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On the power of Thanksgiving

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A couple of years ago my husband and I took the kids on a Thanksgiving trip to Yorktown.

The battlefield is well-preserved, and the historical preservationists keep a live encampment on site for the benefit of tourists.

No history-book description of the conditions of deprivation under which Washington’s men labored can possibly convey what you see there, walking where the Continental Army lived and fought.  It’s hard to imagine the cold, the abject poverty, the grisly instruments of the battlefield “surgeon” and the pathetic tent for the women-folk and children of the enlisted men who trailed after the Army because their husbands and fathers weren’t being paid, so they had no place to live.

If you stand there as we did, on a cold but sunny winter’s day, the wind blows through your thermal insulated coat and boots and you think about the men who had no such luxuries on much colder, soggier, darker days for months at a time.

You find yourself wondering whether your own attachment to liberty is strong enough to endure such conditions, and come to a kind of humbled awe before the forefathers who did so endure.

You feel gratitude, and a desire to live up to what they were willing to die for.

It’s easy in hindsight to take history for granted, as if it had to unfold the way it did.  But visit the battlefields of the War for Independence, remind yourself that Washington lost far more battles than he won and faced a seemingly unending stream of disasters, and the eventual emergence of the United States of America seems more like a miracle than a historical necessity.

I sometimes wonder if we have the logic of Thanksgiving backwards.  Do we have the feast because of our many blessings? Or have we been blessed as a nation because as a people we have always been ready to praise God and turn to him for help?

Gauzy folklore about the first Thanksgiving notwithstanding, the Pilgrims could have been forgiven for having more regrets than gratitude back in 1623.

Someone named H.U. Westermayer is famous on the internet for observing “The Pilgrims made seven times more graves than huts.  No Americans have been more impoverished than these who, nevertheless, set aside a day of thanksgiving.” Did Washington win because the Puritans thanked God and prayed for the emerging nation?

Their salutary precedent has endured in every stage of our history.

There were national days of thanksgiving during the period of the Articles of Confederation.

Shortly after the Constitution and Bill of Rights were ratified in 1789, both houses of Congress requested a day of thanksgiving, a request to which now-President Washington happily acceded.

His proclamation is striking not only for its expression of gratitude to the Lord, but for its call to every citizen to humbly ask God to pardon national sins and give each person grace to perform his or her personal and civic duties well so that good government could endure.

In years to come, presidents frequently called for days of prayer and thanks when crises were averted –or when help was needed.

At the height of the Civil War, President Lincoln found a number of blessings for which to thank God, among them the growth of the free population by “emancipation and immigration” and the continuing courage and fortitude of the people.

Like other presidents, though, he asked people not only to thank God for what they had, but to humble themselves and pray earnestly for peace.

Theodore Roosevelt said in one of his Thanksgiving Day proclamations that “No people on earth have more cause to be thankful than ours, and this is said reverently, in no spirit of boastfulness in our own strength, but with the gratitude to the Giver of good who has blessed us.”

I do wonder, when all is revealed at the close of time, how much of our nation’s fortune will turn out to have been called down by all the good folks throughout our history who have earnestly interceded for her –and how much our future depends on the sincerity with which we pray for our nation before we eat our wonderful dinners on Thursday.

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