in that we’re seeing history unfold before our eyes more than we usually care to.

In light of this, I’d like to share a peek into the past that I have found encouraging. Thanksgiving is indeed a holiday made for unsettling times. There are three key moments in Thanksgiving history that can help us to understand both the holiday and our place in the story today: the colonial period, the founding of our nation, and the Civil War.

Thanksgiving in the Colonial Period

The colonial period of American history involves a complex interplay of different people groups and different motivations. The Native Americans consisted of various different tribes and customs while the Europeans likewise were represented by explorers and settlers from Spain, France, England, and Holland.

There could be peace or war in any and all directions.

There could be prosperity or famine and plague.

There could be–and there was–kidnapping of Native American youth to be sold as slaves in Europe.

Against this tumultuous backdrop, the coming of the English Pilgrims and their warm and life-saving reception by Squanto and the Wampanoag Indians radiates hope for peace and provision in the midst of very uncertain times.

It’s also an incredible picture of forgiveness: Squanto was one of those youths stolen from his home and sold as a slave in Europe. He escaped to England and eventually made it home to find that his people had been wiped out by plague. What had been done to him was terribly wrong and deplorable. But in the process, he acquired the English language and faith in Christ.

What was the Pilgrim’s response to this incredible provision of practical help and a mediator with the native people? They set aside time to celebrate a harvest feast, giving thanks to God for His protection and provision–even after nearly half of their company had died in the previous year. Their neighbors, the Indians whom God had used to preserve them, joined them in the feast.

Giving Thanks for a New Nation

Let’s fast-forward 160 years to the first proclamation of a national “day of public thanksgiving and prayer” in 1789. The fledgling United States of America had won their independence from Britain just a few years earlier in 1783, the Constitution had just been peacefully ratified in 1787, and President George Washington, with a nudge from both houses of Congress, saw fit to give thanks.

Washington’s three-paragraph proclamation begins by recognizing “the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor.” He continues to summarize reasons for a day of thanksgiving and prayer before dedicating the remaining two paragraphs to 1) a call to thanksgiving and 2) a call to prayer. I highly recommend you take the time to read Washington’s address in its entirety here.

As you read, you’ll find an aim at uniting as a people around both thanksgiving and prayer. You might be surprised to find no reference to the pilgrims. And you might also be surprised to find that the call to prayer includes a call to plead for forgiveness:

…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…

There’s a lot more food for thought here than “pilgrims” and “family” and “football.”

Before we jump ahead in time, I think it’s important to recognize that the Pilgrims and George Washington alike were not perfect people, nor were they living in perfect times. The early days of our American republic set the stage for the drama that we’re about to discuss–by raising the standard of liberty while simultaneously failing to fully apply its ideals. While their blind spots are tragic (just as our own are today), they gave us the language with which we have continued to pursue liberty and justice for all throughout the following two centuries. To mock at their ideals and their giving of thanks is to cut ourselves off from the very things we ought to bring forward.

With that in mind, let’s look at the third moment of Thanksgiving history for our consideration today: the Civil War.

Thanks and Praise in the Midst of War

While Washington made the first presidential proclamation of thanksgiving, and while pockets of Americans (particularly in New England) celebrated a thanksgiving feast from year to year, President Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation in 1863 was the first in what would become a continuous string of thanksgiving proclamations by US presidents up until our times.

Sarah Josepha Hale, best known for writing “Mary had a Little Lamb,” had been writing to presidents for decades, pleading with them to create a national thanksgiving holiday; and for decades she was ignored. When she sent a letter to President Lincoln, however, she found a listening ear.

Within a week Lincoln issued the Proclamation of Thanksgiving–nine months after issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and one month before delivering his Gettysburg Address–and smack in the middle of a war that would become a five-year scar on the face of American history.

Lincoln’s proclamation (actually written by his Secretary of State, William Seward), contains only one substantial paragraph, weaving back and forth between poetic consideration of blessings from “the ever watchful providence of Almighty God” and the context of “a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity.”

Of the blessings listed he declares: “They are all the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”

Like Washington’s proclamation 74 years earlier, Lincoln’s call to thanksgiving and prayer is not without reference to sin. In fact, after inviting all Americans to unite for this purpose on the last Thursday of November, he continues:

 …I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, 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, tranquillity [sic] and Union.

The Civil War saw more American casualties than all other wars combined up until the Vietnam War about a century later. The need to remember “widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers” was palpable.

And while there is always more than one motivation at play on either side of such a conflict, it is undeniable that the continued enslavement of Africans and black Americans played a central role. It’s not at all a stretch to read this cause into “our national perverseness and disobedience,” and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address makes this soberingly clear.

It would be nice to be able to tie this up with a pretty bow. To demonstrate that changed laws and a presidential proclamation of thanks, prayer, repentance, and a call to unity could indeed make all things right.

But Lincoln was shot. And his expressed desire for repentance and healing left unrealized.

And there’s no reason to believe that had Lincoln lived to serve his second term repentance and healing would have come any more easily. These kinds of changes start in hearts not heads of state.

Bringing it Home

So here we are now. Twenty-twenty has been quite a year. But we aren’t alone in facing “unprecedented times.” These are the things history is made of.

I believe we can better find our place in that story if we remember where we’ve come from, if we remember that what is true and good is worth pursuing in any age, and if we repudiate the cynicism and resentment that work against these ends.

In a holiday season thrown off balance and stripped of some of its usual charm, may we look back to find our bearings and the traditions that are most important.

In the face of a pandemic and its associated isolation, may we remember “widows, orphans, mourners [and] sufferers.”

In a social climate rife with vitriol, may we “fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation.”

In the fierce clamor for control of the political sphere, may we seek the “humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience” that comes from the work of God in the hearts of individuals who look to Providence more than presidents.

What human beings on this continent have needed in 1621 and 1789 and 1863 is the same as what we need today: hearts humble before God and man, hearts that are quick to repent of sin–in all its forms–and do what is necessary to truly love our neighbor. Our Thanksgiving holiday, both in history and today, is an invitation to practice that humility and cultivate that love.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Sources to explore:

https://www.history.com/topics/thanksgiving/history-of-thanksgiving

https://www.mountvernon.org/education/primary-sources-2/article/thanksgiving-proclamation-of-1789/

https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/lincoln-proclaims-official-thanksgiving-holiday

https://www.history.com/news/abraham-lincoln-and-the-mother-of-thanksgiving

http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/thanks.htm

https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/civil-war-casualties

Further reading on this blog:

The Poverty of Pragmatic Gratitude and the Riches of True Thanksgiving

Remember and Rejoice: Thanksgiving Meditations from the Book of Deuteronomy