Thanksgiving Day and Americas Religious Heritage
When the Pilgrims came to the northern wilderness of America by way of the Mayflower in 1620, they pledged themselves to a mission “for the glory of God, and the advancement of the Christian faith” (Moore 16). When they arrived, they wanted to thank God for His blessings so they set aside a special time of Thanksgiving during that first fall of 1621. It is a great reminder of the rich religious heritage of America! For nearly four centuries, people in this great land have observed Thanksgiving during autumn. The first official national proclamation of the observance of Thanksgiving under the Constitution was in 1789. Following the approval of the Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment, the Congressional Record for September 25, 1789, states that Elias Boudinot, President of Congress during the American Revolution, said he could not allow the congressional session to pass without providing an opportunity for U. S. citizens with one voice to thank God for His many blessings. Boudinot moved the following resolution:
Resolved, That a joint committee of both Houses be directed to wait upon the President of the United States to request that he would 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 signal favors of Almighty God. . . . (qtd. in Wallbuilder Report 2)
The Senate concurred in the House resolve on September 26, and then the Resolution was delivered to President George Washington who concurred and authored his Proclamation on October 3, 1789. He attended St. Paul’s Chapel of Trinity Parish Episcopal on Thanksgiving. However, inclement weather kept many people at home. President Washington’s First Thanksgiving Day Proclamation under the Constitution, New York City, 3rd October, 1789, reads as follows:
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 TWENTY-SIXTH 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 favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed;-- for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enable 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 transgressions;-- 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 unto 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. (qtd. in. Cousins 71-72)
Thus, we see again that the historical evidence confirms the proposition that the Founders believed freedom of religion did not mean freedom from religion. In fact, they, for the most part, recognized faith in God as the essential intellectual foundation for government itself. The affirmation of Washington, himself, who issued the first National Thanksgiving Proclamation, sums it up well:
It is impossible to account for the creation of the universe, without the agency of a Supreme Being.
It is impossible to govern the universe without the aid of a Supreme Being. It is impossible to reason without arriving at a Supreme Being. Religion is as necessary to reason, as reason is to religion. The one cannot exist without the other. A reasoning being would lose his reason, in attempting to account for the great phenomena of nature, had he not a Supreme Being to refer to; and well has it been said, that if there had been no God, mankind would have been obliged to imagine one. (72-73)
Cousins, Norman, Ed. In God We Trust: The Religious Beliefs and Ideas of the American Founding Fathers. New York: Harper & Bros., 1958.
Moore, James P., Jr. One Nation Under God: The History of Prayer in America. New York: Doubleday, 2005.
The Wallbuilder Report. (Fall) 1996: 1-2.