Providence is a word rarely used in the modern American lexicon, yet it is the one word that best explains why the United States has a history of being a thankful nation. The president who set the precedent for the country’s annual Thanksgiving Day tradition certainly understood this.
Providence is the belief that God ultimately governs over and is actively involved in the affairs of this world. As I chronicle in my book We Hold These Truths, leaders have appealed to this belief to guide and strengthen the people of the United States through some of their most trying and defining moments.
The concept is demonstrated time-and-again in the Bible, which has reigned as the most popular book in America since the Founding. Jesus encouraged believers that God is aware of the smallest details of life on the planet. “Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Matthew 10:29-31)
Jesus also called on people to actively pray that the Father’s ideal will would be done on earth as in heaven, manifesting a faith that God can change not only the destinies of people, but of nations.
Abraham Lincoln repeatedly exhibited this faith in public declarations that he made during the Civil War.
His 1863 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation (which established the modern precedent of the 4th Thursday in November, the 26th that year too) is merely one example of this.
Lincoln began his proclamation:
The year that is drawing toward 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 unequaled 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 theater of military conflict, while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union…
The president was clearly actively looking and expecting to find evidence of the hand of God and exhorting his fellow countrymen to do the same. Lincoln’s conclusion after assessing the facts was: “No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”
It is important to note that the year that was drawing to a close was one of the bloodiest in American history, with well over 100,000 casualties on battlefields in locations spread over 1000 miles apart including Gettysburg, Chancellorsville, Chickamauga and Vicksburg.
The president was not blaming the Lord for the war or the hardships it brought, but recognized His aid was essential in bringing it to the desired end.
152 years ago today, Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg Address pic.twitter.com/3MBdMfAvqA
— FOX & Friends (@foxandfriends) November 19, 2015
Lincoln would pick up on this theme of divine providence even more powerfully a year-and-a-half later in his Second Inaugural Address (1865), as the war appeared to be drawing to a close. The speech, chiseled on a wall of the Lincoln Memorial, ranks second only to the Gettysburg Address in terms of its popularity through time of words spoken by the 16th president.
As Lincoln reflected on the Civil War, he concluded that “The Almighty has His own purposes.” He then quoted the words of Jesus who said, “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” The president expounded:
If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
Read The Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Speech at the Lincoln Memorial today. Awesome. pic.twitter.com/LeRjQ5uCnG
— Sarah Avanessian (@hartaplang) November 21, 2014
Lincoln stood on a firm foundation, when he called on the nation to trust in and be thankful for God’s providence as it faced uncertain days. After all, the Founders wrote it into the nation’s first official document. “And for support of this Declaration [of Independence], with a firm reliance on the protection of DIVINE PROVIDENCE, we mutually pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
If we want to truly understand why the United States has a history of being thankful, even in difficult times, re-igniting a belief in providence is a good place to start.