We praise You, O God, our Redeemer, Creator;
In grateful devotion our tribute we bring.
We lay it before You, we kneel and adore You;
We bless Your holy name, glad praises we sing.
Thanksgiving is a very American holiday. And it seems about right to our religious sensibilities that our nation should stop for a moment, take a deep breath, and give thanks for all the abundance we have enjoyed.
Except, well… except that the Thanksgiving proclamations by the most famous of our presidents, Washington and Lincoln, were not so much proclamations of national thanksgiving as they were proclamations of national supplication and prayer…even national repentance for the transgressions of the nation as a whole and of its people individually.
In 1789, President George Washington proclaimed, “that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions — to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually…”
In 1863, during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed: “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.
“And I recommend to them 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, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, 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 purpose, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.”
These are the sentiments in the first and formative proclamations of national thanksgiving. Other proclamations, by other presidents, at other times, have been of a more celebratory nature. But these proclamations by Washington and Lincoln, were not meant as celebrations of national consumption, but to set aside a day for sober reflection and even repentance for our nation’s sins.
All the world is God’s own field, Fruit unto His praise to yield;
Wheat and tares together sown, Unto joy or sorrow grown.
First the blade and then the ear, Then the full corn shall appear,
Lord of harvest, grant that we Wholesome grain and pure may be.
Sober reflection, introspection, repentance, these are not the words of the present hour in our nation. Blame…oh yes, plenty of that these days! Blame and anger and clamoring for our rightful due. It is as if, collectively, we have forgotten words like sober reflection and repentance.
After the global economic collapse in 2008, a collapse so catastrophic some $15 trillion in wealth was destroyed, there has been not a peep about repentance. Oh…a great hue and cry about stringing someone up…but not a word about repentance.
And what is happening nationally is happening in our homes. It’s happening in our churches. Repentance is word long gone. It has been replaced with “acceptance,” the foolish idea that God just accepts us the way we are. (Kind of makes the Crucifixion superfluous!) Repentance is a notion best tucked away in the cedar chest with all the other collectibles of a by-gone age.
That’s why the Readings today for Thanksgiving are so important, so beneficial, for us. The Readings actually restore God’s Word to our usage. They restore to us good words like thanksgiving and supplication and contentment and repentance.
With voices united our praises we offer
And gladly our songs of thanksgiving we raise.
With You, Lord, beside us, Your strong arm will guide us.
To You, our great Redeemer, forever be praise!
Because we have known worse. The woeful state of agriculture in this country in 1930 stood in marked contrast to the prosperous days of 1918. World War I had turned the United States, with its rich prairie soil, into the world’s breadbasket. Our nation’s farmers were treated to corn and hog prices that were undreamed of by those of the previous century who had first broken the prairie sod.
Making adjustments for inflation, corn sold in 1918 at the present-day equivalent of $20 a bushel, while we get about $6.00. Hogs were going at the equivalent of $330 a head, while today a decent sized hog might go for a little over $200. But shortly after Armistice Day 1918, foreign markets were blocked with steep tariffs. Land and commodities prices collapsed abruptly in 1921, an ominous sign of things to come eight years later. So while urban America celebrated the Roaring 20s, debt-bound farmers slogged their way through the decade, followed by worse in the next.
Later generations tend to idealize the Great Depression watching newsreels of a jaunty Franklin Delano Roosevelt, or the cozy fiction of that 70s TV show, “The Waltons.” But on the farm reality was very hard and uncertain. And as the Great Depression tightened its vise grip, a spirit of rebellion arose in the traditionally conservative and peaceful countryside.
In Iowa, August 1931, then Gov. Daniel Turner called out the Iowa National Guard to quell what became known as the “Cedar County Cow War.” Angered by a new law imposing strict inspections on dairy herds, an unruly mob of farmers attacked a veterinarian in his car. In response the National Guard set up machine guns…machine guns!…along major roads heading east to the Chicago markets to dissuade mobs of farmers from forming. So farmers marched on the state capital in Des Moines. Folks talked openly about the need of a dictator. They said that if it was working in Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union, why not here in the United States?
But by the end of the 1930s came tractors and hybrid corn. Heat waves and drought in the 30s cut yields but brought an unexpected boost in prices. So with the end of the 1930s signs of promise and hope were beginning to flicker in many a farm house. But…the dogs of war were also beginning to howl once again.
Even so, Lord, quickly come, To Thy final harvest home;
Gather Thou Thy people in, Free from sorrow, free from sin,
There, forever purified, In Thy garner to abide;
Come, with all Thine angels, come, Raise the glorious harvest home.
St. Paul writes to the Philippians, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” “Through Him.” There’s the secret. “Him who strengthens me.”
So we meet today, with our thanks to God, to offer Him prayer on behalf of our nation and our neighbors, and to find that contentment in Him who strengthens us—a much valued but rather scarce gift these days—the contentment that comes from God through faith in the midst of what He has given us in this year, whether abundant or scarce.
As Mr. Lincoln reminds us in his proclamation, “No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. [The whole ebb and flow of prosperity and adversity through the ages.] They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.” “While dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”
We worship You, God of our fathers, we bless You;
Through trial and tempest our guide You have been.
When perils o’ertake us, You will not forsake us,
And with Your help, O Lord, our struggles we win.
So in these gray and latter days, assembled as we are with our songs of thanksgiving…we too add our voice to those of the past…a voice of repentance and supplication…for us, for the nation, for the world. And we cry: “Have mercy on us, O Lord! Have mercy!”