On October 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln, wearied by a bloody
Civil War that threatened to destroy the Union and the very future of
the American Dream, proclaimed a day of National Thanksgiving. He did so
with a somewhat heavy heart, reminding the people of America that this
great land, even as it was engaged in a war with itself, had much to be
thankful for. And he believed that appropriate expressions of
thankfulness for the beauty and great abundance of the newly emerging
nation must be directed to the Almighty. Said he, “The year that is
drawing to its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful
fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly
enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come,
others have been added which are of so extraordinary a nature that they
cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart, which is habitually
insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.”

“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 beneficent Father who dweleth in
the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the
ascriptions justly due Him for such singular deliverance and blessings,
they also with humble penitence for our national perverseness and
disobedience, command to his tender care all those who have become
widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in
which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the
interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and
to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the divine purposes to
full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”

The thought of a day set aside and celebrated by the nation as a
whole and named “Thanksgiving” is still a powerful force even during
these times of religious plurality and extreme secularism. And from its
outset Thanksgiving Day was set aside by both President Lincoln and the
Congress of The United States so that all Americans could gather
together in their own way to give thanks and pray, thanking God for the
many blessings bestowed upon this great nation and each of us.

As a native New Englander, Thanksgiving for me has always taken on a
unique, historic perspective. It was a time for our own “regional”
recollection of Thanksgiving–the very first Thanksgiving celebrated in
1621 to commemorate the bountiful harvest that had come to the settlers
of the Plymouth colony after the very severe winter of 1620.

And adding to the significance of that first Thanksgiving in
Massachusetts was the day’s sharing with the pilgrim settlers neighbors,
the Wampanoaag Indians, who came to the celebration bringing their own
bounty to the feast, which some have said was the very first pot luck
supper ever celebrated on American shores.

Sarah Hale, a noted author of President Lincoln’s time, encouraged
the president to declare a national day of thanksgiving. And so the
beleaguered president saw such an established day of rest, reflection,
prayer and feasting as a way of uniting a war-torn nation. And so it
did! Lincoln accomplished what President George Washington had attempted
to do in 1789 but failed. Given the politics of his time, Washington’s
Thanksgiving Proclamation was greeted with significant opposition by
some of the colonies opposed to designating any day set aside to
commemorate the hardships of a few pilgrims–“those people.”

Given that politics are often quite dicey in this great land of ours,
it logically followed that President Franklin D. Roosevelt would amend
Lincoln’s declaration. Thanksgiving, said Roosevelt, would be celebrated
nationally on the third thursday of November. And such was the case in
the years 1939, 1940 and 1941 in an effort by the president to stimulate
and lengthen the Christmas shopping season so as to strengthen the
nation’s economy. But in 1941, The Congress of The United States, in a
legislative reversal, decreed that Thanksgiving would always fall on the
fourth thursday of November, where it remains to this day. And to the
politicians of this great land I say, let’s not mess anymore with a
“good thing!”

Behind me is a very famous statue of Abraham Lincoln, located in the
northwest corner of Washington National Cathedral. And more often than
not, whenever I pass by this statue, I reach out and touch the
outstretched hand and fingers of this great president.

And I am not alone in doing this! If you come to visit this
cathedral, the sixth largest cathedral in the world, you will see that
Lincoln’s bronzed fingers are worn and brightly polished by millions of
other fingers that have passed by this majestic likeness and reached out
in a symbolic way to touch greatness.

And what was so special about this president that still quickens the
hearts of generations who never knew him and a president who continues
to rest in our consciousness as a president defined by the word
“greatness”? Was he great because he was handsome? Most would say he
wasn’t. Was he great because he was a brilliant writer? Many would say
no. Was he great because he was a passionate orator? There were some who
would disagree. Was he great because he was a brilliant military
strategist? His general’s could not agree on that point. Was he great
because he freed the slaves and personally saved the Union? Some
speaking from the context of broad history would say that was not all
that defined his political complexity. Well, then, why was he great?

Each of us will bring our own opinions to bear on these questions that
arise about Abraham Lincoln’s greatness, but let me answer from my
perspective on this Thanksgiving Day. Lincoln was a great man and
president because in the midst of severe trouble and crisis in the life
of this new democracy, he took the time to stop and reflect that his was
a life of servanthood, as he understood it to be from his reading of the
Bible. He was a president who redefined the word tolerance. He wrote,
“our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a
nation we began by declaring that all men are created equal. When the
Know Nothings get control, it will read all men are created equal except
Negroes, foreigners and Catholics. When it comes to this, I shall prefer
emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving
liberty, where despotism can be taken pure and without the base alloy of

And because of his humility as a servant and his understanding of
tolerance, he asked a war-torn nation to stop and remember that in the
best and worst of times we are all children of God, and that all that we are
and all that we have comes from a most “High God.” And from that simple
theological understanding he gave birth to what is truly the only
distinct American holiday that all Americans really share, a national
day of thanksgiving.

I have had the great opportunity as bishop of Washington and dean of
Washington National Cathedral to travel throughout this great land and
around the globe. And when I return from a foreign shore I am always
thankful to be an American and to be back home. For with all of our
troubles, our disagreements, our social and political struggles, we are
truly a great nation and one of the few nations on earth that can say
that our America is a country whose greatness is defined by our

For all of us, and I mean all of us, can trace our ancestral
roots to another shore, to another time and to another place and
country. Even the first Americans are believed to have come to this
magnificent land by way of a land bridge from Asia.

My family came to America from Ireland and Canada and they came for
a better life and the hope of better tomorrows. And they found them here
in America! Where did your family tree begin? How did your ancestors
come to find America?

And along with the truth that we are a nation of immigrants, and some
who were forced immigrants as slaves, so we have had to learn to live
together in harmony. And that has not been all that easy. But as
Americans we work hard at it. And we continue to strive to be tolerant
and to be respectful of each other’s cultural and religious heritage and
differences. And in the great American experiment of democracy, an
experiment so successfully and yet painfully lived out by President
Abraham Lincoln, we have had to learn tolerance, as did he.

Thanksgiving is a time to step back from the challenges of our daily
lives, and from the painfulness of a too often broken world, and our own
nation, emerging out of the passions, jubilations, disappointments and
disagreements of the most recently concluded national elections, and be
silent ,if only for a moment, and give thanks, as President Lincoln did so
long ago for the many blessings bestowed upon this country by the
Creator’s hand. For that was the greatness of Abraham Lincoln, a man who
knew his limitations and gave thanks every day for the honor bestowed
upon him to serve his country, to serve his fellow man, and
ultimately to serve his God.

Happy Thanksgiving and may God’s blessing be upon each of you,
from all of us here in the nation’s capital and from the Washington
National Cathedral.