As we gather with family, or celebrate at a distance due to the ongoing pandemic, to take part in Thanksgiving, let us take a moment to reflect on this American holiday. Most people think of Pilgrims and Native Americans having a feast to celebrate the former’s first corn harvest. But it wasn’t until 168 years later that the first Thanksgiving Proclamation was made, and there was no mention of Pilgrims. There was, however, mention of God.
In October 1781, when General Cornwallis surrendered his British army, it marked the birth of a nation. To General George Washington, the victory also demonstrated an act of God. Heavenly protection could be the only explanation for the fledgling Continental forces to win-out over the world-class British army. In fact, throughout the war, Washington credited “Providence” for the Continental Army’s success – even joking in a letter to his brother that he would be obliged to “turn preacher” following the war.
Eight years following the triumph at Yorktown, George Washington was inaugurated as the first President of the United States of America. Less than six months into his presidency, Washington made the first Thanksgiving Proclamation—the words of which are of as much import today as they were when it was written on October 3, 1789.
By the President of the United States of America. a Proclamation.
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 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 26th 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 which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war—for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed—for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled 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 hath 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 shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord—To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease 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.
Given under my hand at the City of New-York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.
America’s first President can teach us a valuable lesson in the importance of faith and patience. It would be easy to read these words and wonder if God’s hand is still guiding our Country. Let us not forget that George Washington endured eight and a half years of war, losing many battles. But the Lord allowed him to escape with enough men to fight another day. And eventually, he was able to secure victory.
Let us take this time with family to thank God and see His ever-guiding hand even in the most difficult times, just as George Washington did.
Despite President Washington’s stirring proclamation, it wasn’t until 1863, in the aftermath of another war, that our 16th President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving to be an annual tradition—due in large part to the efforts of Sarah Josepha Hale.