Written in 1597 by Adrianus Valerius as Wilt Heden Nu Treden to celebrate the Dutch victory over Spanish forces in the Battle of Turnhout, the hymn is set to a Dutch folk tune. At the time the hymn was written, the Dutch were engaged in a war of national liberation against King Philip II of Spain who was a Catholic. Under the rule of the Spanish King, Dutch Protestants were forbidden to gather for worship so the words "Wilt heden nu treden," or, loosely translated, "We gather together" provided them with inspiration to overthrow Spanish rule and usher in an era of prosperity and post-reformation cultural development.
The song's beginnings were definitely steeped in the ideals of freedom from religious persecution and establishing a union to overcome that which was oppressing the Dutch; much like our tradition of a Thanksgiving Day here in America has very similar beginnings when the Pilgrims, who had moved here to America to escape religious persecution, gathered together to celebrate the first bountiful harvest in their new home.
Thanksgiving Day, though, was an on-again/off-again celebration until President Abraham Lincoln, in a proclamation dated October 3rd, 1863, was the first to declare Thanksgiving as a national holiday to be celebrated every year. The last Thursday of November was chosen as the official day of celebration as George Washington had declared a National Thanksgiving Day to honor the new United States Constitution on November 26th, 1789 and it seemed fitting to keep the fourth Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day.
The first observance of the national holiday came exactly one week after the dedication of the Soldiers National Cemetery at Gettysburg on November 19th, 1863 where President Lincoln gave his famous Gettysburg Address. At that time, our country was in the midst of a horrible Civil War but President Lincoln felt that it was still important that we not forget all that God had given to us as a nation in spite of the battles that raged between the North and the South. I believe that President Lincoln also felt that if we gathered together as a nation to thank God even for just that one day that He might, by his merciful grace, reunite us as one nation under God.
"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 soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the everwatchful providence of almighty God.Just a few things to think about when you gather together with your friends and family not just on Thanksgiving Day but throughout the entire holiday season.
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, hath 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, tranquillity, and union."