“The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.”
So began the proclamation establishing an annual day of national Thanksgiving.
You might think you know the origins of these words, or you might be surprised to find out.
It is true that the first thanksgiving feast on these shores was done by English settlers, the pilgrims. But they did it only once.
George Washington declared a day of Thanksgiving after the nation won its independence. But it was done only once and only in a few places.
Rather, the origins of an annual day of Thanksgiving came in a particularly horrific chapter of our nation’s history, and in a particularly awful month in that chapter.
The date the proclamation was signed –
Oct. 3, 1863 – was a bare three months after the Battle of Gettysburg, and a mere two weeks after another ferocious battle, at Chickamauga, Tennessee.
The idea for an annual observance of thanks came from Sarah Hale, a widow with five children who was penniless.
She caught the attention of the President of the United States who agreed with her.
Sarah Hale, by the way, went on to become an advocate for the education of girls and an famous author. You know her best as the author of “Mary had a little lamb.”
In this, the darkest hours of our national existence, in midst of a terrible civil war that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, the proclamation she inspired implored the nation to count its blessings, and earnestly asked God to bind our wounds.
That our ancestors would pause to give thanks, in spite of everything they had experienced, was extraordinary. They set a selfless, generous for us.
We too live in perilous times.
With fires raging in Ferguson, with horrific violence in Iraq and Syria, with religious conflict in Israel-Palestine, and with the recent horrors that have come to light right here at the University of Virginia, it would be easy to slip into despair or slide into willful ignorance.
We should do neither.
Instead, on this Thanksgiving, I believe it fitting and proper to once again pray for the healing of our nation and world; pray that violence will end everywhere; and pray that we will, with God’s grace, become instruments of healing, reconciliation and justice for all.
Like our ancestors, we must begin by giving thanks for our blessings: the food on our table tonight, the love of family and friends, and the work we are given to do that each of us might make a difference.
And so hear again this proclamation, from the pen of the great man who signed it:
“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…”
“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.
“In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.”