By Dr. Mike Bellah, professor, columnist

Why do we Americans celebrate Thanksgiving Day on the fourth Thursday of November? Abraham Lincoln declared it a holiday in his famous Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1863. But who put Lincoln up to it?

The answer is Sarah Josepha Hale, arguably the most successful midlife woman in American history.

In addition to moving President Lincoln to action, Sarah Hale was the first to urge equal education for American girls. She was the first to start day nurseries for working women, the first to suggest public playgrounds, and the first editor of the first woman’s magazine in America.

Hale authored two dozen books and hundreds of poems, including the best known nursery rhyme in the English language: “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

And perhaps the most remarkable part is, she did it all after she turned 40.

Widowed and penniless at 34, with five small children to raise, Hale supported herself with sewing and poetry. Then, at 39, her first novel, Northwood, was a huge success.

A year later a British publisher asked her to serve as the first editorof The Ladies Magazine and the rest, as they say, is history. Nine years later she moved to Godey’s Lady’s Book in Philadelphia. Here her editorial skills helped the publication become the largest in America with a subscription list of 150,000 by the 1850s.

Sarah Hale continued to write and edit until she was 89. She died at a robust 91.

“The Lady Editor,” as Hale was affectionately called, advocated a national celebration of Thanksgiving as early as 1827. “We have too few holidays,” she wrote in Northwood. “Thanksgiving like the Fourth of July should be considered a national festival and observed by all our people.”

To Sarah Hale Thanksgiving would be a therapeutic holiday. “There is a deep moral influence in these periodical seasons of rejoicing, in which whole communities participate. They bring out . . . the best sympathies in our natures.”

Hale saw this spiritual dimension of Thanksgiving as a means for preventing the insanity of civil war in America. This is why, as hostilities heated up between North and South, she bombarded both national and state officials with requests for the national holiday.

By 1863 when Lincoln issued his now famous Thanksgiving Proclamation, Sarah Hale had penned literally thousands of these letters in her own hand. “If every state would join in Union Thanksgiving on the 24th of this month, would it not be a renewed pledge of love and loyalty to the Constitution of the United States?” Hale wrote in a 1859 editorial.

Of course, Sarah Hale was unable to avert those saddest years of American history, but in 1863, as civil war ravished the land, Abraham Lincoln did issue the proclamation Hale had spent nearly 40 years and thousands of letters to procure.

Speaking of America’s blessings, even in its darkest hour, Lincoln wrote, “No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered us in mercy.”

And so Americans celebrate Thanksgiving together on the fourth Thursday of November each year. And perhaps that celebration has helped as much as anything to keep us from the insanity of fighting against ourselves again..

If so, we have Lincoln’s Most High God to thank for it, as well as a spunky midlifer named Sarah Josepha Hale.