…devout thanksgiving…penitent confession of our sins, and humble supplication for pardon, through the merits of our Savior.
Thanksgiving Proclamation (1778)
…to cause virtue and true religion to flourish, to give to all nations amity, peace and concord, and to fill the world with his glory.
Thanksgiving Proclamation (1784)
These United States
The Declaration of Independence (1776) announced the birth of a new confederation, the United States of America. But its first constitution, The Articles of Confederation, wasn’t ratified until March 1, 1781, five years into the seven-year War for Independence. The confederation had neither a chief executive officer nor a court system. The Articles only allowed for a Congress. And the Articles never described the United States as a nation or even a government. They said rather that, “The said States hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other…binding themselves to assist each other…” (Article III). That “union” was supposed to be “perpetual.”
Given this history, it is technically incorrect to speak of anything Congress did under the Articles, let alone before, as having a “national” character. The United States weren’t (note the plural verb) really a nation. Still, Congress spoke for the confederation to the rest of the world, and it spoke with legitimate authority to its member states. It was the forerunner of the Congress we have today.
Thanksgiving in 1777
In the fall of 1777, Congress was working from York, Pennsylvania, while British troops occupied Philadelphia. There had been some recent upturns in America’s fortunes. Benedict Arnold had defeated the British at Saratoga—the first significant American victory—and France was ready to pledge her support to the American cause. With such blessings in mind, Sam Adams and others called on Congress to recommend a confederacy-wide day of thanksgiving. Adams himself wrote the first draft of the proclamation. The Second Continental Congress chose Thursday December 18, 1777 as America’s first thanksgiving day. The Proclamation begins like this:
FOR AS MUCH as it is the indispensable Duty of all Men to adore the superintending Providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with Gratitude their Obligation to him for Benefits received, and to implore such farther Blessings as they stand in Need of: And it having pleased him in his abundant Mercy, not only to continue to us the innumerable Bounties of his common Providence; but also to smile upon us in the Prosecution of a just and necessary War, for the Defense and Establishment of our unalienable Rights and Liberties; particularly in that he hath been pleased, in so great a Measure, to prosper the Means used for the Support of our Troops, and to crown our Arms with most signal success:
The Proclamation takes for granted the doctrine of divine providence. The God acknowledged by Congress governs the world; He ought to be worshipped; He answers prayers; He is abundant in mercy; He honors the prosecution of just wars and gives victory in battle. This isn’t the god of deism or Enlightenment pantheism.
The Proclamation continues:
It is therefore recommended to the legislative or executive Powers of these UNITED STATES to set apart THURSDAY, the eighteenth Day of December next, for SOLEMN THANKSGIVING and PRAISE:
Congress had no power to order a day of thanksgiving. But Congress believed it could properly recommend such a day to the States. Congress believed it had legal authority to call America to give thanks to the God who ruled the world.
That at one Time and with 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 Favor; 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 Proclamation here draws upon the judicial theology of Scripture. The American people have sinned; that is, they have broken God’s laws. These sins have cost America any claim upon God’s favor and blessing. Now the American people need to confess and repent of their sins; and with humble hearts they need to beseech God for forgiveness. Such forgiveness is only possible through the merits of Jesus Christ. These “merits” are the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ to God’s moral law, His atoning substitutionary death on the cross, and His resurrection victory over sin and death. Belief in these merits presupposes belief in His deity. Congress wasn’t ashamed to confess their belief in this judicial theology or to name the name of Christ. They clearly assumed that most Americans shared their faith.
That it may please him graciously to afford his Blessing on the Governments of these States respectively, and prosper the public Council of the whole: To inspire our Commanders, both by Land and Sea, and all under them, with that Wisdom and Fortitude which may render them fit Instruments, under the Providence of Almighty GOD, to secure for these United States, the greatest of all human Blessings, INDEPENDENCE and PEACE: That it may please him, to prosper the Trade and Manufactures of the People, and the Labor of the Husbandman, that our Land may yield its Increase:
God’s providence, as Congress understood it, encompasses the whole of human life: civil government, military command and service, commerce, manufacturing, agriculture, and the productivity of the earth itself. But Congress recognized as the greatest “human blessings” independence and peace. That is, Congress recognized that these, too, are within God’s providential rule over history and that He bestows them in mercy. Men don’t earn them.
