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Thanksgiving Day Proclamations in early American history

There was a time in the U.S. when national leaders were not so smitten with the idea that any mention of God should be banished from public or political discourse.  In fact, it appears that many of those leaders would have considered themselves derelict in their duties if they had failed to publicly acknowledge the mercy and providence of God.

That is especially evident in even a casual reading of national Thanksgiving Proclamations. You can find the full text of most of those documents at the DC American History Project, although oddly, the First National Thanksgiving Proclamation by the Continental Congress is missing from that collection.  (You can view that text here.)

Notable is the fact that each of these letters and proclamations are filled with clear references both to God’s inherent right to rule all nations, and to the corresponding responsibility of all nations to obey God and give Him thanks.

Here are some examples:

In 1623, faced with a severe drought, the members of the Plymouth colony…

… set apart a solemn day of humiliation, to seek the Lord by humble and fervent prayer… And afterwards the Lord sent to them such seasonable showers, with interchange of fair warm weather as, through His blessing, caused a fruitful and liberal harvest, to their no small comfort and rejoicing. For which mercy, in time convenient, they also set apart a day of thanksgiving.

Later, the 1st National Thanksgiving Proclamation, written in 1777, declared:

THAT with one heart and one voice the good people may express the grateful feelings of their hearts and consecrate themselves to the service of their Divine Benefactor; and that together with their sincere acknowledgments and offerings, they may join the penitent confession of their manifold sins, whereby they had forfeited every favour, and their humble and earnest supplication that it may please God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of remembrance

The 1782 proclamation affirmed the duty of all to publicly give thanks to God.

IT being the indispensable duty of all Nations, not only to offer up their supplications to Almighty God, the giver of all good, for his gracious assistance in a time of distress, but also in a solemn and public manner to give him praise for his goodness in general, and especially for great and signal interpositions of his providence in their behalf… and they do further recommend to all ranks, to testify to their gratitude to GOD for his goodness, by a cheerful obedience of his laws, and by promoting, each in his station, and by his influence, the practice of true and undefiled religion, which is the great foundation of public prosperity and national happiness.

George Washington’s proclamation, issued in 1789, began with an affirmation that it was not only the duty of all to pray and give thanks to God, but also to obey His will.

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…

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…

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 transgressions…

I’m afraid we’ve drifted pretty far from our historical roots. Back then the duties of prayer, repentance, confession of sin, obedience to God, giving thanks, and faith in Christ were seen as moral obligations and were publicly enjoined on the nation.  Today, for the most part, those same obligations are rejected as  inappropriate intrusions into public life.

One thing is obvious.  Separation of church and state did not mean to them what it has come to mean to us.  They understood its intent; we’ve perverted it.  But that’s another post.