Who isn’t glad for Thanksgiving Day? We Americans relish this special day of family, friends and gastronomic delight. Many families still speak their prayers of thanksgiving as part of the holiday. And most of us have a ready mental image of the Pilgrims’ 1621 first Thanksgiving Day meal. But few of us know why it was that our nation adopted a day for giving thanks to God as a national holiday.
It all started when we were one year old, and it came by proclamation of the Continental Congress. The Continental Congress guided the thirteen 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 ¼ of his remaining army would die of exposure or disease. Thomas Paine would immortalize “These are the times that try men’s souls” in his call-to-arms, The American Crisis. But there was also new room for hope: In October we had defeated the British in the Battle of Saratoga, and that victory eventually persuaded France to join our fight
Chased out of Philadelphia, the Continental Congress met in hiding in Baltimore. They grasped the magnitude of all they were experiencing. They knew it was a cosmic struggle. And so they devoted themselves to prayer and thanksgiving, and they asked their countrymen to do so as well. They prayed over, debated, wrote and approved their Proclamation, and sent it to every city and town in the 13 states. As a result, on December 18, 1777, the nation prayed. That day was a national statement of hope, humility and prayerful reliance on God. But they still had to live through 4 more years of war to get to their victory at Yorktown. In each of those years they issued a Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, and continued to do so until 1784, the year hostilities were officially ended with the Treaty of Paris.
After 1784 Thanksgiving Proclamations stopped being an annual tradition. Then, as one of its first official acts under our new Constitution, Congress directed President George Washington to write the 1789 Proclamation setting aside a day for public thanksgiving and prayer, to thank God for permitting them "peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness." They knew who had given them their nation, and who to thank. After 1789 it was left to the discretion of the president. John Adams wrote two Thanksgiving Proclamations, both during peacetime, and James Madison wrote two, both during the War of 1812.
After Madison, no national proclamations were written until the civil war, when Abraham Lincoln wrote four. His 1863 Proclamation contains such sweet and practical musings it is hard to imagine it was penned just three months after the horrifying carnage at Gettysburg. Right in its middle 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, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.” In an earlier proclamation he had written with a clear eye on history, but all too prophetically: “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!”
His successors apparently agreed. Every president since Lincoln has written an annual Thanksgiving Day Proclamation. War always added urgency to national prayers. In his 1942 Proclamation, Franklin Roosevelt asked for two days of prayer – Thanksgiving Day and New Years Day – and in grand FDR fashion, he captioned in the proclamation the entire 23rd Psalm. In 1944, four months after D-Day, he invited Americans to express their gratitude to God by “a nationwide reading of the Holy Scriptures during the period from Thanksgiving Day to Christmas… for a renewed and strengthening contact with those eternal truths…”
Like the U.S. itself, our Thanksgiving Holiday is unique in the world. I have researched every Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, from 1777 to 2014, and feel blessed to see such a vivid picture of America’s godly heritage. We should be grateful for the faithfulness of our national leadership. The founders viewed it as an official duty to call their countrymen to prayer! Their purpose in separating church from state was not, as today's secularists argue, to protect the state from religion, but to protect religion from the state. The modern firestorm about church and state misappropriates the founders’ words to argue for prohibition of prayer in schools and government. This so fouls the founders’ intent, its very absurdity should give us pause, but sadly it doesn’t. We forget.
These men hoped Americans would always be guided by virtue, fostered by truly free religion. They expressed that hope in their 1777 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, asking 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
... the church.