As Americans have celebrated Thanksgiving in recent years, they have increasingly been subjected to unsettling questions about the holiday’s origins and purpose (not to mention adverse consequences such as global warming due to all that travel). They’ve been told that it’s time to “re-imagine” Thanksgiving, or perhaps get rid of it entirely.
These calls come in large part from the prevailing idea that the Thanksgiving holiday came about as a way to commemorate the so-called first Thanksgiving in 1621 at Plymouth in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, when the pilgrims who had arrived on the Mayflower the year before – the half of them who were still alive, that is – held a shared feast with the native American Wampanoag people. Since the relationship between native Americans and white European colonists would later become less friendly and more complex and eventually result in tragic consequences, especially for the native Americans, it is now suggested that we need to “re-brand” Thanksgiving, if not cancel it altogether. [E.g., it is pointed out that on some later occasions the colonists gave thanks for victory in battle over native foes; but are we really to suppose that native American tribes were different from all other cultures in the history of the world and did not give thanks for their own victories?]
But what if that idea of the origin of the Thanksgiving holiday is itself a huge misconception? What if the people primarily responsible for the creation of the American Thanksgiving tradition – most notably Sarah Josepha Hale and Abraham Lincoln in the 19th century – weren’t thinking of pilgrims and Indians but rather of something entirely different?
Lincoln you’ve no doubt heard of, although perhaps you don’t know that he declared Thursday, November 26, 1863 (159 years ago today) to be “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens”, the first in an uninterrupted run of Thanksgiving proclamations from our Presidents down to our present day. [For the record, George Washington also issued a Thanksgiving proclamation in 1789 for that same date of November 26!]
Sarah Hale you might not know of, but she was a very influential woman of Lincoln’s time, among other things the editor – or “editress” as she preferred – of Godey’s Lady’s Book. She advocated for many years for the establishment of a national Thanksgiving observance. Lincoln was the fifth President she petitioned on this subject, but the first to respond favorably.
The vital question, then, is what motivated Sarah Hale and Abraham Lincoln and others of their time to establish this tradition of an annual, national, Thanksgiving holiday. Was it to commemorate that “first Thanksgiving” back in 1621? Should we blindly accept bold claims such as this one which appeared in the December 2-9, 2019 edition of Time magazine in an article entitled “The Way American Kids Are Learning About the ‘First Thanksgiving’ Is Changing”? [https://time.com/5725168/thanksgiving-history-lesson/]:
“Crucially, Hale’s campaign for the Thanksgiving holiday was explicitly linked to the story of Plymouth.”
Or how about this one which appeared in The Boston Globe on November 18, 2007?:
“During the bloody Civil War, Abraham Lincoln blended the sentimental myth of Pilgrims and Indians sharing a harvest feast with the public need for a celebration of national unity.”
Really? I have read all of Sarah Hale’s editorials on the subject of Thanksgiving which I can find, as well as her description of the holiday in her novel Northwood. I have read all of the proclamations by our early Presidents for days of Thanksgiving (Washington in 1789 and 1795, Adams in 1798 and 1799, and Madison in 1815). I have read Sarah Hale’s letter to Lincoln. And I have read Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamations in 1863 and 1864 (as well as two others related to specific military victories). In not a single instance have I found a reference to the “first Thanksgiving” in 1621. Perhaps that is why the authors of the aforementioned claims do not provide sources for them?
But if Hale, Lincoln, and their compatriots weren’t commemorating that long-ago event, what was the purpose of Thanksgiving? Quite simply, it was to give thanks to God for the blessings he had bestowed on them in their own times, blessings which they themselves had actually experienced.
Sarah Hale did explicitly link the idea of the American Thanksgiving to something: not to Plymouth in 1621, but rather to two of the Jewish pilgrimage festivals, the Feast of Weeks (also known as the Feast of Harvest or the Feast of Pentecost) and the Feast of Ingathering (also known as the Feast of Tabernacles or the Feast of Booths), both of which give thanks for God’s (current!) provision. She also made the case that having a Day of Thanksgiving on the same day in all of the states and territories would serve to bring greater unity to the nation.
Likewise, when she discussed the origin of the custom of Thanksgiving observances in New England in her novel Northwood, the focus was on the “here and now”, and although she mentions the pilgrims, she doesn’t mention the Indians. She refers to a time when the pilgrims residing in the new settlement of Boston had nearly run out of food and their leaders called for a fast, but then “a vessel from London arrived laden with provisions, and so the fast was changed into a Thanksgiving”. But then she goes out of her way to explain that the modern (in her time) custom is:
“Not with any purpose of celebrating that event. It is considered as an appropriate tribute of gratitude to God to set apart one day of Thanksgiving in each year; and autumn is the time when the overflowing garners of America call for this expression of joyful gratitude.” [emphasis added]
We see again that the focus was not on some long-ago event – whether a shared meal between pilgrims and Indians or the providential arrival of a ship laden with provisions – but rather on the more recent blessings actually experienced by the people.
And this is precisely the focus of President Lincoln’s 1863 Thanksgiving proclamation, too, which begins with the words: “The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.” [emphasis added]
He continues by enumerating various “extraordinary” bounties:
“In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, 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; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. 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 had 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 battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.”
There’s absolutely nothing about 1621 in there; instead, it’s all about their own time. Lincoln continues by noting that these blessings were not the result of human effort, but “are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”
He concludes by calling on all Americans, both at home and abroad, to acknowledge these blessings and “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”, while
“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, tranquillity and Union.”
Lincoln’s 1864 Thanksgiving proclamation is more of the same, beginning with the telling line: “It has pleased Almighty God to prolong our national life another year …”, followed by an enumeration of the blessings of the past year and a call on the people to respond by giving thanks to God, humbling themselves before him, and praying “for a return of the inestimable blessings of Peace, Union and Harmony throughout the land”.
[You can read the full text of Lincoln’s two Thanksgiving proclamations here.]
Thus we see that Sarah Hale, Abraham Lincoln and others primarily responsible for the creation of our annual, national observance of Thanksgiving were not motivated by commemorating some distant (and controversial) event, but instead by a desire to give thanks to God for the blessings they themselves had actually experienced in their own times. If the latter is also our desire, then there is no reason to “cancel” Thanksgiving.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t broaden our understanding of history bringing in other perspectives. After all, what appears a “blessing” by one person may not be viewed as such by another. At the same time, those other perspectives should be based on historical facts, not presumptions or imaginings. Only this way will our history help us to discover truth and to unify us as a people, rather than bring about confusion, ignorance, and disunity.
One final note: If Lincoln and the people of his day were able to acknowledge the ample blessings received from God in the midst of the dark days of the Civil War, it follows that we too should be able to find things for which we are thankful despite our own trials and difficulties, whether as a nation, a community, a family, or an individual.
May you have a truly blessed Thanksgiving holiday as you remember God’s many blessings from the past year.
Kevin J. Wood
November 26, 2022