The Woman Behind Our Nation’s Oldest Tradition

Encouragement for Your Heart and Mind from Pastor David Staff

Sometimes, a great idea gets little attention.

Rather than being recognized, it is ignored.  Rather than being applauded, those in charge are dismissive.  Deserving to be the front page, it can be buried in the classifieds.

Sometimes, a great idea needs a relentless advocate.  This certainly was true when it came to our nation’s oldest tradition—the observance of Thanksgiving Day.

Yes, it’s true that the U.S. President who established an annual Thanksgiving Day, on the last Thursday in November, was Abraham Lincoln.  He did so via a Proclamation, issued on October 3rd, and published in Harper’s Weekly magazine on October 17, 1863.  To be sure, other Presidents previously had the idea.  Early on, President George Washington declared November 26, 1789 as a national day of thanksgiving; President James Madison did something similar in 1815.  But those special days came-and-went, and the idea of a re-occurring day went unsustained, until…

Well, until a woman named Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879) embraced the conviction that such an annual day should be a permanent fixture in the American way of life.  Sarah began her quest 36 years before Lincoln’s Proclamation.  In 1827, she was the editor of Boston’s Ladies’ Magazine, and in that publication, she began writing essays calling for a permanent national holiday of thanksgiving.  Nineteen years later (1846), then editing the Godey’s Lady’s Book, she called for a letter-writing campaign to fan into flames the cause.  Her goal was to deluge Washington’s politicians and the presidents – month after month, year after year -- with letters calling for the establishment of Thanksgiving.
With the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency, southern states (beginning with South Carolina) began seceding, eventually establishing the Confederacy and Jefferson Davis as its President.  As the carnage of the American Civil war multiplied, each president called for days of “fasting and prayer” for the success of their armies (Union vs. Rebel).  Two months after the extraordinary bloodshed at Gettysburg, Sarah Hale personally wrote President Lincoln on September 28, 1863, asking him to use his powers to create the holiday.  Lincoln said, “I will.”  Her passionate, extraordinary letter is often cited as the major impetus behind Lincoln’s decision.

There was a different tone to Lincoln’s October 3rd Proclamation.  Though the nation was under the heavy pale of suffering and death as the war dragged on, Lincoln chose to focus on the blessings bestowed by the hand of the Almighty.

He did not ask for God to favor the north nor the south.  Rather, he simply asked the whole of the American people (“in every part of the United States, and also those at sea, and those sojourning in foreign lands”) to “offer up the ascriptions justly due Him for such singular deliverances and blessings.”

Also, that they “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.”
Ask, Lincoln urged, the Almighty’s hand “to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to enjoy the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.”
Lincoln had become keenly aware of the “every-watchful providence of Almighty God,” and called the American people to their knees.  Sarah Josepha Hale’s idea finally found the front page.

 Great ideas require great leadership to bring about great results.  We can be thankful for a godly woman who, captured by a great idea, refused through almost 4 decades to let it be ignored.  Grateful that a President realized that for our nation to be great again, it needed to have an annual, national holiday of Thanksgiving.  Would that the Almighty would give us another President like Lincoln in these days when a cultural civil war is badly dividing our nation.

May I encourage you to come to worship the Almighty this Sunday for our Thanksgiving Sunday service?  My second encouragement is that you find Lincoln’s proclamation,  print copies off for all your family members, and prayerfully read it out loud together at your Thursday thanksgiving meal.

Great ideas require great leadership for great results.  See you Sunday.
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