The Real Meaning of Thanksgiving Day

Perhaps you’ve read these proclamations by Abraham Lincoln? I had not. Perhaps they mean nothing to you; perhaps they meant nothing to Abraham Lincoln or his Secretary of State, William Seward. But, even if they were just speechifying, these stand as powerful and stark words, even today.

Proclamation 97 — Appointing a Day of National Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer – March 30, 1863

By the President of the United States of America

A Proclamation

Whereas the Senate of the United States, devoutly recognizing the supreme authority and just government of Almighty God in all the affairs of men and of nations, has by a resolution requested the President to designate and set apart a day for national prayer and humiliation; and

Whereas it is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon, and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord;

And, insomuch as we know that by His divine law nations, like individuals, are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world, may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war which now desolates the land may be but a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole people? We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven; we have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity; we have grown in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us.

It behooves us, then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.

Now, therefore, in compliance with the request, and fully concurring in the views of the Senate, I do by this my proclamation designate and set apart Thursday, the 30th day of April, 1863, as a day of national humiliation, fasting, and prayer. And I do hereby request all the people to abstain on that day from their ordinary secular pursuits, and to unite at their several places of public worship and their respective homes in keeping the day holy to the Lord and devoted to the humble discharge of the religious duties proper to that solemn occasion.

All this being done in sincerity and truth, let us then rest humbly in the hope authorized by the divine teachings that the united cry of the nation will be heard on high and answered with blessings no less than the pardon of our national sins and the restoration of our now divided and suffering country to its former happy condition of unity and peace. In witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the city of Washington, this 30th day of March, A. D. 1863, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty-seventh.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN.

By the President:

WILLIAM H. SEWARD, Secretary of State.

Citation: Abraham Lincoln: “Proclamation 97 – Appointing a Day of National Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer,” March 30, 1863. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.

The second proclamation sets forth a specific day for thanksgiving.

Proclamation 106 — Thanksgiving Day, 1863 – October 3, 1863

By the President of the United States of America

A Proclamation

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 can not fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict, while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

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.

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, tranquillity, and union.

In testimony whereof I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the city of Washington, this 3d day of October, A. D. 1863, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN.

By the President:

WILLIAM H. SEWARD, Secretary of State.

Citation: Abraham Lincoln: “Proclamation 106 – Thanksgiving Day, 1863,” October 3, 1863. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.

The third proclamation establishes the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day.

Proclamation 118 — Thanksgiving Day, 1864 – October 20, 1864

By the President of the United States of America

A Proclamation

It has pleased Almighty God to prolong our national life another year, defending us with His guardian care against unfriendly designs from abroad and vouchsafing to us in His mercy many and signal victories over the enemy, who is of our own household. It has also pleased our Heavenly Father to favor as well our citizens in their homes as our soldiers in their camps and our sailors on the rivers and seas with unusual health. He has largely augmented our free population by emancipation and by immigration, while He has opened to us new sources of wealth and has crowned the labor of our workingmen in every department of industry with abundant rewards. Moreover, He has been pleased to animate and inspire our minds and hearts with fortitude, courage, and resolution sufficient for the great trial of civil war into which we have been brought by our adherence as a nation to the cause of freedom and humanity, and to afford to us reasonable hopes of an ultimate and happy deliverance from all our dangers and afflictions:

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 testimony whereof I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the city of Washington, this 20th day of October, A.D. 1864, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty-ninth.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN.

By the President:

WILLIAM H. SEWARD, Secretary of State .

Citation: Abraham Lincoln: “Proclamation 118 – Thanksgiving Day, 1864,” October 20, 1864. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.

These proclamations, in their totality, are what the day should mean for the citizens of the United States of America.

Freedom From Want - Rockwell

FREEDOM FROM WANT — Office for Emergency Management. Office of War Information. Domestic Operations Branch. Bureau of Special Services. (03/09/1943 – 09/15/1945), in the Public Domain

Your Fiery Trial

No doubt you’ve suffered “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Perhaps you’ve been insulted, falsely accused, or unjustly condemned when you’ve tried to do good for others? All alive will at some time suffer one or more of these adversities. However, only those saved by God’s grace can grow as a result of them. The Apostle Peter says in his first letter:

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. 1 Peter 4:12-13 English Standard Version (ESV)

Although Peter elsewhere counsels that Paul’s writings are sometimes hard to understand, I find this passage of his difficult as well. Let’s see what John Calvin has to say:

Beloved, think it not strange, or, wonder not. There is a frequent mention made in this Epistle of afflictions; the cause of which we have elsewhere explained. But this difference is to be observed, that when he exhorts the faithful to patience, he sometimes speaks generally of troubles common to man’s life; but here he speaks of wrongs done to the faithful for the name of Christ.

And first, indeed, he reminded them that they ought not to have deemed it strange as for a thing sudden and unexpected; by which he intimates, that they ought by a long mediation to have been previously prepared to bear the cross. For whosoever has resolved to fight under Christ’s banner, will not be dismayed when persecution happens, but, as one accustomed to it, will patiently bear it. [In order] that we may then be in a prepared state of mind when the waves of persecutions roll over us, we ought in due time to habituate ourselves to such an event by meditating continually on the cross.

Moreover, he proves that the cross is useful to us by two arguments, — that God thus tries our faith, — and that we become thus partakers with Christ. Then, in the first place, let us remember that the trial of our faith is most necessary, and that we ought thus willingly to obey God who provides for our salvation. However, the chief consolation is to be derived from a fellowship with Christ.

Hence Peter not only forbids us to think it strange, when he sets this before us, but also bids us to rejoice. It is, indeed, a cause of joy, when God tries our faith by persecution; but the other joy far surpasses it, that is, when the Son of God allots to us the same course of life with himself, that he might lead us with himself to a blessed participation of heavenly glory.

For we must bear in mind this truth, that we have the dying of Christ in our flesh, that his life may be manifested in us. The wicked also do indeed bear many afflictions; but as they are separated from Christ, they apprehend nothing but God’s wrath and curse: thus it comes that sorrow and dread overwhelm them.

Hence, then, is the whole consolation of the godly, that they are associates with Christ, that hereafter they may be partakers of his glory; for we are always to bear in mind this transition from the cross to the resurrection. But as this world is like a labyrinth, in which no end of evils appears, Peter refers to the future revelation of Christ’s glory, as though he had said, that the day of its revelation is not to be overlooked, but ought to be expected.

But he mentions a twofold joy, one which we now enjoy in hope, and the other the full fruition of which the coming of Christ shall bring to us; for the first is mingled with grief and sorrow, the second is connected with exultation. For it is not suitable in the midst of afflictions to think of joy, which can free us from all trouble; but the consolations of God moderate evils, so that we can rejoice at the same time.

One might object that suffering for righteousness sake in the hope of future joy is nothing more than “pie in the sky when we die.” But it is so much more. This kind of suffering shows we are His possession, and if we are His, this world has no hold on us. This momentary light affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.

Steel Mill Run-off

Run-off from a Steel Mill Open Hearth Furnace, Republic Steel Corp., Youngstown, Ohio, November 1941, A work of the U.S. federal government, in the public domain