Happy Thanksgiving! Once again we celebrate what is a distinctively American holiday, instituted by our government almost from our nation’s beginning. In 2003 I stumbled upon a collection of all the Presidential Thanksgiving Day proclamations, and was delighted and inspired by what I read. Some of them would serve as fine sermons in many Christian churches. It was then that I decided that every Sunday before Thanksgiving I would preach on the Bible’s consistent call to give thanks to God and our nation’s faithful history as people of thanks.
The first national Thanksgiving Day proclamations were issued by the Continental Congress from 1777 to 1784. In 1789 George Washington, at the direction of Congress. called upon the people of the United States to “unite in rendering unto God our sincere and humble thanks…for His kind care and protection of the People of this Country…and the favorable interpositions of His Providence.” In the early 1800s different state governments authorized days of thanksgiving until 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln called for a national day of thanksgiving and issued his Presidential Thanksgiving Day Proclamation. While previous presidents issued Thanksgiving Day proclamations, it was Lincoln who started a trend that continues uninterrupted to this day.
In 1863 our nation was embroiled in a civil war. In the midst of that terrible war, Abraham Lincoln wrote in his Thanksgiving Day proclamation:
“I do set apart Thursday, the 6th day of August next, to be observed as a day for national thanksgiving, praise, and prayer, and I invite the people of the United States to assemble on that occasion in their customary places of worship and in the forms approved by their own consciences offer the honor due to the Divine Majesty for the wonderful things He has done in the nation’s behalf and invoke the influence of His Holy Spirit to subdue the anger which has produced and so long sustained a needless and cruel civil war…”
In 1969 our nation was embroiled in multiple wars. Vietnam, our struggle to establish civil rights and a battle over cultural norms were pulling apart the fabric of our nation. In his Thanksgiving Day proclamation, Richard Nixon recalled Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 address. Nixon wrote:
“Yet Lincoln knew that the act of thanksgiving should not be limited to time of peace and serenity. He knew that it is precisely at those times of hardship when men most need to recognize that the Source of all good constantly bestows His blessings on mankind. Today, despite our material wealth and well-being, Americans face complex problems unknown before in our nation’s history. In giving thanks today, we express gratitude for past bounty and we also confidently face the challenges confronting our own nation and the world because we know we can rely on a strength greater than ourselves. This year, let us especially seek to rekindle in our respective hearts and minds the spirit of our first settlers who valued freedom above all else, and who found much for which to be thankful when material comforts were meager. We are, indeed, a most fortunate people.”
In 2023, we recognize that, as a nation, we are a most fortunate people. We recognize that we have real struggles, and are fighting battles that our nation and people have never faced before. Yet in the midst of it all we can find comfort that God’s love and care never fail. It is in giving thanks that our hearts and minds are re-tuned and we return to our faithful roots.
As a follower and apprentice of Jesus, this Thanksgiving season I embrace the words the Apostle Paul he wrote to the church in Colossae:
“Let the message about Christ, in all its richness, fill your lives. Teach and counsel each other with all the wisdom he gives. Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God with thankful hearts. And whatever you do or say, do it as a representative of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through him to God the Father.” (Colossians 3:16-18)
May you know the richness of God’s love and peace this Thanksgiving season!
• The Rev. Tim Harrison is senior pastor at Chapel by the Lake. “Living and Growing” is a weekly column written by different authors and submitted by local clergy and spiritual leaders. It appears every Saturday on the Juneau Empire’s Faith page.