Thanksgiving is one of the “high holidays” of American civic life. While proclamations of national days of thanksgiving go back to George Washington, the holiday didn’t become an official feature of the American calendar until, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared that it would fall on “the last Thursday of November” on an annual basis.
But most people don’t realize that for Lincoln, the issuing of the Thanksgiving proclamation represented a spiritual development and catharsis in his own life.
While Thanksgiving has always been imbued with an implicit acknowledgment of the Divine, what made its birth during the Civil War particularly poignant was Lincoln’s emphasis on national repentance. For most of his life, Lincoln’s religious beliefs went from a tacit materialism in his youth, to a robust theism in his adulthood. He was never a member of a church, and because of this, his political opponents frequently tried to paint him as irreligious. Lincoln vigorously denied this, and his speeches throughout his life are replete with biblical allusions and references to God.
As the Civil War progressed, Lincoln became more and more imbued with a sense of divine impulse. At the beginning of the war, he made quite clear that destroying slavery was not his ultimate object—preserving the Union was. But as a war everyone expected to last a few weeks or months dragged on for years, Lincoln grappled ever more deeply with what was ultimately at stake. He grew to realize that it was ultimately about slavery, a sin for which God himself, Lincoln believed, was punishing the youthful nation.
Within this context came Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation in October 1863. In its first paragraph, Lincoln emphasized the importance of thankfulness to God:
“The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.”
Lincoln went on to enumerate various economic blessings the nation had enjoyed, even amid the maelstrom of war. His conclusion was profound:
“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.”
This appears to be the very first time that Lincoln ascribes the Civil War to the nation’s sins, which many would have understood to be a reference to slavery. Few Americans would have wholeheartedly endorsed, let alone appreciated Lincoln’s words at the time. Their family members were dying. They wanted the war over, not to be reminded that it was going on because of national sins. From this foundation, Lincoln proceeded to establish what would become a preeminently American holiday:
“It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. 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. And 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, tranquility, and union.”
It is scarcely conceivable that a modern politician, let alone in the midst of a monumental national crisis, would ever refer to “our national perverseness and disobedience.” And yet that is precisely what Lincoln did. Alongside gratitude and thanksgiving, he called for humility and repentance. For Lincoln, Thanksgiving was always intended as a day of national self-reflection—on both the blessings, and the curses, of life; on both the things we enjoy, as well as those matters which require repentance. One gets the sense that the paradox of a man celebrating while in sackcloth and ashes would have been a decent approximation of what Lincoln was aiming for—a humble gratitude, well aware that what we have is despite ours sins.
For Lincoln, a decisive change had occurred. God was at work, but neither strictly for the Union or the Confederates, he believed. He was at work to destroy slavery, and in the process, exact an atonement from the American nation that had tolerated it. In this sense, God had no “side.” For Lincoln, no attitude so captured this reality as both profound gratitude for the continued survival of the country, as well as deferential humility given what it had yet to endure. It all culminated with his second inaugural address, which remains, to this day, arguably the most profound and insightful theological disquisition of any American president. Far from fully endorsing the Union side, or castigating the South, Lincoln instead tacitly put the blame for slavery on the whole nation, and boldly declared that the God to whom both sides prayed had His own purposes to achieve:
“Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’” [Psalm 19:9]
This remarkable background of the Thanksgiving holiday arouses my reverence and gratitude for those ancestors who fought, bled, and ultimately secured my freedom, and the freedom of so many others. We can take a slavery-less country for granted because of them. In that fight, they were up against an institution that had survived in one form or another for thousands of years, in every nation on earth. But they determined to finally accept the chastisement of the Almighty, and extinguish it. I didn’t pay the cost for that, and neither did you. It was paid for us by ancestors who had to grapple with what remains, to this day, not only America’s most lethal war, but a war that was more lethal than all its other wars combined. We are its beneficiaries. We take many good things for granted precisely because they were secured by those who could not. For that, as for so many other things, I am, on this Thanksgiving, filled with gratitude and humility, just as Lincoln hoped we would be.
I hope that we, like Lincoln, might be led to ponder what may be the sins of our time—the things that we ourselves need to repent of in the midst of our blessings. That was Lincoln’s attitude: penitential gratitude.
May we imitate the savior of our Union this Thanksgiving.
Joshua Charles is a historian, speaker, and #1 New York Times bestselling author of several books. His work has been featured or published by outlets such as Fox News, The Federalist, The Jerusalem Post, The Blaze, and many others. He has published books on topics ranging from the Founding Fathers, to Israel, to the impact of the Bible on human history. He was the Senior Editor and Concept Developer of the Global Impact Bible, published by the DC-based Museum of the Bible in 2017, and is an affiliated scholar of the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center in Philadelphia. Joshua is a Tikvah and Philos Fellow, and has spoken around the country on topics such as history, politics, faith, and worldview. He is a concert pianist, holds an MA in Government, and a law degree. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaTCharles or see JoshuaTCharles.com