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Thoughts on Abraham Lincoln and the First Thanksgiving

Lincoln Memorial

For me this year, I think I’ll skip the discussions of pilgrims and native Americans dining at Plymouth. I’m more caught up in the shift from Thanksgiving as a bunch of local harvest festivals to Thanksgiving as a national holiday.

1863 was a bloody year, as the civil war raged from one end of the country to the other. Chancellorsville saw some 24,000 soldiers die — 1 in 6 of those fighting there. At Gettysburg, there were over 51,000 casualties — more than 1 in 4 for the north, more than 1 in 3 for the south. Across the country, at Vicksburg, Grant’s monthlong siege of that critical city on the Mississippi river epitomized war’s toll not only on those who fight it, but also on the civilians in whose name and on whose doorsteps the battles are fought.

It was a very bloody year indeed.

And yet, even in the midst of bloodshed and division, Lincoln continued to see signs of hope.  On October 3, he issued a proclamation [archaic spelling from the original, and emphasis added here]:

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled 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 has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, 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 consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, 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. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, 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.

“It seemed to me fit and proper” that these gifts poured out on all should be acknowledged by all . . . That works for me.

As I look around today at the neighborhoods where I live, work, and shop, I see not military carnage but economic carnage. Empty shops, except for the discount stores and consignment shops that are packed. Fewer restaurants, as dining out is more of a luxury than it used to be. Empty desks in the offices, as downsizing takes its toll. Even the question “How are the kids?” is painful.

One family in my son’s class was looking for a new home, and their realtor took them to a home offered as a short sale. “The bank is about to foreclose, unless the homeowners can sell it first,” the realtor told them. When the family arrived at the house, the sellers were still there, setting up for a garage sale, and out of the garage came another kid — another student in my son’s class.

That’s when economic carnage hits home — when one third grader realizes his/her classmate is being forced to move.

And yet, even in the midst of such national carnage — with no end in sight for most folks according to the Fed — there is still hope and reason for giving thanks.

In Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamation, he spoke of things which transcended north vs south, winners vs losers, and in this I hear the beginnings of what later emerged in his 2nd Inaugural Address:

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. . .

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

I give thanks this day for those who help me to see beyond myself, to bind up whatever wounds are there, and to do all which may achieve and cherish a just world.

On this day when food plays such a central role, I give thanks for those who cook — who bring a part of themselves and their culture into the kitchen, and emerge to fill a table for friends, neighbors, and even strangers. “Here is a bit of my world, my culture, my self,” says the chef, “and I offer it to you.” More particularly, I give thanks for those who taught (and continue to teach) me to cook, including folks like Larue here at FDL.

I also give thanks for those who encourage me to grow in my beliefs and ways of thinking, particularly today for the Gorilla’s Guides team that is putting together their “Introduction to Islam” series at MyFDL. Salaam alaikum, my brothers and sisters.

Indeed, on this day of thanksgiving in the midst of such turmoil all around us, peace be upon us all, as we see and celebrate those things which bind us together in our shared humanity.

(photo h/t: me, taken the last time I was in DC.)

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I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

And Preview is my friend.