ValueSpeak
A Weekly Column
By Joseph Walker

GIVING THANKS TO GOD

1863 wasn’t an easy year during which to be thankful.

America was at war with America. Soldiers were dying by the thousands at places like Chancellorsville, Jackson, Vicksburg, Winchester and Gettysburg (more than 50,000 soldiers died at Gettysburg alone). Citizens opposed to the war and to military conscription rioted in the streets of New York City, with unprecedented violence that lasted for three days. The first successful submarine, the Hunley, sunk during a test, killing all on board.

Sure, there were good things that happened in 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation was signed. The Homestead Act made fertile farmland available to many who would never have been able to obtain land otherwise. Construction started on the first Transcontinental Railroad. Henry Ford, who would change the world with his inventions and industrial vision, was born.

But for the most part it was a long, slow, painful year, filled with violence, suffering and war. So of course President Abraham Lincoln thought it was the perfect time to proclaim a National Day of Thanksgiving.

"In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity," President Lincoln wrote, "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 theatre of military conflict . . . Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines . . . 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," President Lincoln continued. "They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy."

Therefore President Lincoln decided it was "fit and proper" that these blessings "should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people" and he invited "citizens in every part of the United States . . . to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November . . . as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens."

But more than just offering prayers of Thanksgiving to God, President Lincoln urged Americans to also "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."

President Lincoln’s intent was clear. Thanksgiving was to be a national day of prayer, giving thanks to God for His blessings, petitioning Him on behalf of those who mourn and suffer, and pleading with Him for peace.

Today we tend to think of Thanksgiving as a harvest festival, a gorge-fest filled with family, food and football – not necessarily in that order. And while those things are wonderful to anticipate and enjoy, I can’t help but think that we are missing something important if we forget that Thanksgiving is, first and foremost, about prayer and giving thanks to God.

Especially in a year during which it isn’t always easy to be thankful.

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— © Joseph Walker

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