But Congress looked beyond the merely human:
To 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, which consisteth “in Righteousness, Peace and Joy in the Holy Ghost.”
Virtue and piety are vague words, appropriate to Roman philosophy as well as Christian theology. The same may be said of “religion.” But the kingdom that consists in “righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost” (Rom. 14:17) is very specific. It’s the kingdom of Jesus Christ described in the Gospels and the New Testament epistles. And it is this kingdom’s growth and advancement for which Congress would have the American people pray.
And it is further recommended, That servile Labor, and such Recreation, as, though at other Times innocent, may be unbecoming the Purpose of this Appointment, be omitted on so solemn an Occasion.
This final note may seem strange to most Americans, even to most American Christians. The Proclamation is suggesting that this day of thanksgiving ought to have a Sabbath-like quality. The American people ought to get serious about their thanks and supplications, and to that end they ought to lay aside their normal work and recreations so they can focus properly on their approach to God in Christ. Congress actually believed that all religious forms weren’t equally valid or equally appropriate at all times. They even thought that entertainment and leisure ought to give way to serious religion.
In Later Years
This proclamation of a day of thanksgiving wasn’t a one-time affair. Over the years that followed, through the years of the War and beyond, the Congress of the Confederation continued to call the American people to thanksgiving in very similar language.
The Proclamation of 1778 speaks of God’s “great and manifold mercies on the people of these United States.” It makes explicit reference to the French alliance and God’s “disposing the heart of a powerful monarch to enter into alliance with us.” It again recommends “devout thanksgiving…penitent confession of our sins, and humble supplication for pardon, through the merits of our Savior.” That Savior is Christ.
The Proclamation of 1779, with reference to the settlement of America as well as the recent War, calls Americans to thanksgiving for the “wonders which his goodness has wrought.” But it places “above all” that He has “diffused the glorious light of the gospel, whereby, through the merits of our gracious Redeemer, we may become the heirs of his eternal glory.” With this in mind, the American people should pray that God “would grant to his church the plentiful effusions of divine grace, and pour out his holy spirit on all ministers of the gospel; that he would bless and prosper the means of education, and spread the light of Christian knowledge through the remotest corners of the earth….”
“And finally, that he would establish the independence of these United States upon the basis of religion and virtue, and support and protect them in the enjoyment of peace, liberty and safety as long as the sun and moon shall endure, until time shall be no more.” The language here intertwines the American vision with the language of messianic prophecy (cf. Ps. 72).
The Proclamation of 1780 is similar in its estimation of the “gospel of peace” and in its hope that God would “build up his churches in their most holy faith and to cause the knowledge of Christianity to spread over all the earth.” The Proclamation of 1781 borrows a phrase from Isaiah and looks forward to the day when the knowledge of God will “cover the earth, as the waters cover the seas” (Isa. 11:7). And the Proclamation of 1782 speaks of “the practice of true and undefiled religion, which is the great foundation of public prosperity and national happiness.” The allusion is to James 1:27.
The Proclamations of 1783 and 1784 contain much the same language, though by those years the War was over and emphasis was shifting from repentance and the need for divine aid in war toward thanksgiving for victory and prayer for the success of God’s kingdom among all nations. The American sense of mission was already taking deep root.
Much has been said and done in the last fifty years to downplay the role of the Christian faith in our nation’s history and civil government. The disparagement of Thanksgiving is one small part of that secular campaign. We call the holiday (holy day?) “Turkey Day.” We use it mainly to kick off a materialistic binge of Yuletide consumption.
But there was a time when the American Congress called for serious, heartfelt thanksgiving to the Christian God and devout prayers for His merciful intervention. Of course, America was then in the middle of a devastating war for her God-given rights and liberties. War does strange things to people. Maybe when we are at war and our lives and rights are in danger… we’ll turn to God for help. Maybe.
Our forefathers certainly did.