Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation

Although we usually think of the Pilgrims when it comes to Thanksgiving, the actual holiday as we know it was given to us by Abraham Lincoln in the midst of the dark days of the Civil War. Lincoln proclaimed a day of thanksgiving for the fourth Thursday in November in a proclamation of October 3, 1863, only a couple weeks after a Confederate army commanded by General Braxton Bragg had routed a large Union army at the Battle of Chickamauga, in Georgia. Bragg’s army was now moving against the crucial railroad hub of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Union armies were bogged down facing the wily Robert E. Lee in Virginia as well, and the direction the war would take in the future was by no means sure.

Lincoln’s proclamation, actually written by Secretary of State William Seward, outlined the various aspects of prosperity and order the (northern) United States continued to enjoy even in a time of war. It then declared,

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 voice by the whole American people…

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.

Abraham Lincoln was by no means an orthodox Christian, as Mark Noll demonstrates in a fascinating piece on Lincoln’s faith and religious practices in Christianity Today, but the proclamation reflects a fairly substantive public theology at work. We still hear that public theology from our presidents today, but I don’t recall contemporary presidents speaking of our sins in this way, let alone of divine judgment. As I believe Noll has written elsewhere, Abraham Lincoln does not seem to have been a believing Christian, but the theology of his public statements often maintained a far more theologically accurate view of the war than did that of the most prominent pastors and theologians of the day. Interesting stuff.

Anyway, I wish you all a happy Thanksgiving.

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on November 22, 2012, in Holidays and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation.

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