Lessons from Lincoln’s Wartime Call to Thanksgiving

The 2020 election was hyped as the most pivotal of this generation—perhaps the most important one ever. Given the history of U.S. presidential elections, however, these perennial claims often don’t live up to the hype.

Two elections that do live up to the “most divisive in U.S. history” claim were the elections of 1860 and 1864. “The election of 1860 had fractured the nation into warring camps,” historian David Oshinsky writes, “while the election of 1864 had occurred during the darkest moments in our national history.”

Even if it’s not quite 1864, our current political climate seems broken beyond repair. How did Abraham Lincoln, victor of the 1860 and 1864 elections and president during the Civil War, seek to heal a fractured and disillusioned nation?

He called Americans to the table. The Thanksgiving table. 

Proclamation of Thanksgiving

Though the Plymouth pilgrims originated an American Thanksgiving tradition in 1621, it was Lincoln who first designated a national holiday to give thanks. He did so on October 3, 1863, with his “Proclamation of Thanksgiving” while the nation was in ravages of war. 

“I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States,” he declared, “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.” 

How did Abraham Lincoln seek to heal a fractured and disillusioned nation? He called Americans to the table. The Thanksgiving table.

He also called Americans to pray, repent, and seek God at the Thanksgiving meal:

And I recommend to them [Americans] 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 . . . 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 envisioned unity being built at a meal in which gratitude was the focal point. Perhaps he took his cue from America’s first president, George Washington. On October 3, 1789, while America was bitterly divided over the newly ratified Constitution, Washington recommended celebrating Thanksgiving by rendering unto Him [God] our sincere and humble thanks.” Washington and Lincoln, both seasoned wartime presidents, knew that unity would come not by focusing on the battle fronts, but by focusing on God—his undeserved mercies and blessings which unite people around common grace. 

Helping Heal Wounds

Like Washington, Lincoln hoped the unifying effects of a Thanksgiving meal could help heal wounds in a deeply divided nation. While America today is clearly not healed of all wounds—whether distant and recent—the Thanksgiving meal has been a source of healing for many in the last 150 years. Taking a day to gather over turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie to remember and give thanks for undeserved blessings has caused hearts to soften, arguments to cease (at least temporarily), and sometimes even perspectives to change. 

Lincoln envisioned unity being built at a meal in which gratitude was the focal point.

One of the reasons why meals and gatherings around shared tables are often sites of peace, healing, and reconciliation is that they have a leveling effect. Whatever our differences, we can all enjoy a delicious meal. We all have to eat. And we all can be grateful for the bounty of food before us—which is by no means a given for many in the world. In a world of cynicism, exhaustion, and forgetfulness, feasts unify us around joy, rest, and remembrance.

Together Around the (Communion) Table

Ultimately, Thanksgiving should point us to the greater healing and truly unifying meal of communion. At the communion table, we celebrate that Jesus won the war against the source of all disunity—sin and Satan (Eph. 2:16; Rom. 8:38–39; Col. 2:14–15). At the communion table, we remember that our healing and wholeness comes from remembering Jesus’s broken body on the cross. At the communion table, we remember our greatest reason for gratitude—that Jesus died for our sins so we could be united with him and each other.

In a world of cynicism, exhaustion, and forgetfulness, feasts unify us around joy, rest, and remembrance.

No meal in and of itself holds reconciliation power. And it’s not the mere act of giving thanks that heals our wounds. It’s all about whom we give thanks to, the One in whose name we pray before passing the stuffing.

Lincoln knew, and so should we, that in moments of profound division, we must look to a “beneficent Father” and the giver of all good things. Only he has the power to mend the wounds of fractured families, warring nations, and divided worlds. 

Lessons from Lincoln’s Wartime Call to Thanksgiving

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