Two-hundred and twenty-seven years ago, on October 3, 1789, President George Washington issued a proclamation designating the 26th of November as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer. While Thanksgiving itself was actually established by Abraham Lincoln and then passed into law by Congress in 1941, it was Washington who created the foundation and set the tone for what Thanksgiving was to be.
This is what Washington wrote:
Issued by President George Washington, at the request of Congress, on October 3, 1789
By the President of the United States of America, a Proclamation.
Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and—Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me “to recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:”
Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favor, able interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.
And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other trangressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally, to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.
Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.
This is a far cry from the proclamations of future presidents, especially those of Barack Obama, who has tended to spout historical inaccuracies about the history of Thanksgiving and encourage us to have discussions about health care on this day or, this year, discussions about gun control. It’s obvious that the original purposes of Thanksgiving have been lost to most of us, so let me take a minute to break down the major points of Washington’s original proclamation:
1) It’s the duty of all of us to acknowledge God’s power and position, to obey Him, show gratitude for what he has given us and pray for his protection and favor.
2) Thanksgiving was to be devoted to the service of God so that all Americans could be united in that service, gratitude and time of prayer.
3) We were to ask forgiveness for sins committed against God, both as a nation and as individuals.
4) Our government was supposed to be a blessing to the people by being built upon “wise, just, and constitutional laws”. (I doubt Washington would even recognize out country today, based on what he had envisioned.)
5) We were to pray for the other nations and leaders around the world to be blessed.
6) We were to pray for knowledge in the practice of religion, in being virtuous and in increasing our scientific knowledge, as well. These were aspects of life that were never meant to be at odds with each other, as they have become in many cases.
7) Our successes and prosperity ultimately come from the hand of God and we are to pray for, and be thankful for, such prosperity.
One final point: This is the sort of writing from a sitting president that has those today who desperately want to redefine Freedom of Religion as freedom FROM religion pulling out their hair in frustration. Like it or not, America was founded and built upon a strong belief and dependency in a very Judeo-Christian concept of God. But look at the other writings and prayers of George Washington in comparison. In spite of this insane effort to label Washington as a deist by taking a few statements severely out of context, it’s very clear in his writings that he was a devote Christian who, not only prayed to God, but who also constantly invoked the name and authority of Jesus. That level of specifics is missing from this proclamation for a very clear reason. This is the freedom of religion that is spelled out in our Bill of Rights. The concept of us living under the grace and authority of God was meant to be accepted as true by all of us, no matter what our sectarian concept of God was. Even atheists were meant to accept the concept of us being created equal and that our rights came from some constant and immutable source and definitely not from a document or lawmakers or government. Even without a belief in God, it was expected that we would all understand that there were aspects of our existence that didn’t exist solely at the whim of people in charge. They exist because of a higher authority and a creative force that precedes any man made law or institution.
So, with all that said, let me conclude by saying Happy Thanksgiving. No matter what your beliefs are, may God bless and protect you and yours today and throughout the coming year.
Now, what are you doing sit here reading my ramblings on Thanksgiving of all days?! Go spend time with those who you value in your life and let them know that you value them. And take a few minutes to reflect on all that you have to be truly thankful for. I suspect that it’s a lot more than you normally realize. It always is for me.