Author Greg Koukl Published on 11/19/1994

I thought it would be interesting to read Lincoln's Thanksgiving Proclamation in light of the recent understanding of the separation of church and state. By the way, Thanksgiving has been celebrated since 1621, but it became a national holiday thanks to Abraham Lincoln. Thanksgiving isn't just a time to give thanks, because we ought to be giving thanks on a regular basis. It is a time when we give thanks corporately, as a community—and specifically as a nation, as Abraham Lincoln did in 1863.

I was trying to remember where this was exactly in the Civil War—1863—I guess the tide had just turned. Gettysburg was the turning point in early July—the 1st, 2nd and 3rd of 1963—and the 4th Vicksburg fell under Grant after a long five or six month siege there. So there was a big turning point in July and things started going the way of the Union, so there was plenty to give thanks for in a sense. Yet at the same time there was a tremendous war continuing, and lives were still being lost. It was two bloody years before the Civil War would end.

In any event in the midst of this difficult time, President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday and he did so with these words.* Listen closely, especially in light of the present atmosphere of so-called separation of church and state.

It is the duty of nations, as well as of men, to owe their dependence upon the overruling power of God. [What a way to start! Can you imagine any president making a Presidential Proclamation today that started this way?] It is the duty of nations as well as of men to owe their dependence upon the over-ruling power of God." [It gets better.] "To confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that with genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon. And to recognize the sublime truth announced in the [watch this] Holy Scriptures, and proven by all history that those nations are blessed whose God is the Lord. We know that by His divine law, nations like individuals are subject to punishments and chastisements in this world. May we not justify fear that the awful calamity of Civil War, which now desolates the land, may be a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole people.

We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven. We have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined in the deceitfulness of our hearts that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace too proud to pray to the God that made us.*

It has seemed to me fit and proper that God should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people.

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 as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our benevolent Father who dwelleth in the heavens."

And so we have done now for some 131 years. We've done it for a long time. We have set aside the day. On that day all over this country the post office is closed, banks are closed, people take off the national holiday. But are they taking off the holiday that Abraham Lincoln instituted in 1863? No, not quite, because such a thing in now illegal in this country. It is essentially illegal for there to be a national holiday in which we give thanks to the God that made us. We recollect that we owe everything to Him. We confess our sins with contrition, and we ask for His mercy and give Him praise for his love, for all of His care for us.

We can't do that anymore. You can't do it in schools. You can't do it in public places. You can't do it just about anywhere in which the government owns the property. You can't even put a cross on a hill in San Diego because people are offended by that. Why? Because it's in government air, I guess.

Now, my point is not to try to get prayer back into schools. My point is to show how ridiculous the present atmosphere of so called separation is, and how far removed the notion of separation of church and state that is popularized now is from what was understood by our forefathers, and when people pretend that this is the way it has always been, that that is not the original notion of non-establishment that the Constitution speaks about.

Notice how natural it was for someone like the President of our country—many would say the greatest president that our country has ever seen, President Abraham Lincoln—in the midst of a trial to call the nation to repentance, prayer and thanksgiving to God. I think he's probably the saddest president that our country has ever seen. His country was being torn asunder. And he suggested that the country may be punished by God, who made us all, who are violating the laws that He has given us in His Holy Scriptures—laws that are clear to all.

What a thing to say. What a man. And what a change we have gone through since then to be at the place we are now.


*Correction: The first two paragraphs of the quote are from Abraham Lincoln's "Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day," March 30, 1863. The rest quoted here is from Lincoln's October 1863 Thanksgiving proclamation.