Thanksgiving:Not All Turkey and Pilgrims

Give Thanks!

Traditionally, just about every American associates the Thanksgiving holiday with a apocryphal feast between Pilgrims in buckle-strapped hats and the local inhabitants of  the American northeast. I’m talking about those weird curly horn baskets overflowing with grapes and apples and other colorful produce (they’re called cornucopias or horns of plenty). Then, of course, there are the full-on turkey roasts and honey-suckled hams and cranberry sauce  and pumpkin pie and mashed potatoes and gravy–lots of gravy (Did I miss anything?). But, did you know that there is more to the history of the Thanksgiving celebration than the wishfully peaceful coexistence of pilgrims and Native Americans (yay, political correctness) to celebrate a copiously catered meal?

Yes. There is a history to the holiday that is more theologically rich.

A Tour Through History

Throughout American history, there have been many federally proclaimed national days of thanksgiving. During the presidency of George Washington, the United States Congress approved “a public day of  thanksgiving and prayer” on Thursday, November 26, 1789 (see Washington’s proclamation courtesy of The Encyclopedia Smithsonian). Important to note is that such holidays, as was common in early American history, had a distinctly theological vibe and were far from secular. Washington’s address directed gratitude for the formation of the United States toward “that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be” (now that’s some theology!). President John Adams and President Madison also proclaimed days of national thanksgiving during their presidencies [1], though President Jefferson, deist that he was, thought that such nationally encouraged days of prayer clashed with the good ol’ First Amendment phrase “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”[2] That line, however, did not stop President Lincoln from giving the go ahead to institute Thanksgiving as an official holiday in a speech on October 3, 1863 (eerily or purposefully, the same day of the year on which Washington made his proclamation in 1789). [3]

Mr. Lincoln, What a Man

Photographed by Alexander Gardner, Feb. 5, 1865, in Washington, D. C.

That’s right. Despite it’s colonial roots, the real bona-fide, fourth-Thursday-of-November Thanksgiving owes its existence to President Abraham Lincoln. And what a man he was. In the heat of the Civil War several months after the horrors of The Battle of Gettysburg, President Lincoln delivered an address that offered thanks even amidst the atrocities of war. Lincoln’s speech, worthy to note, would not have been possible without the incessant letters of Sarah Josepha Hale, an influential writer (she’s the one behind “Mary Had a Little Lamb”) and the editor of Ladies Magazine and Godey’s Lady’s Book. [4] Hale petitioned Lincoln (and four other U. S. Presidents) to make Thanksgiving a Holiday, and so we get Lincoln’s proclamation. Essentially, Lincoln rattles off a list of all of the successes and bounties with which America has been blessed despite the torrent of death and destruction that constituted the Civil War. Territory has been expanded; the mines “have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore”; “Population has steadily increased”; let freedom ring. All in all, the year has been filled with “the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.” Is this just Lincoln being overly optimistic? I mean, the battlegrounds are riddled with corpses, the grain fields of Gettysburg are still slurping down the blood of America’s soldiers–Georgia’s on fire!–not to mention all of the other horrors that happen in the world everyday: slavery persisting, immigrants living beside alleyways that double as  sewers, women lacking rights. But Lincoln does confront the horrors of the world; his proclamation isn’t sugar-coated. Lincoln speaks of all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife” and beseeches the Almighty 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 and Union.” Despite the Civil War, in all of its brutality, Lincoln feels that goodness does and will abound. But Lincoln cautions us to remember that it isn’t because of ourselves that all this good has come to pass:

“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, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”[5]

Here, Lincoln passes on a message most vital: all of the goodness that we have in our lives, all the blessings that persist in the darkness of suffering, are from a source beyond ourselves, “who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Tim 6:17). There is great suffering in this world, Civil Wars and internal wars, a time  to mourn, but also a time to rejoice. In Lincoln’s eyes, God provides even in the worst of times.

Now that’s something to be thankful for.

Cum Caritate,



[1] Encyclopedia Smithsonian, “Thanksgiving in North America: From Local Harvests to National Holiday”

[2] The Bill of Rights, courtesy of The United States Archives

[3] ibid. [1] above

[4] ibid.

[5] “Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation”, courtesy of Abraham Lincoln Online


2 thoughts on “Thanksgiving:Not All Turkey and Pilgrims

  1. Happy Thanksgiving to the world!

  2. Nice post! Happy Thanksgiving.If you haven’t and are interested, I recommend “Mayflower” by Nathaniel Philbrick for the history of the first Pilgrims and their meetings with the indigenous. It’s a lot more violent yet awe-inspiring then most people know. Cheers


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