Every once in a while, I hear the claim that America is not in any sense a Christian nation, and did not have Christian beginnings. It's true that we have never had an official state religion, which is one of the things that makes America great—freedom of religion for all people. However, it was the Judeo-Christian values of our founders that allowed for this freedom in the first place.
Nothing makes this more evident than when we celebrate Thanksgiving. Why? Let me tell you a little story.
Mary had a little lamb — and a mission.
In the late 1700’s, there was a little girl from New Hampshire, who was homeschooled in a time when women were not allowed to attend college. She was quite intelligent, and at eighteen years old she began to teach school and write poetry. Six years later, she married a lawyer who believed in her talents and challenged her to pursue intellectual endeavors.
As a result, the couple spent two hours each night together in study. She recalled how much she enjoyed those nightly study sessions, and how they encouraged her and gave her confidence in the powers of her thinking mind.
Nine years after their vows, her husband died of a stroke just two weeks before she gave birth to their fifth child.
Her name was Sarah Josepha Hale, and she is the reason we officially celebrate Thanksgiving as a nation.
After her husband's death, Sarah had to find a way to provide for her five children. She was able to have a small volume of children's poems published, including her now famous Mary Had a Little Lamb. After that, she wrote several books and went on to become one of the most influential women in America by acting as the Editor of a popular women's magazine called Godey's Lady's Book.
In her day, Thanksgiving was observed in different places of the country, but there wasn't yet a nationally unified annual expression of it. She began a lifelong crusade to officially recognize it as a national holiday, and noted in an editorial piece in 1852 that Thanksgiving was not only about giving thanks but also about pledging faith in God :
Thanksgiving Day is the national pledge of Christian faith in God, acknowledging him
as the dispenser of blessings.
Honest Abe and National Repentance
Sarah wrote several editorial pieces about Thanksgiving, but her most influential writing was a letter she wrote to the President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. With the nation torn apart by the Civil War, America was polarized, divided and wounded. Just days after receiving her letter, President Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving as an annual national holiday. He not only called America to a day of thanksgiving and praise to God, he also called upon America to repent. He wrote:
Our nation was founded on Christian principles, and we now find ourselves in a society that often reveals a stark contrast to the heart and ethics that built us. American sensibilities have forgotten that in the past, our influencers and leaders turned to God for healing, and humbly acknowledged Him with thankful hearts. In a post-Christian culture, the concept of repentance is foreign, but it is the very thing we are called upon to do when we celebrate Thanksgiving.
In a nation that is again polarized, divided, and wounded, we as Christians can celebrate the original intent of the Thanksgiving proclamation by turning to Jesus with gratitude and repentance. This year, my family with gather around the table with a new tradition: to pray with Abraham Lincoln that “the hand of the Almighty” will “heal the wounds of the nation and restore the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and union."
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