Although there were many Thanksgiving feasts and observances throughout the United States for almost two and a half centuries before Lincoln, the nationally recognized holiday that we will soon celebrate was put into place in the middle of the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day in 1863, while the war was raging and the country was literally divided.
While citizens were becoming widows and orphans daily, President Lincoln and his Secretary of State William Steward wrote: “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.”
Even in the midst of great pain and hardship, they were recognizing what 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 commands: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” One of the ways that they gave thanks in all circumstances, even horrible ones such as civil war, was by looking to blessings that God had given:
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 unequalled 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…
They were looking for God’s good providence and for things to be thankful for, so that God would be praised no matter what, recognizing that He is the giver of all good things (James 1:17). Surely we need to do the same in 2020.
Philippians 1:29 shocks us into recalibrating our thoughts during a year of great difficulty: “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake…” The word “granted” is the same word used in Romans 8:32 about God graciously giving us all things: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” We expect God to “graciously give” us blessings (as we see in Romans 8:32), but we often don’t understand how suffering could be a grace-gift (as we see in Philippians 1:29).
One answer is because God uses it all. Nothing is wasted in God’s providence. “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Rom. 8:28) This is why the Apostle Paul could write, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings…” (Col. 1:24). As a pastor I worked with would often say, “Who talks like this? Rejoicing in our sufferings? Christians do!”
We can bubble over with genuine thanksgiving at any time if we look to the blessings God has given us, even if mixed with suffering and difficulty as we have seen on a large scale this year. Our God is both sovereign and good. He is the God who promised Romans 8:28, a promise that rests on the bedrock of Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Blessings. Thanksgiving. Hope. Even during Civil War. Even during COVID-19. Even in 1863. Even in 2020.