Happy Thanksgiving! Normally, I try to find a presidential message that captures the essence of Thanksgiving, either in terms of faith or in terms of public virtue. However, this year has had so many challenges and so much stress that the usual reflections on gratitude and grace simply don’t seem to fit. Many families that would normally gather in large numbers will be apart; my own extended family won’t be at our house as usual, which will feel very odd. We are fortunate, though; thanks to the pandemic, some households have seats that will always remain empty, while the stresses of public life might have created even more isolation.
Seeking some inspiration, I took a look through presidential Thanksgiving messages in times of crisis. The destruction of the pandemic and the unrest in our streets make this seem more like a period of war than of peace, so I turned to wartime addresses at The American Presidency Project of UC Santa Barbara. Franklin Roosevelt’s first Thanksgiving proclamation of World War II seemed apt for our circumstances today.
In his proclamation on November 26, 1942 — exactly 78 years ago today, in fact — Roosevelt reminds us that even in bad times, we have much for which to give thanks to the Lord. FDR recalls Psalm 23 as he calls us to reflect on what we have, and how much work remains to be done:
“It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord.” Across the uncertain ways of space and time our hearts echo those words, for the days are with us again when, at the gathering of the harvest, we solemnly express our dependence upon Almighty God.
The final months of this year, now almost spent, find our Republic and the Nations joined with it waging a battle on many fronts for the preservation of liberty.
In giving thanks for the greatest harvest in the history of our Nation, we who plant and reap can well resolve that in the year to come we will do all in our power to pass that milestone; for by our labors in the fields we can share some part of the sacrifice with our brothers and sons who wear the uniform of the United States.
It is fitting that we recall now the reverent words of George Washington, “Almighty God, we make our earnest prayer that Thou wilt keep the United States in Thy holy Protection,” and that every American in his own way lift his voice to heaven.
I recommend that all of us bear in mind this great Psalm:”The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
“He restoreth my soul; he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”
Inspired with faith and courage by these words, let us turn again to the work that confronts us in this time of national emergency: in the armed services and the merchant marine; in factories and offices; on farms and in the mines; on highways, railways, and airways; in other places of public service to the Nation; and in our homes.
May we all return to our work refreshed and blessed by the Lord.
The front-page image is a detail from “The First Thanksgiving, 1621” by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, c. 1912-15. Part of a private collection. Via Wikimedia Commons. (Note: “The scene depicted here is a romanticized (idealized) version and not historically accurate. The clothing worn by the Pilgrims is incorrect, the Wampanoag did not wear feathered war bonnets, nor would they have been sitting on the ground.”)