November 17, 2011
Before Abraham Lincoln was president, only two national holidays were celebrated in the United States. They were Washington's Birthday and Independence Day. Then along came Sarah Josepha Hale.
Hale was a successful and popular editor with much influence in the early 19
At a time when periodicals in the United States depended heavily upon what was printed in England, Hale made it a priority to publish articles written by Americans. She championed education for women and was instrumental in founding Vassar College. Perhaps some remember her as the author of the famous nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Few, however, would know that she is the woman who stood behind making Thanksgiving Day into a national holiday.
Thanksgiving Day unites Americans, whatever their race or religion. It is a holiday that rises above the differences that divide us, because it raises our voices in thanks to God who is above us. Although a secular holiday, Thanksgiving Day springs from a basic faith woven into the very fabric of our civil society from its beginning.
In 1789, George Washington set aside the first Thursday in November as a day of thanksgiving. He recognized the “duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor…” However, Washington did not mandate that a specific day be set aside and celebrated every year as Thanksgiving Day.
Sarah Josepha Hale realized that we best discharge the debt of gratitude for all the blessings of our land not simply as private citizens, but as a nation. Thus, in 1846, she began a seventeen year campaign for a national day of gratitude. Her efforts to convince four presidents failed. Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan paid her no heed. But Lincoln did.
During the Civil War, President Lincoln read a series of editorials that Hale had written. With keen vision, he recognized that, even in the midst of the bloodiest war that drenched our soil and drained our resources, we had much for which to be grateful as a nation. He noted that the “diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense [had] not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship… notwithstanding the waste…in the camp, the siege and the battle-field…”
Thus, October 3, 1863, Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day. A year later, he established it to be celebrated every year on the final Thursday in November. He knew that the plenty of our land and our freedom as a nation “are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, remembers mercy.” Lincoln’s words attest to the deep faith ingrained in the heart of America.
This Thanksgiving Day, in cities and towns, on farms and in foreign lands, Americans once again as a people acknowledge the blessings that God continues to bestow upon this great nation. Some gather with laughter and joy; others, with sorrow and pain. Many gather in warmth and comfort around tables laden with food and drink. Others, homeless and hungry, crowd shelters or stand in lines at soup kitchens.
As we Americans, rich and poor alike, bow our heads in prayer, we give witness to the faith in God that continues to live in the soul of our nation. And as long as we never lose that faith or never live as if we had no faith, as long as we acknowledge our reliance on God and his just governance of creation in our laws as a nation and in our lives as citizens, we will always be thankful not just one day, but every day.