Thanksgiving at a time of war

Presidents often use this holiday to rally the nation, reflecting the Puritans more than the Pilgrims.

Americans may welcome Thanksgiving as a precious time to be with family and friends – and to reach out to the less-well-off in their community. But they often forget that this tradition of celebrating in gratitude was set with an additional purpose for the whole country by its leaders.

That purpose is often made explicit during wartime, when American presidents have used Thanksgiving to overcome divisions and renew patriotism.

It was President Lincoln who finally created a Thursday in November as a regular national holiday, after years of urgings by Christian reformers who wanted it as a way to spread virtue in home life. But Lincoln did so during the darkest days of the Civil War, taking what was then only a tradition in New England and Texas and saying in his 1863 proclamation that the holiday was for "the whole American people." (The South didn't embrace it until decades later.)

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Now in 2007, after the long years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Bush is asking in his Thanksgiving Proclamation for the nation to stand behind the American soldiers "who defend liberty ... [and] advance the cause of freedom." That he would cite those two lofty causes at a time of divided opinion about the Iraq war fits a pattern of presidents using Thanksgiving to unify Americans.

George Washington set a day for thanksgiving to buck up the Colonies during the Revolutionary War. In 1789, as a new nation tried to rally around a much-debated Constitution, the first president then set aside Nov. 26 of that year as "A Day of Publick Thanksgiving and Prayer."

Lincoln, too, in his proclamation asked for prayers to unite a land "which it has pleased [God] to assign as a dwelling place for ourselves and for our prosperity through all generations."

He had private doubts about the Civil War (as many Americans do today about Iraq) but months earlier in a private note to himself, Lincoln wrote with some wisdom: "In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God's purpose is something different from the purpose of either party...."

While the origins of Thanksgiving lie in the Pilgrims and the Jamestown colony, the use of it by presidents over the years to achieve unity better reflects the New England Puritans. The unique theology of the Puritans at first relied on followers trusting the spiritual superiority of their ministers to lead them, as historian George McKenna points out in a new book, "The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism." When that superiority was challenged (by Puritan Anne Hutchinson, among others), the ministers adjusted the theology to say that the entire community was holy as long as it stayed within God's grace. As one minister wrote in 1651 to his Puritan New England: "The Lord looks for more from thee, than from other people."

From that sprang a nation out to reform itself and sometimes others, creating a sense of exceptionalism. Thanksgiving, then, can be a time to rebuild national self-confidence. But it is also a time for humility to check if America is on the right path in either war or peace.

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