Some surviving family writings from the 1800s provide perspective on being thankful for a wide variety of things. Thus we may be thankful:
For natural beauty—Cumberland Gap, 1895
Since the train tunnel through the mountain had collapsed, Mary Hosbrook found herself taking a treacherous wagon ride over the mountain at sunrise. “On the summit we were in three states — Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, and I was in a fourth, a state of bliss. As far as the eye could see rose one mountain after another, a smoky blue haze hovering around the tops. Beautiful flowers grew out of the sandstone road.”
For God and Country — India, 1898
As a missionary in remote India, my ancestral cousin had a fresh perspective and appreciation for America. “Righteousness has exalted our nation. The American people have free speech, a free press, free schools, freedom of conscience, separation of church and state, and the most valuable institutions man can have — all bought at great sacrifice.”
For parental guidance — Indianapolis, 1865
Percy Hosbrook was raised on a farm and wrote a touching letter to his father on his 80th birthday. “Respected father, looking over the list of your children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, I believe there is not a drunkard, swearer, vagabond, or beggar among them, and I pledge that none of my children ever shall be. I have the spelling book you gave me 47 years ago and also the Whitney compass that you surveyed with half a century ago, and I sometimes use it yet.” Percy’s father had been a county surveyor and state legislator in Ohio as son Percy was in Indiana.
For family help when death comes — Indianapolis, 1870
Percy’s uncle Hervey Bates was one of the founders of Indianapolis. Hervey’s older brother had been raised with Percy’s father, Dan Hosbrook, and the two bonded—until Moses Bates died at age 21 and was buried on the farm. When Dan died 56 years later, one of Dan’s other sons, Mahlon, proposed to bury the two together in a new cemetery. Hervey was touched by his nephew’s kindness.
“Dear Mahlon, Grateful am I to you, very grateful, that you have undertaken to gather up the dust of my deceased brother and lay it in your lot in the new cemetery. There existed between your father and my brother in their early years an affectionate regard, a warm friendship, passing common. It is therefore fitting they should thus sleep side by side.”
For God’s blessings even when adversity strikes — 1844
Nancy and Cyrus Mills received two letters from their son-in-law in the summer of 1844. The first told them of the death of their daughter, the second of the death of their granddaughter, age 2.
Each grandparent wrote a letter in reply. Nancy was so heartbroken by the tragic news that she could barely write. “I write a few words and then stop and give way to my feelings.” Likewise, Cyrus said that the deaths of their daughter and granddaughter were “the most trying circumstances I have ever met with.” Yet he still managed to soften his searing pain with an appreciation for his blessings.
“The all-wise Giver of every good thing bestows on his unworthy subjects the necessities and comforts of life — and yet how little do we appreciate the unbounded love and mercies, both spiritual and temporal, that He is constantly bestowing upon us. I feel at times that I should blush at my ingratitude, especially when I am disposed to complain at my lot and consider it a hard one.”
This has been a trying year for our bitterly divided nation — mass murders, new lows in civic discourse, and allegations of misconduct. And rather than seeing ourselves as unworthy subjects, an air of entitlement abounds. Pray that we may see through the negatives to unbounded blessings that should make us blush at our ingratitude. May we give a humble “thank you” this Thanksgiving.
James F. Burns is a retired professor at the University of Florida.