On Oct. 3, 1863, Abraham Lincoln invited the people "in every part of the United States" to observe "the last Thursday of November next as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father." To this day the president issues a yearly proclamation that sets aside a day in November as a holiday for "all Americans . . . to give thanks for the freedoms and many blessing we enjoy" (President Bush, 2005).
I discovered Lincoln's 1863 proclamation online and, unlike so much in cyberspace, it has stuck with me. For one thing, it was written in the third year of the Civil War, a difficult time for anyone-especially a leader-to give thanks. Nevertheless, Lincoln encouraged people to look beyond the hostilities in order to discern "the ever watchful providence of Almighty God." And Lincoln himself led the way. In the proclamation, he gives thanks for clement weather and a rich harvest, for protection against international aggression during a time of internecine strife, and for an increased abundance of crop and industry that offset the expense of battle.
Lincoln's proclamation stirs me because of its biblical cadences. At times it reads like a psalm of reverent trust. When it affirms that "no mortal hand hath worked out these great things," I can't help but remember Psalm 115:1, "not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to Your name give glory." At another point Lincoln's proclamation laments that "we are ever prone to forget the source of such bounty," recalling Moses' plea in Deuteronomy not to "forget the Lord your God who brought you out of the house of slavery." And it jubilantly echoes the Lord Jesus Himself by calling out praise to our "Father who dwelleth in the heavens."
Of them all, however, there is one line that has unforgettably fixed itself in my soul. It sounds like something from the prophet Joel, a revision of his famous "Rend your heart and not your garments." Specifically, Lincoln asked that Americans include in their thanksgivings "humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience." His request can't help but trigger interrogation. Is "perverseness" to be limited to slavery and its evils? If so, why did Lincoln solicit repentance from the citizens of the Union? After all, he had already issued the Emancipation Proclamation earlier that year. Was he instead (and more likely) entreating the citizens of the Confederacy as if they were still part of the Union? Simultaneously, was he acknowledging the Union's complicity in its own forms of "disobedience"?
I'll let historians settle these questions. It is not here that my disquiet lies. Rather, it is found in the alliance Lincoln establishes between repentance and thanksgiving. He doesn't explain or argue for the alliance; instead, he almost "asides" it, as if it were a stock understanding among the people of the time.
That certainly was the case. From the days of the Pilgrims on through the colonies and into the first 80 years of the nation, days of thanksgiving were regularly added to local and state calendars. We have records of such days; we also have records of sermons preached on them. And such sermons did not serve up a mash of sentimentality. They went down hard, often leading to thanksgiving by way of repentance. For instance, the Reverend Charles Krauth of Pittsburg preached a thanksgiving day sermon in 1857 in which he summoned his people to mourn for sin before giving thanks. At the start of the sermon, he commended those who had "not inappropriately prepared themselves for the thanksgiving of this day by consecrating a day to fasting and humiliation."
"A day to fasting and humiliation" as prelude to a day of thanksgiving! The church in America needs such wisdom, not just because we live in Promethean times. As much as ever, we humans are "by nature inclined to attribute everything to our flesh" (John Calvin). Within and without, we are coddled and deceived to whisper and shout, "These things are the works of our hands!"
But they are not. Instead, they are works of Almighty God. And as in the past, so today, thanksgiving best takes shape when it is offered before Him with humble confession and repentance.