By LAWRENCE P. GRAYSON
Thanksgiving is the time when America’s religious roots and traditions are publicly displayed. While we think of feasting at tables filled with food and drink, and imagine the Pilgrims in Plymouth Colony inviting neighboring Indians to join them to celebrate a plentiful harvest, Thanksgiving Day has a much more religious meaning. It was not uncommon in the 17th and 18th centuries for individual colonies to set aside days for prayers of gratitude to our Lord.
In 1671, the governing council of Charlestown, Mass., proclaimed June 29 “as a day of Solemn Thanksgiving and praise to God for such His Goodness and Favor.” Annually from 1777 through 1784, as the American colonists fought for their independence, the Continental Congress issued proclamations each fall, calling for days of “public thanksgiving and praise” and “humble supplication” to Almighty God for His beneficence and mercies.
Gen. George Washington, in turn, acted to ensure that the troops would observe those days of prayer. In his General Orders of November 30, 1777, he stated that “Thursday the 18th day of December next be set apart for Solemn Thanksgiving and Praise; 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 acknowledgements and offerings they may join the penitent confession of their sins; and supplications for such further blessings as they stand in need of.”
Similar declarations followed. In 1789, the first year of his presidency, Washington designated Thursday, November 26 as a day for “prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations” both in thanksgiving for his “signal and manifold mercies” and to request Him to “pardon our national and other transgressions.” President James Madison proclaimed days of prayer and fasting three times during the War of 1812, first to request God’s assistance and then to thank Him for a successful outcome.
During the Civil War, the Union and Confederate Congresses both called for days of thanksgiving, with Presidents Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln issuing proclamations for military victories. On October 3, 1863, Lincoln urged that the last Thursday of November be observed “as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens” for His “singular deliverances and blessings” and “with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience.”
The date for Thanksgiving was not fixed, but left to the president to designate. Since Lincoln selected the last Thursday in November, however, this date became the tradition for succeeding presidents. In 1939, as the effects of the Depression lingered and with five Thursdays in that November, President Franklin Roosevelt, responding to a request from business leaders for more shopping days before Christmas, selected the next to last Thursday as Thanksgiving. There was significant public umbrage as Roosevelt kept it as this earlier date for the next two years.
In 1941, Congress enacted that the holiday would be celebrated, as it currently is, on the fourth Thursday of November. In spite of commercial concerns for moving the date, Roosevelt kept the purpose of Thanksgiving in mind. In 1942, he called on the American people to observe both Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day “in prayer, publicly and privately.” The following year, in “gratitude to Almighty God,” he requested “a nationwide reading of the Holy Scriptures during the period from Thanksgiving Day to Christmas.”
The tradition of a national declaration of gratitude to God has continued, with every president since Lincoln issuing a proclamation annually. In 1953, President Eisenhower requested that “all of us” gather on Thanksgiving Day in “our respective places of worship and bow before God in contrition for our sins, in suppliance for wisdom in our striving for a better world, and in gratitude for the manifold blessings He has bestowed upon us and upon our fellow men.”
President Ronald Reagan in 1984 urged: “Let us pause from our many activities to give thanks to almighty God for our bountiful harvests and abundant freedoms. Let us call upon Him for continued guidance and assistance in all our endeavors. And let us ever be mindful of the faith and spiritual values that have made our Nation great and that alone can keep us great.”
In 2004, President George W. Bush wrote: “We are grateful for our freedom, grateful for our families and friends, and grateful for the many gifts of America. On Thanksgiving Day, we acknowledge that all of these things, and life itself, come from the Almighty God.” Four years later, he stated: “Let us all give thanks to God who blessed our Nation’s first days and who blesses us today. May He continue to guide and watch over our families and our country always.”
President Barack Obama has continued the tradition, at least perfunctorily. Although in his proclamations he frequently has referred to the gratitude of the Pilgrims to the Wampanoag Indians, last year he wrote that we should be “mindful of the grace bestowed upon us by God and by all who have made our lives richer with their presence.”
While these public prayers have been called proclamations of thanksgiving, they have expressed much more than gratitude over the years. As all prayers, they have been used to petition God for assistance, to thank Him for His mercy and abundance, to atone for our personal and national sins, and to praise Him as the “Lord and Ruler of Nations.” These declarations are an overt recognition that while America has a government that neither promotes nor prohibits the free exercise of religion, belief in God is an integral part of the nation’s history, culture, and society.
In spite of continuing efforts to remove any reference to God from our public conscience — from our coinage, the Pledge of Allegiance, our schools – the dispositions and traditions of the American people still reflect a religious, indeed a Christian, ethos within which political leaders must govern if they are to achieve their personal aspirations. As long as the people as a whole have not rejected all public reference to God nor abandoned religious practices, and if principles based on religious teachings continue to regulate their societal behavior, it will be possible to maintain a spirit of virtue to advance the well-being of the nation and its populace.
On November 28, we celebrate Thanksgiving. It will be a day marked by parades with marching bands, floats, and balloons, by football games from morning until late evening, by amounts of food and drink that surpass our capacity to consume, and by the beginning of a month-long marketing blitz seeking our consumer dollar.
While we enjoy the camaraderie and festivities of the day, do not forget its central purpose – to thank God for His innumerable blessings on us, our families, and our nation. What an expression of faith it would be if everyone could begin the day with an act of recognition of God, say more than a superficial prayer, and perhaps, just perhaps, decline that extra piece of pie.
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(Lawrence P. Grayson is a visiting scholar in The School of Philosophy, The Catholic University of America.)