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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

In Thanksgiving: Sarah Josepha Hale

"Behind every successful man is a good woman."

We've heard that before. It's a backhanded compliment of sorts.

I'm convinced that behind every great idea is a persistent woman.

Sarah Josepha Hale is case in point. Hers is an especially important story to remember as we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving Day tomorrow.

Hale was born on a farm in Newport, New Hampshire, the daughter of Captain Gordon Buell and Martha Whittlesay Buell on October 24, 1788.

She earned a college degree without going to college, having been taught at home by her mother and brother Horatio, who attended Dartmouth College and came home at night to teach her what he learned.

She became a school teacher in a day when women were not allowed to be teachers. She met her future husband, David Hale, a lawyer, in her father's tavern, "The Rising Sun" in Newport where they later married in 1811. She was 18 years old. Together they had five children.

David died, suddenly and unexpectedly, in 1822. In perpetual mourning, Sarah Josepha Hale wore black for the rest of her life.

As a widow, she returned to teaching school to support her five children. Indeed, she also started a private school for children. So committed was she to higher education for women, she campaigned successfully for women to become doctors as well as having had a part in founding of Vassar College for women.

She also founded the Seamen's AID Society, which assisted with food, clothing, housing, child care and job skills those destitute women and children of Boston sailors who died at sea.

In 1823, with the monetary support of her late husband's Freemason lodge, she published a collection of her poems entitled "The Genius of Oblivion".

Not long after that, she published her first novel "Northwood: Life North and South" and in London under the title, "A New England Tale", which made her one of the first American women novelists and one of the first of either gender to write a book about slavery.

The premise of her book is that, while slavery hurts and dehumanizes slaves absolutely, it also dehumanizes the masters and retards the psychological, moral and technological progress of their world.

However, a woman of her time, her 'solution' to the problem of slavery was to support the re-Africanization of slaves in the colony of Liberia - a notion which echoed Thomas Jefferson's apprehension regarding the difficulty the races would encounter in living together with the specter of slavery between them.

Her book was widely read and caught the attention of Reverend John Blake, who asked her to move to Boston to become the editor of his journal "Ladies' Magazine" - the first woman to do so. Hale hoped the magazine would help in educating women, as she wrote, "not that they may usurp the situation, or encroach on the prerogatives of man; but that each individual may lend her aid to the intellectual and moral character of those within her sphere".

She was, after all, a woman of her time. She served as editor from 1828-1836. And, it was New England, after all.

In 1837, Hale became editor of Godey's Lady's Book, a position she held for forty years. The journal - and Hale as its editor - had an influence unimaginable for any single publication today. The magazine is credited with an ability to influence fashions not only for women's clothes, but also in domestic architecture. Godey's published house plans that were copied by home builders nationwide.

Hale wrote many novels and poems, publishing nearly fifty volumes of work by the end of her life. One of the collections was "Poems for Our Children" which included her poem "Mary Had a Little Lamb," published in 1830.

In 1887, the year Hale retired at the age of 89, Thomas Edison spoke the opening lines of "Mary's Lamb" the first ever recorded on his newly invented phonograph

So, hearing of all the many accomplishments of this amazing woman, you won't be surprised to know that Sarah Josepha Hale is the woman behind the Thanksgiving Holiday we're about to celebrate.

In Hale's lifetime, Thanksgiving had only been celebrated in her native New England. Prior to the addition of Thanksgiving, the only national holidays celebrated in the United States were Washington's Birthday and Independence Day.

The holiday had begun with a 1777 Presidential proclamation for a national day of Thanksgiving by George Washington to celebrate the defeat of the British at Saratoga.

It was issued again in 1795 and the practice was continued by John Adams but Thomas Jefferson declined the national observation on the basis that it conflicted with the principal of the separation of church and state.

But Hale persisted. She wrote letters to five Presidents of the United States -- Zachary Taylor, Millard Filmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and Abraham Lincoln, also using her position as a prestigious editor to write editorials in her magazine as well as the newspapers of her time.

It was Lincoln who relented. The new national holiday was considered a unifying day after the stress of the American Civil War. The day was not to commemorate the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts, but to call the nation to a day of prayer in Thanksgiving for this "one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all."

Lincoln's Presidential Proclamation, issued in 1863, said, in part:
Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had 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.

. . . . .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 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."
I don't need to subscribe to Lincoln's image of 'our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens' in order to embrace his theology of thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving Day is not about Pilgrims and Indians (First People, Native Americans). It's about 'gathering together to ask the Lord's blessings'. It's a good time to remember and give thanks for all that we have been given, and to return the first fruits of our harvest of plenty to the one who gave them to us in the first place.

And, while we are 'offering humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience', let us also remember all the victims - the 'collateral damage' - of war.

Let us pray for the healing of 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".

Let us strive to share from the abundance of God's bounty with those who have none.

There is no reason - no, not one - for anyone in this nation, indeed, in this world, to go hungry tomorrow. Or today. Or any day.

When we gather 'round the Thanksgiving Dinner table tomorrow, let us also remember and give thanks for the life of Sarah Josepha Hale who gave of her own life so abundantly for the good and welfare of so many.

Let us be thankful that her persistence brought us to our knees as a nation in thankful prayer for God's mercy and abundance.

I can't think of a time in our common lives when we more sorely need persistent women like Sarah Josepha Hale.

Or, to be on our knees in prayer.


Anonymous said...

It is times like this that I give thanks for persistent women like you, Susan Russell, and Mary Glasspool. Thank you for serving. I hope you have a happy Thanksgiving.


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well, you've placed me in fabulous company and I'm thankful and honored for that. Happy Thanksgiving!