November 24, 2005
Most of us probably are not familiar with her name. But we are familiar with her work. Hardly an American does not know by heart the best known nursery rhyme in the English language: "
Mary Had a Little Lamb." The author’s name, Sarah Hale.
In 1822, Sarah Josepha Hale had been widowed at 34 and left with five small children. Although she became a seamstress to support her family, she became famous as an editor. History remembers her as the first editor of the first woman's magazine in America
, The Ladies Magazine. After her first novel was a success, her career was off and running. By the time she died at 91, she had written fifty volumes. Some even crown her the most successful midlife woman in American history. But there is something else that makes this strong woman unforgettable.
At the time of the Civil War, with North and South locked in deadly conflict and brother set against brother, Hale began a campaign to bring a spiritual dimension to the times. She called for a national day of Thanksgiving. She wrote, "There is a deep moral influence in these periodical seasons of rejoicing, in which whole communities participate. They bring out . . . the best sympathies in our natures." Again and again Hale championed the cause in her
The Ladies' Magazine and in
Godey's Lady's Book. She wrote thousands of letters to both state and national officials. Her fierce determination won the day. By 1852, 29 states had set aside the last Thursday of November as "Thanksgiving Day."
On September 28, 1863, Sarah Josepha Hale wrote a letter to President Lincoln. She pleaded for a national Thanksgiving Day. George Washington had proclaimed the first National Day of Thanksgiving in 1789. Shortly after Hale’ letter, on October 3, 1863, President Lincoln revived the tradition. Looking for ways to unite the nation, he invited all Americans “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.”
Our Thanksgiving celebration truly is a day that unites Americans of every creed, race, and country of origin. As we gather around the table laden with food and surrounded by family and friends, we are mindful of the great providence of God who so richly blesses us even in times of suffering and trial. We join together in public and private prayer to "give thanks to the Lord, for He is good. His love endures forever" (1 Chronicles 16:34).
Thanksgiving had been long in the blood of this country. When the Pilgrims set ground at Plymouth Rock on December 11, 1620, they faced a cruel winter. Seven weeks at sea and hard work took its toll. Consumption and pneumonia struck. One died, then another. By fall, 46 of the original 102 who sailed on the
Mayflower had died. But the harvest of 1621 was a bountiful one. And the remaining colonists decided to celebrate with a feast.
There was no nation. There was no America. Yet those who seeded this great country planted gratitude on our soil. The Pilgrims shared their celebration with 91 Wampanoag Indians who had helped them survive their first year and set the example of openness to the outsider.
This Thanksgiving holiday, our tables are full. Many go hungry. Our houses are warm. The homeless, cold. Our families gather together while some are separated by war. No day is without its sorrow; no time without its trial.
This past year we have experienced catastrophes and devastation at home and around the world. Tsunami. Earthquakes. Hurricanes. Terrorist attacks. We wonder how sincere can our thanks truly be. And then we remember.
The Pilgrims’ thanksgiving did not center on comfort and security. It did not celebrate their success in building and providing for themselves. Rather, it turned their hearts to God who had provided for them. Their gathering was itself a prayer for hope. With the help of God, life continues and can become better. And this is the hope that still rises in each prayer we say this Thanksgiving holiday.