Over three centuries ago, our forefathers in Virginia and in Massachusetts, far from home in a lonely wilderness, set aside a time of thanksgiving. On the appointed day, they gave reverent thanks for their safety, for the health of their children, for the fertility of their fields, for the love which bound them together and for the faith which united them with their God.
So too when the colonies achieved their independence, our first President in the first year of his first Administration proclaimed November 26, 1789, as “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty god” and called upon the people of the new republic to “beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions… to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue… and generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.”
And so too, in the midst of America’s tragic civil war, President Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday of November 1863 as a day to renew our gratitude for America’s “fruitful fields,” for our “national strength and vigor,” and for all our “singular deliverances and blessings.”
Much time has passed since the first colonists came to rocky shores and dark forests of an unknown continent, much time since President Washington led a young people into the experience of nationhood, much time since President Lincoln saw the American nation through the ordeal of fraternal war – and in these years our population, our plenty and our power have all grown apace. Today we are a nation of nearly two hundred million souls, stretching from coast to coast, on into the Pacific and north toward the Arctic, a nation enjoying the fruits of an ever-expanding agriculture and industry and achieving standards of living unknown in previous history. We give our humble thanks for this.
Yet, as our power has grown, so has our peril. Today we give our thanks, most of all, for the ideals of honor and faith we inherit from our forefathers – for the decency of purpose, steadfastness of resolve and strength of will, for the courage and the humility, which they possessed and which we must seek every day to emulate. As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them.
Let us therefore proclaim our gratitude to Providence for manifold blessings – let us be humbly thankful for inherited ideals – and let us resolve to share those blessings and those ideals with our fellow human beings throughout the world.