Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving

Four months after the devastating Battle of Gettysburg during America’s Civil War, Abraham Lincoln strolled through the battle ground. Before that point in time, he was not a Christian. In fact as a younger man he had written and given speeches attempting to dismantle basic Christian ideas. But on that particular day, on that particular battlefield where over 50,000 American lives had been taken, Lincoln gave his life to Christ. He would later say,

When I left Springfield [to become President] I asked the people to pray for me. I was not a Christian when I buried my son, the severest trial of my life, I was not a Christian. But when I went to Gettysburg and saw the graves of thousands of our soldiers, I then and there consecrated myself to Christ

Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln’s time in the office after this moment would be marked by a devout godliness. He began each day before the sunrise with a lengthy time of Bible Study and prayer and would often begin meetings and important conversations in prayer as well. He began to search the Scriptures for guidance on leading the nation through the war. His entire perspective of who he was, of what role he played, and of what God was doing through all the pain and challenges had changed. It was there in that moment that Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday.

In establishing Thanksgiving as a national holiday, Lincoln was behaving singularly Christianly. His entire motivation was to thank the God of the Bible for the blessings their country had experienced despite a Civil War and ongoing national sin. In the Proclamation Lincoln wrote, “The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful years 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… 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.

What a remarkable perspective, and one that we would do well to reflect upon. Lincoln desired the nation to count their blessings; to take inventory of the thousand little ways that the sovereign God of the Scriptures had provided for them even in the midst of such a deadly and awful event as the Civil War. He wisely states, “To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the Source from which they come.” We, like those in Lincoln’s day, are prone to forget the source of our blessings. Every day, the fingerprints of God’s provision are put on display around us like. They shine like blinding constellations everywhere we walk. Yet, in our busyness and often in our godlessness, we fail to see them for what they are. God’s bountiful provision tends to become background noise in an otherwise self-centered and self-driven existence. Oh how sin pervades!

Lincoln continues in his Thanksgiving Day Proclamation with these memorable words, “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, tranquility, and union.

Here we arrive at the heart of Thanksgiving. To give Thanksgiving to God is simply to recognize God’s merciful and benevolent hand in your life, even in the midst of ongoing trials. Lincoln wisely notes above that the Civil War and all of its tragedy is God, “dealing with us in anger for our sins…” There is a confessional nature to his words as he reflected on the ongoing national sins of slavery. Yet that confession immediately transitions into Thanksgiving by remembering that despite his just wrath for America’s national sins God, “…hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

In today’s secular landscape, many will blindly proceed with Thanksgiving without giving so much as a nod to God. But Christian—may this not be your story. In a sense, every day of a Christian’s life is a day that ought to be filled with Thanksgiving. A truly thankful heart is a mark of a Christian. We offer thanksgiving prayers early in the morning as we begin our day, and throughout our moments the Spirit leads us to an awareness of God’s provision. And yet, a national holiday forces a special kind of thanks that Christians can and ought to recognize. In line with Lincoln’s original intent, this day provides opportunity for Christians around pray fervently, both prayers of confession and thanksgiving. We offer “humble penitent prayers for our national perverseness and disobedience,” pausing and permitting the Holy Spirit to awaken us to the depravity of a nation that has so perversely strayed from God’s commands. We can, “commend to his care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers…” Notice the compassion here. Christian—may our prayers be filled with compassion for the vulnerable, for the lost, for the hurting. And ultimately we can, “fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it…

To the Church in America, this is your nation’s history. Thanksgiving has its roots much deeper than Abraham Lincoln. In this country we trace it back to our Pilgrim fore-bearers who were mercifully provided for by a local Native Americans tribe. Yet Thanksgiving goes further back still. Thanksgiving is intricately woven into the fabric of God’s people. Throughout the entire Bible, Old and New Testaments, we find the people of God pausing from their regular rhythms to offer thanks, not simply out of a begrudging sense of duty, but from a joy abounding sense of God’s faithfulness. May it be so with us as well.

It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High;

Psalm 92:1
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