Have you ever noticed there aren’t any old photos of Abraham Lincoln with a big grin on his face? Look at some of the things he lived through: his wife suffered from mental illness and her symptoms worsened as time went by. He lost more elections than he won. One of his sons died very young, then a second one died during his presidency, at age 11. Right after he was elected president the Civil War began. And the first few years went very badly for the North. Many books describe the period of the Civil War as one of the darkest hours in our nation’s story.
Some historians think Lincoln may have suffered from clinical depression. Others say no, he just had a very melancholy personality. But any way you look at it, he didn’t have a whole lot to be cheerful about.
Now for the Good News
Yet it was this melancholy president who gets the credit for proclaiming the first, official, national day of Thanksgiving. And he did this in the middle of the Civil War.
Counting our country’s blessings, Lincoln referred to the health of livestock and produce as coming from “the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.” He spoke of the benefits of healthy industry, which made for no lack of iron, coal, and precious metals. He pointed out the United States was at peace with other nations, and—in spite of the huge casualties of war—the population was growing and the country was expanding westward. He said these things were “the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”
During a time of terrible fighting, suffering, and death, Lincoln deliberately chose to focus on the good things that were happening and, as president, instructed the nation to have a specific time set aside to give thanks to God.
Speaking of depression
Every president since Lincoln continued his tradition of proclaiming the last Thursday of November a national day of thanksgiving. Including Franklin Roosevelt, who kept it going during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, when there really weren’t a whole lot of things to be thankful for.
And in 1941, just three weeks after Pearl Harbor was bombed—causing the U.S. to dive headfirst into World War II—Roosevelt signed the bill that made it federal law for the fourth Thursday of November to be our annual Thanksgiving Day. It stated, “We are grateful to the Father of us all for the innumerable daily manifestations of his beneficent mercy.”
Once again, although things were definitely far from rosy, the U.S. government agreed that God our heavenly Father needed to be thanked for who he is and what he provides.
Thank you for…
Here’s a Bible verse that often causes puzzled brows: “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” I Thessalonians 5:18.
Really? In ALL circumstances? Give thanks to God in every situation?
It does seem a little crazy, but that’s what the Bible teaches. God is always God, no matter what else is going on, so he always deserves to be thanked. Even in terrible circumstances, if you look hard enough, there is usually some good to be found—good that you can thank God for. If nothing else, you can thank him for always being God, and for never ignoring a sincere voice that cries out to him.
I’ve heard men and women give thanks to God while they were living in great heartbreak due to the death of their spouse. My wife and I have thanked God for who he was and what he was doing for us in the middle of our son’s death. I’ve prayed with people who were out of work, experiencing bad health, struggling with rebellious teenagers, or going through painful relational crises, and they all were able to thank God for his hand on them and his greater, though mysterious, purposes.
We can always be thankful
And it’s no different today—wildfires, storms, flooding, shootings, governmental gridlock, a politically and socially divided nation full of angry voices. And yet the Bible raises its voice above it all and says, “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will…”
I’ve experienced the peace that comes over you when you acknowledge that God is God and you’re not, when you express your trust in him no matter what, and when you know in your heart he is good regardless of apparent evidence to the contrary. The peace that comes when you get on your knees and say, “Lord, for your goodness, for the blessings you’ve given me, and for your perfect plan, I give thanks to you.”
Each Wednesday before Thanksgiving, First Evangelical Free Church of Maplewood hosts a Thanksgiving Eve service at 7 p.m. We give thanks, we sing thanks, and we pray thanks to the same Most High God of Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation. We’d love to have you join us in heartfelt thanksgiving.
About the author
Mike Anderson majored in Bible at the University of Northwestern and has been a student of the Bible his whole adult life. He is newly retired and still learning the ropes. At First Evangelical Free Church he teaches 5th grade Sunday school and co-leads a small group. He enjoys biking, reading, writing, and hiking. Mike and his wife Debbie make their home in Lake Elmo and enjoy having all of their kids and grandkids in the Twin Cities area.