My, How Things Changed! Thanksgiving: 1863 vs. 2013

Written by Wes Walker on November 22, 2013

What a difference a hundred and fifty years can make.

In 1863, the United States of America marked their first official celebration of Thanksgiving, which is startling because it was smack-dab in the middle of the civil war.  Thanksgiving has since lost its lustre: It has been reduced to “turkey day” — best known for its gluttony — and even that is fast losing ground to the consumerist circus known as “Black Friday.”

What made them so grateful when times were so tough?  More to the point, what did they have to be grateful for, really?

As it happens, Lincoln made a list.  He began where our generation ought to begin, by acknowledging the human tendency to take life’s good things for granted.  

“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 the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.”

Next, Lincoln listed what could have gone wrong in the midst of civil war, but did not.  Foreign nations did not exploit their weakness.  They were not faced with an external war.  Order and rule of law continued everywhere except where actual fighting took place.

War did not swallow up peaceful industry and employment, nor had people stopped having children.

The credit for these blessings, he attributed to God.  Directly.

Did you notice that there was not even an appeal to God for victory over his adversaries in this proclamation?  He spoke as someone who took absolutely no pleasure in war or even the prospect of victory.  The war itself was referred to as “lamentable” and “unavoidable”.  His appeal to God was for the well-being of the widows, and orphans, mourners and sufferers.  It was also, remarkably, for the peace and unity of America.  Do not forget how bitter that war was, and yet, even those who took up arms in opposition were Americans to whom Lincoln held a sense of obligation.

Notice his call to prayer.  He spoke of ONE heart and ONE voice by the WHOLE American people.  He called to fellow-citizens in Every part of the United States, as well as those traveling or at sea to mark this occasion.

Again, contrast this to today.  

One cynical observer posted this social media critique:  “Black Friday, because only in America, people trample each other for sales exactly one day after being thankful for what they already have.”

We’ve gone from being intentionally grateful for blessings over which we really have no control — growing seasons, calamities, protection from the hostility of foreign nations — to chalking such things up either to how awesome we are, or dumb luck.

We’ve gone from government leadership aching for full reconciliation between all Americans in the midst of a bloody war, to something that — for cynical political gain — drives wedges between groups previously at peace with each other, inflaming hostilities and creating voter blocks.

We’ve gone from a government who invited the displeasure of men while seeking the favour of God, to one who now invites the displeasure of God to curry the favour of men.

We’ve gone from a people who — having lost so much, somehow remained grateful for the blessings they still enjoyed; to a people with so much, that are still unsatisfied, and striving to amass more — somehow oblivious to what makes us rich in the deeper sense.  Worse still, we so easily become angry if we feel we’ve not been given what “we deserve”.

When we stop to turn our thoughts heavenward while thinking of the simple riches that surround us, gratitude is a simple and natural response.  How tragic must it be for those who, in such moments of gratitude, have nobody to thank.  

“Life is good” uttered to an unfeeling “Universe” is a sad substitute for the “You Are Good” uttered to a God big enough to be worthy of such thanks, and still personal enough to receive it.

Consider the difference in life then and now.  In the Gettysburg Address we see how lives lost — even in battle — were considered precious.  But now, in supposed modern peace, life is anything BUT sacred.  Then, they had little, but were happy and now we, who have much, are angry.  Even among Christians, I tremble to ask how few stop to truly thank God for his blessings.

In light of this contrast, don’t the words of Paul ring true?  When enumerating a general laundry list of wickedness (see Romans 1) Paul tells us that those deeds actually stem from the deeper problem of our unwillingness to acknowledge and give thanks to God.

(Verse 21: For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.)

In testing whether the “therefore” of verse 24 is true, one could hypothesize that our waning interest in gratitude to God would have a corresponding increase in the behaviours listed later in that chapter, particularly those from verse 28 onward, which even those hostile to Christianity might recognize as abhorrent.  How does that list compare to real life?  Are we getting better, or worse?

Don’t you think it’s time we should thank Him?

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