Thanksgiving is the quintessential American holiday: invented in New England, proclaimed by George Washington, stamped into our national calendar by Abraham Lincoln, and celebrated with turkey, stuffing, dressing, love, laughter, and thankfulness with a similar distinctiveness all over this vast country of ornery and often deeply divided people.
Everyone knows the familiar story of the New England pilgrims sitting down with Native Americans to celebrate a successful harvest, a feast often described as the first Thanksgiving. It was a thanksgiving harvest festival but it was not yet Thanksgiving. Indeed, the New England puritans held many days of thanksgiving at various times of the year—as well as official fast days–in the decades that followed but there was no consensus or regular practice of Thanksgiving for years to come.
In 1789 George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation of the new national government but it was a one-off. His next did not come until 1795. New England’s John Adams proclaimed a day of national Thanksgiving but Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson did not. James Madison became president in 1809 but waited until 1815 and the conclusion of the War of 1812 to proclaim a national day of Thanksgiving.
In 1827, Sarah Josepha Hale—the author of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb” among many other things—launched her nearly four decade long campaign to have Thanksgiving declared an annual national holiday. Eventually, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln gave her exactly that and ever since she’s been called the “Mother of Thanksgiving.”
But Hale was, in reality, only the godmother of Thanksgiving. She was preceded by a now largely forgotten New England woman of letters named Hannah Mather Crocker.
Crocker was born in the summer of 1752 into a family that it would be tempting to describe as “New England royalty” if her family had not spent so much of its energies fighting against the authority of actual royals. Her father was Samuel Mather, the son of Cotton Mather, grandson of Increase Mather, and great-grandson of Richard Mather. Her great-great-grandmother was Anne Hutchinson, the colonial-era religious dissident.
Crocker, in short, came from a long line of upstart Americans who never believed so-called elites had the right to lord over the lives and souls of ordinary people. Her ancestors had laid the cornerstones of American liberty and independence, often governed the civil and ecclesiastical authorities of the colonies, and hewed always to the idea that America was destined for greatness.
Crocker’s contribution to our Thanksgiving tradition comes in the form of a sermon on thanksgiving delivered November 24, 1813. It was not the custom in much of the world, much less the United States, for women to write and deliver sermons. But Crocker had been well-educated under the supervision of her father and was a fierce defender of the right of women. She published her sermon under the pen-name “Increase Mather Jun,” harkening back to her great-grandfather.
Her sermon was written at a dark time for the country. We were once again at war with Great Britain—a war many of New England’s ministers opposed and derided as “Madison’s War.” Hutchinson had joined these opponents of the war in a sermon a year earlier that described it as an unjust war and a sign that the people of God’s “American Israel” had gone astray.
Crocker’s 1813 sermon is entitled “Thanksgiving sermon.” The title harkens back to the proclamations of Washington and Adams and the customs of her New England forebears. She did not, it seems, feel the need for the government to give her permission to declare a day in late November to be Thanksgiving.
The theme of Crocker’s sermon is the revival of American greatness. It takes as its starting point Philippians 4:6: “Be careful for nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your request be made known to God.” In other words, be bold when you speak to God, when you reach out to God for your needs, because you are special to him. You are deserving of his love. Do not meekly accept what the world offers but courageously appeal to God.
For Crocker, this was not just a personal admonition—although it was certainly that. It was also teaching for the United States, which she believed had been bestowed with divine favor. What was needed was a return to faith in divinely ordained American greatness, an embrace of American exceptionalism, and a rejection of those who would say all we can do is manage our decline. We needed to replace our fear and anxiety with thanks, prayer, and confidence that We the People of the United States were deserving of the love of God.
“Tho’ a very heavy cloud hangs over our country, we must not give way to anxious care,” Crocker wrote.
Later, Crocker described the path to national salvation as something that sounds a lot like Make America Great Again: “Let me entreat you all to return unto the good old way.”
You can almost picture her adjusting the brim of a red hat and flashing a provocative okay sign at the crowd.
Crocker’s sermon set out a narrative of an American tradition of thanksgiving and its connection to American greatness. She described her sermon as carrying forward the custom of the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth and the proclamation of George Washington. She drew sharp contrasts between the United States and the chaotic, war-torn, and tyranny-riven politics of the rest of the world.
Washington was praised for having “negotiated peace with all nations as the first prelude to the happiness of his subjects, well-knowing war a bane to all morality, virtue and religion.” The Madison administration, in contrast, was castigated for having declared a “cruel, and imprudent, unjust war against the innocent inhabitants of Canada.” Entanglements abroad lead us astray. God wants us to put American first, Crocker argued.
Crocker singled out America’s treatment of Jews as an especially important aspect of our history.
“Let us be encouraged, my American friends, and hope the Lord will visit us soon with his mercy and in some particular manner, as we have reason to be thankful that we are the only nation under whose government his own particular people, the Jews, have never been persecuted,” she wrote.
“Be careful for nothing, but by prayers and supplications with thanksgiving make known your request unto God,” Crocker concluded. ”And the praise and glory shall be given to him who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”
It was the sermon of a woman who was both a rebel against the powers of the world and a servant of God. And those two things combined to make her something else: a true American patriot.
Enjoy your Thanksgiving. Give thanks, eat well, and be careful for nothing. That is, let Thanksgiving be a day when prayer, gratitude, and hope push out the anxieties and fears the world thrusts upon us.
And maybe say a small prayer of thanks for Hannah Mather Crocker, the founding mother of our great national Thanksgiving tradition.