This editorial, published during the tenure of the Rev. Dr. Carroll Eugene Simcox (1912-2002, editor 1964-77), refers to 1968 as “a year of wrath and tears in the national life.” He notes the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (June 6, 1968) and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King (April 4, 1968) as “only some of the bitter fruits of human sin” in evidence that year. We have a vivid picture of the editor who “sit[s] down to our typewriter to write this Thanksgiving editorial” and prays that “the citizens of this troubled land may be given the grace this year to make the national Thanksgiving more of a holy day than ever before.”
Editorial: “Christian Thanksgiving in 1968”
From The Living Church (Nov. 24, 1968), p. 18.
“It is very meet, right, and our bounden duty, that we should at all times, and in all places, give thanks …”
All thoughtful Christians will agree with this statement by William Temple: “It is probable that in most of us the spiritual life is impoverished and stunted because we give so little place to gratitude. It is more important to thank God for blessings received than to pray for them beforehand. For that forward-looking prayer, though right as an expression of dependence upon God, is still self-centered in part, at least, of its interest; there is something we hope to gain by our prayer. But the backward-looking act of thanksgiving is quite free from this. In itself it is quite selfless. Thus it is akin to love. All our love to God is in response to His love for us; it never starts on our side. ‘We love, because He first loved us’ (I John 4:19).” (William Temple, Readings in St. John’s Gospel, 189, St. Martin’s Press.)
At the same time, all thoughtful Christians must agree with the warning that has been voiced by somebody against the spiritual danger in “counting our blessings.” In an old gospel song we are exhorted: “Count your blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done.” No doubt. But two or three caveats are distinctly in order about this. One is that the only blessings we can “count” or “name” as such are those which are obvious to us as blessings, and that leaves out entirely some of the richest blessings of a divine providence which is not only bountiful but infinitely resourceful. (If we were classical Greeks rather than Christians we might even praise God for His “cunning.”) The point here is that God can throw curves in His blessings in such wise that we don’t even see them; and what we don’t see we obviously cannot count or name. The next point is that “counting our blessings” easily becomes a bookkeeping exercise, a calculating, mercenary kind of checking up on God to see if He is fulfilling His side of the bargain. So a man may say, as he counts his blessings and names them one by one: “Yes, I got that good raise in pay at the first of the year. How come? God never does anything without good reason. Ah, there it is — in November of last year I became a full-fledged tither. I remember that expert on tithing said at our parish stewardship dinner that ever since he started tithing his business had prospered. God delivered for me because I delivered for Him.” It is also only too imaginable to anybody with some self-knowledge, that a blessing-counter might say: “Sure, Lord, You did some nice things for me early this year, but here it is November, and what have You done for me lately?”
We are not pleading for the abolition of Thanksgiving Day and the thanksgiving spirit. We are recommending only a critical look at our present way of going about it. If we are blessing-counters as described above we may want to make some adjustments in our spiritual life. (The appropriate one would seem to be to knock it off, cut it out.)
Christian thanksgiving has to be essentially a devout, penitent, adoring contemplation of the mighty mercies of God to all men, which mercies continue and abound despite the unfaithfulness and sinfulness of men — beginning with our own selves. America’s national thanksgiving in 1968, to be Christian, must be of this kind. This has been a year of wrath and tears in the national life. The assassinations of Dr. King and Senator Kennedy, the continuing non-resolution of the war in Vietnam and the plight of the poor of this affluent nation, to mention only some of the bitter fruits of human sin, are facts which can only be humbly acknowledged before God and the world. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Yet, by the mercy of God, the republic still stands. His Church stands. His promise of forgiveness and hope, of pardon and peace through Jesus Christ, stands. That the average or even sub-average American family can “celebrate Thanksgiving” with a good dinner is indeed a gift of God’s mercy; but this kind of material blessing (which must not be piously downgraded as a “mere” material blessing) should be celebrated not solely for what it proclaims of God’s concern for our stomachs but also for what it proclaims of the God-like power God has placed in our hands: Our capacity to eat turkey on Thanksgiving Day is our capacity to prevent children in Biafra, and much closer to home, from starving to death. To have something to eat is to have both the means and the mandate to share, for all of which the Lord be thanked.
Such is the thought that comes to us as, on this morning of Nov. 7, 1968, we sit down to our typewriter to write this Thanksgiving editorial and we find that what seems to come out is more a prayer than a preachment: that to the citizens of this troubled land may be given the grace this year to make the national Thanksgiving more of a holy day than ever before. We can certainly use such a day as 1968 heads into the last lap.
Richard Mammana is Archivist of the Living Church Foundation.