Baptists and the American Civil War: October 3, 1863

Abraham LincolnAs war-time casualties mount North and South, the two warring American nations increasingly make public appeals to God for his blessings in the form of victory over the enemy.

This fall season, petitions to God arising from within the Confederate States are typically presented in the context of fasting and prayer and are frequently laced with repentance over various national sins (greed, extortion, government refusals to allow slaves to read the Bible or marry–but never recognizing African slavery as evil), calls for national deliverance, and certainty that God’s ultimate allegiance to the South will eventually lead to a Confederate victory over the ungodly North.

Following months of battlefield superiority over the rebels, Northerners’ appeals to God arising from within the United States are often framed in the context of thanksgiving for battlefield victories that evidence God’s hand upon the nation and army, assurances of Northern triumph, and hope for a speedy resolution of the great conflict.

Concepts of God and God’s activity thus seemingly move in tandem with battlefield victories and defeats. The two Confederate national days of Thanksgiving had occurred, predictably, following victories at the two battles of Bull Run (Manassas) in 1861 and 1862. These two observances (July 28, 1861 and September 28, 1862) prove to be the only two national days of Thanksgiving that take place during the short history of the Confederate nation.

Despite their heritage of church state separation, many Baptists North and South, living in the throes of war, enthusiastically embrace national religious observances as decreed by their respective governments. By way of contrast, Baptists had not been enthusiastic about the few national days of Thanksgiving observed prior to the Civil War (the earlier observances having been proclaimed by George Washington, John Adams and James Madison, the latter observance being in 1815; Baptist hero Thomas Jefferson refused to do so during his presidency).

Following the 1815 national observance, some states began adopting annual days of Thanksgiving. New York in 1817 became the first. There was no uniformity in how the various states celebrated their days of Thanksgiving.

The terrible Civil War, however, led president Abraham Lincoln to return to the earlier, irregular practice of national days of Thanksgiving in the United States. Lincoln’s first proclaimed Day of Thanksgiving had been April 13, 1862, forty-seven years to the day of the 1815 national Day of Thanksgiving and (predictably) following Union victories at Fort Henry, Fort Donelson and Fort Shiloh.

Today, Lincoln issues his second Proclamation of Thanksgiving, designating the last Thursday of November as the observance day–November 26–and in the context of the great summer victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. This particular Thanksgiving observance becomes the beginning of an annual day of Thanksgiving each November–in the form of a general holiday, rather than a religious observance per se–in the United States.

Many Baptists of the North embrace Lincoln’s announcement today:

By the President of the United States

A Proclamation

The year that is drawing toward 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 even soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and provoke their aggressions, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict; while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who while dealing with us in anger for our sins, nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they 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 next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend 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 the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United Stated States to be affixed.

Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.

Abraham Lincoln

By the President: William H. Seward. Secretary of State.

Sources: Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation, October 3, 1863 (link); History of Thanksgiving, (link)