Though we most often associate Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims, it didn’t become a national celebration until 1863, when, in the middle of a war, President Abraham Lincoln called for a national day of Thanksgiving to be held on the last Thursday of November.
That year had been a bloody one: Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Chickamauga—the three bloodiest battles of the war—were fought in that year, with combined casualties of 115,000.
And yet in the midst of war, Lincoln could thank God.
The year that is drawing towards 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.
He noted that despite being “in the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity,” no foreign nation took advantage of our weakness. In the cities outside of the war zone, “order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed.”
Despite having to divert energy and resources for the war effort, this had “not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship.” The nation continued to expand, mines yielded their treasures, harvests were plentiful, population increased.
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.
Because of this, he continued,
It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and 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.
Lincoln saw that even in the best of times we get caught up in life and forget to thank God. In time of suffering, we think so much of our loss that we sometimes seek to blame God instead of thanking him. But it is especially at such times that we need to come together in humility. Especially at such times, we need to remember that we are in his hands.
Notice there is no blame in Lincoln’s decree. He didn’t blame the South. He didn’t accuse the South of rebellion. He spoke of the war as a judgment of God for our sins, for “our national perverseness and disobedience.” It wasn’t something to celebrate. It wasn’t something to revel in. But that judgment was tempered with mercy, and God still proved himself to be good.