". . . and having done all . . . stand firm." Eph. 6:13


A Big Government Thanksgiving Downgrade

November 22, 2023

Thanksgiving in the United States is always, of course, on the fourth Thursday in November. But it wasn’t always that way. From the pilgrims on, it had bounced around quite a bit, but its federalization as a yearly national holiday came in a peculiar time — in the midst of the Civil War.

Doris Kearns Goodwin explained how it happened in her book, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln:”

“Fred Seward recounted the events of one morning when his father called on Lincoln. ‘They say, Mr. President, that we’re stealing away the rights of the States. So I have come to-day to advise you that there is another State right I think we ought to steal.’ Raising his head from his pile of papers, Lincoln asked, ‘Well, Governor, what do you want to steal now?’ Seward replied, ‘The right to name Thanksgiving Day!’ He explained that at present, Thanksgiving was celebrated on different days at the discretion of each state’s governor. Why not make it a national holiday? Lincoln immediately responded that he supposed a president ‘had as good a right to thank God as a Governor.’

“Seward then presented Lincoln with a proclamation that invited citizens ‘in every part of the United States,’ at sea, or abroad, ‘to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November’ to give thanks to ‘our beneficent Father.’ The proclamation also commended to God’s care ‘all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers,’ and called on Him ‘to heal the wounds of the nation’ and restore it to ‘peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.’”

There you have it. Thanksgiving Day, once set by the states on their own time, was launched by a big government initiative. Drafted chiefly by Secretary of State William Seward, the proclamation doesn’t at all read like a government document today. Consider this section, after talking about all the good that was happening in the nation as the war raged on:

“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.”

Setting aside the significant fact that Lincoln and Seward fixed our late-November Thursday pattern for the next 183 years (although FDR later moved it from the last Thursday to the fourth Thursday), when is the last time you read a government document that mentioned sin? Amazingly, the proclamation also mentions that we should seek, “humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience.”

President Biden’s 2022 Thanksgiving proclamation certainly doesn’t mention sin, penitence, perverseness, or disobedience. On the contrary, Biden (or whomever drafted the document) says, “America is a great Nation because we are a good people.” Quite the contrast in viewpoints from Lincoln’s day. Or as my daughter exclaimed when I read her both Lincoln and Biden’s versions, “That’s a downgrade!”

Maybe it takes things like the turbulent times of war to bring our gratitude into sharp focus. Congress wrote Thanksgiving Day into law in 1941, another year of severe hardship for our country and its place in the world. Whatever the impetus, I’m thankful that our government still recognizes our need for thankfulness.

While I appreciate the day off to gather with family and friends, we’d do well not to let big government dictate the bulk of our thankfulness. Government dictates quite enough already, thank you very much. Just like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, thanksgiving long predates our form of government.

Granted, like Cain of the Old Testament, we don’t always get our thanksgiving priorities right. Theologian D.A. Carson, comparing our prayers with those of the apostle in his book “Praying with Paul” writes, “The unvarnished truth is that what we most frequently give thanks for betrays what we most highly value.”

Carson is right. On Thanksgiving Day, we may go around the table and give thanks for the top-of mind: family, our material blessings, the troops — and there’s nothing wrong with that. We should give thanks to God for the familiar. But once the government-sanctioned day of thanks dissipates with the turkey tryptophan coma, there remains much thanks to give.

Big government or not, Lincoln and Seward were on to something in recognizing that even in our disobedience, God has nevertheless remembered mercy. Thanksgiving Day will quickly fade into Black Friday, but God’s mercy goes on:

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases;

his mercies never come to an end;

they are new every morning;

great is your faithfulness.

“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,

“therefore I will hope in him.”

(Lamentations 3:22–24, ESV)

Jared Bridges is editor-in-chief of The Washington Stand.