Marc C. Smith: America’s Thanksgiving holiday
Who isn’t glad for Thanksgiving Day? We Americans relish this special day of family, friends and gastronomic delight. Many families speak their prayers of thanksgiving as part of the holiday. And most of us have a ready image of the Pilgrims’ 1621 first Thanksgiving.
But few Americans know why our nation adopted a day for giving thanks to God as a national holiday.
It all started when we were one year old … by proclamation of the Continental Congress. The Continental Congress guided the 13 states from the Declaration of Independence, through the War of Independence, and later through the writing and ratification of our Constitution.
By 1777, the Congress knew the war was entering a crisis. The British occupied New York City and Philadelphia; General Washington had suffered military defeats in New Jersey, Maryland and Pennsylvania and was retreating to Valley Forge. That winter one-fourth of his remaining army would die of exposure or disease.
In his call-to-arms, “The American Crisis,” Thomas Paine would immortalize “These are the times that try men’s souls.” But there was also new room for hope — in October, we had defeated the British in the Battle of Saratoga, and that victory would persuade France to join our fight.
Chased out of Philadelphia, the Continental Congress met in hiding in Baltimore. By then they knew theirs was a cosmic struggle.
Men must be responsible for their own governance; it cannot be left to emperors and kings. So they devoted themselves to prayer, and by official proclamation, they asked their countrymen to do so as well.
So, on Dec. 18, 1777, our new nation prayed. That day citizens prayed to God with one voice in hope, humility and thanksgiving. The Continental Congress continued to proclaim holidays of prayer and thanksgiving each year through 1784, the year hostilities officially ended with the Treaty of Paris.
Then in 1789, by joint legislative act under our new constitution, Congress directed our first president to write a proclamation setting aside a day for public thanksgiving and prayer. In it Washington asked for prayers thanking God for permitting them “peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”
After 1789, it was left to the discretion of the president. Some, like Adams and Madison, wrote them. Others did not.
Then during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln wrote four. His 1863 proclamation contains such sweet and practical musings that it is hard to imagine it was penned just three months after the horrifying carnage at Gettysburg.
In it, he speaks America’s conscience: “No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God…”
In an earlier proclamation Lincoln had written both history and prophesy: “Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us!”
Every president since Lincoln has written an annual Thanksgiving Day proclamation. But the eight founding era proclamations of the Continental Congress are special.
These reveal the intent of the founders. They viewed it as an official duty to call their countrymen to prayer. They knew that men responsible for their own governance must always be guided by virtue, which can only be fostered by truly free religion. Again, the founders knew this.
Their purpose in separating church from state in the Bill of Rights was not to protect the state from religion, but to protect religion from the state. The First Amendment ensured that government could never abridge our right to worship and prayer. The founders cherished their own right to prayer, and they systematically submitted their law-making deliberations to prayer.
The hope of the founders resonated in the 1777 proclamation. In it, they asked Americans to pray that God would “take Schools and Seminaries of Education, so necessary for cultivating the Principles of true Liberty, Virtue and Piety, under His nurturing Hand; and to prosper the Means of Religion, for the promotion and enlargement of that Kingdom…”
By government proclamation, they asked their country … to pray … for God to prosper … religion.
Marc C. Smith
Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. chaplain
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