Perhaps it is not surprising that a woman started America’s great celebration of family, abundance and unity. The Pilgrims? Forget about ’em. This woman brought them to the table.
We can thank Sarah Josepha Buell Hale for Thanksgiving. The story of her founding this national holiday is better than the one we learned in elementary school.
Born in 1788, home schooled by her mother and brother, Sarah taught school in Newport, N.H., until she married David Hale, a young lawyer, who died just before the birth of their fifth child. Widowed in her early 30s, she turned to one of the few ways a woman could earn a living – writing. She published “Northwood: Life North and South,” one of the first American novels to address slavery. One chapter described in elaborate detail a New England Thanksgiving, championing a nationwide celebration to help unify an increasingly divided country.
That 1827 book caught the attention of John Blake, an Episcopal minister, who invited Hale to become America’s first woman magazine editor. Eight years later, Louis Godey folded that foundering magazine into Lady’s Book, which the two turned into the dominant monthly of the day and a national platform for Sarah Hale.
At a time of bitter division over slavery, Hale editorialized in 1859, “Let the last THURSDAY IN NOVEMBER be agreed upon as the DAY of American Thanksgiving in all the States of our Union, and the world would have a new epoch of hope, a new pledge of peace, and a new and brighter ray from the torch of Liberty than our Independence can furnish them, because our Union Thanksgiving would signify the moral unity of the American people” (Hale’s emphasis). A devout Episcopalian, Hale believed the holiday would not only unite the country to give thanks and to renew family ties but also to worship God and to assist those in need.
In addition to numerous editorials, Hale wrote countless letters to governors and every president from Zachary Taylor to Abraham Lincoln. Despite opposition from some Southerners, who railed against her efforts as an abolitionist imposition of New England mores, 30 or 33 states observed the holiday by 1860. Finally, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln, struggling to invigorate the flagging Union effort and to reunite a war-torn people, declared the last Sunday of November a national day of Thanksgiving “to heal the wounds of the nation.”
Hale soon began lobbying for a congressional declaration to protect the holiday from presidential whims. Almost 60 years after her death in 1879, Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to the third Thursday of November to extend the Christmas shopping season, only to be rebuffed by Congress, which established it on the fourth Thursday.
And those Plymouth Pilgrims? Their 1621 feast made little impact on the American consciousness until Sarah mentioned it in an 1865 Thanksgiving editorial. For years, she herself attributed the celebration to the Massachusetts Bay Puritans. She never included Native Americans. It was not until the 20th century, after the subjugation of all the Indian tribes, that the Wampanoag would be commonly depicted as happy celebrants of the Pilgrim feast.
It’s not our popular Thanksgiving tale; nevertheless, Sarah Josepha Hale, through her long fight to establish this national holiday, wrote a quintessentially American story of faith, determination, hard work and vision for a better country that is just as worthy of this day.
The Rev. John Gibson is pastor of Grace Episcopal Church in Clayton.