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Calvin Coolidge on Thanksgiving: Gratitude for ‘the things of the spirit’

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Despite being surrounded by unprecedented levels of opportunity and prosperity, we live in a profoundly anxious age, fearful of economic decline and disruption even as we strive to resist idols of status, wealth, and comfortability.

When observing such a state, many are quick to proclaim that “the market is not enough.” They are correct: We also need gratitude.

“We should bow in gratitude to God for His many favors,” said President Calvin Coolidge in his 1925 Thanksgiving Proclamation, remarking on a similar season of prosperity. “As we have grown and prospered in material things, so also should we progress in moral and spiritual things.”

It was a theme that Coolidge would routinely emphasize in his various addresses to the nation: “The things of the spirit come first,” he said, in a set of reflections on America’s founding. For Coolidge, America had entered an “age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things,” and was thus in sore need of such reminders.

When it came to an occasion such as Thanksgiving, then—a season wherein the focus is often set on material blessings—the theme would continue.

“We have been brought with safety and honor through another year, and, through the generosity of nature, He has blessed us with resources whose potentiality in wealth is almost incalculable,” Coolidge continued in his address. “We are at peace at home and abroad; the public health is good; we have been undisturbed by pestilences or great catastrophes; our harvests and our industries have been rich in productivity; our commerce spreads over the whole world, and labor has been well rewarded for its remunerative service.”

Coolidge was clearly positive about material abundance and the virtues that inspired it, yet he was just as quick to remind us of the source of it all. “We are a God-fearing people who should set ourselves against evil and strive for righteousness in living, and observing the Golden Rule we should from our abundance help and serve those less fortunately placed,” he continued. “We should bow in gratitude to God for His many favors.”

A year earlier, in his 1924 Thanksgiving address, this was also a primary focus. Coolidge pointed the nation’s attention to the source of economic prosperity, and in turn, the imperative to reorient our hearts and hands toward serving our neighbors and, thus, God. “An abundant prosperity has overspread the land,” he said. “We shall do well to accept all these favors and bounties with a becoming humility, and dedicate them to the service of the righteous cause of the Giver of all good and perfect gifts. As the nation has prospered let all the people show that they are worthy to prosper by rededicating America to the service of God and man.”

Yet while modernity and economic progress may have brought us new temptations and struggles, Coolidge believed that the corresponding lessons were first learned and taught from the very beginning—including the very first Thanksgiving.

Years earlier, as Warren Harding’s vice president in 1920, Coolidge spoke on the topic at the tricentennial of the pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth Rock. The pilgrims “cared little for titles, still less for the goods of this earth,” Coolidge observed, “but for an idea they would die.” That idea, he continued, was one that stretched before and beyond the material—humble before God and holistic in its vision of earthly abundance. It connected “hearth and altar”—“home and the church”—with the dignity of work. “With arms in their hands they wrung from the soil their bread,” he said, reminding us of their simple roadmap for human flourishing. “What an increase, material and spiritual, three hundred years has brought,” he said.

As we stir our hearts in gratitude this Thanksgiving season, we ought to share in this invitation. Being good stewards of gratitude isn’t always easy, particularly in our age of shortcuts and convenience, anxiety and entitlement.

But despite the constant call of those competing emotions and priorities, we can still pause and remember the source of all that’s true, good, and beautiful. We can “grow and prosper in material things,” even as we also “progress in moral and spiritual things.”

“Plymouth Rock does not mark a beginning or an end,” Coolidge concluded in his 1920 speech. “It marks a revelation of that which is without beginning and without end—a purpose, shining through eternity with a resplendent light, undimmed even by the imperfections of men; and a response, an answering purpose, from those who, oblivious, disdainful of all else, sailed hither seeking only for an avenue for the immortal soul.”

Image: Library of Congress

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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