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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Early Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamations

A Textbook Example of
Christian Neutrality


With Thanksgiving just around the corner I thought that this might be an appropriate way to embrace the theme of the season. As we all know, Thanksgiving has become an extremely important event in American culture. For the religious and non-religious alike, Thanksgiving brings opportunities to recognize our nation's good fortune and a communal hope in its future prosperity. For many devout Christians, Thanksgiving takes on an additional measure of significance as a day in which praise is rendered to God for our nation's continued happiness. And make no mistake, the practice of giving thanks is as American as apple pie. Even our founders got in on the action.

And what exactly did these early Founding Fathers think of celebrating a national day of thanksgiving? While they certainly did not celebrate Thanksgiving in the same manner as we do today, a few of our earliest presidents did decree that certain days should be set aside and dedicated to national prayer and thanksgiving. Here are a few of those early presidential proclamations:

George Washington's Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789 -- October 14, 1789 to be exact -- has been lauded by Christian nation sympathizers for decades as proof positive that America's first Commander-in-Chief was a devout believer in Jesus Christ. And while I am in 100% agreement with their assertion that Washington was a devout man of faith and prayer, I also recognize that the historical record -- as it applies to Washington's religion -- is far from concrete in labeling him a devout Christian.

Let us look at the Thanksgiving proclamation itself for additional evidence on Washington's faith. First off, most anti-Christian nation advocates routinely point out the fact that the actual author of the proclamation was not President Washington, but William Jackson, the President's personal secretary. And while it is true that Washington did not himself pen the proclamation, it is reasonable to assume that he read and gave consent to the document's contents, thus the actual authorship of the piece has little to no relevance. What is relevant, however, is the wordage that was chosen to pay homage to God. Does Washington actually invoke the blessings of the Christian God as so many Christian nation apologists insist? Below is a copy of Washington's 1789 Thanksgiving 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 favour; and Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requefted me "to recommend to the people of the United States a DAY OF PUBLICK THANSGIVING 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 thefe States to the fervice 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 fincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the fignal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the courfe and conclufion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have fince enjoyed;-- for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enable to eftablish Conftitutions of government for our fafety and happinefs, 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 diffufing useful knowledge;-- and, in general, for all the great and various favours which He has been pleafed to confer upon us.

And also, that we may then unite in moft humbly offering our prayers and fupplications to the
great Lord and Ruler of Nations and befeech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions;-- to enable us all, whether in publick or private ftations, to perform our feveral and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a bleffing to all the people by conftantly being a Government of wife, juft, and conftitutional laws, difcreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all fovereigns and nations (especially fuch as have shewn kindnefs unto us); and to blefs them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increafe of science among them and us; and, generally to grant unto all mankind fuch a degree of temporal profperity as he alone knows to be beft.

GIVEN under my hand, at the city of New-York, the third day of October, in the year of our Lord, one thousand feven hundred and eighty-nine.

(signed) G. Washington
As noted in bold above, Washington's proclamation contains five specific references to deity. Contrary to what many anti-Christian nation advocates claim, the document is clearly religious in its content and purpose. However, does it support the Christian nation's assertion that Washington was a devout Christian? I would argue that it does not. Washington's "God talk" is both extremely neutral and noticeably absent of any typical Christian references. With that said, it is more than clear from this document and others that Washington was a man of faith. What TYPE of faith is the real question we must endeavor to answer.

This same neutral "God talk" can also be found in the thanksgiving proclamations of President James Madison. In both his 1814 and 1815 proclamations, Madison, like Washington, urges Americans to give thanks to God but does so in a very unitarian tone. In Madison's 1814 decree he writes:
The two Houses of the National Legislature having by a joint resolution expressed their desire that in the present time of public calamity and war a day may be recommended to be observed by the people of the United States as a day of public humiliation and fasting and of prayer to Almighty God for the safety and welfare of these States, His blessing on their arms, and a speedy restoration of peace, I have deemed it proper by this proclamation to recommend that Thursday, the 12th of January next, be set apart as a day on which all may have an opportunity of voluntarily offering at the same time in their respective religious assemblies their humble adoration to the Great Sovereign of the Universe, of confessing their sins and transgressions, and of strengthening their vows of repentance and amendment. They will be invited by the same solemn occasion to call to mind the distinguished favors conferred on the American people in the general health which has been enjoyed, in the abundant fruits of the season, in the progress of the arts instrumental to their comfort, their prosperity, and their security, and in the victories which have so powerfully contributed to the defense and protection of our country, a devout thankfulness for all which ought to be mingled with their supplications to the Beneficent Parent of the Human Race that He would be graciously pleased to pardon all their offenses against Him; to support and animate them in the discharge of their respective duties; to continue to them the precious advantages flowing from political institutions so auspicious to their safety against dangers from abroad, to their tranquillity at home, and to their liberties, civil and religious; and that He would in a special manner preside over the nation in its public councils and constituted authorities, giving wisdom to its measures and success to its arms in maintaining its rights and in overcoming all hostile designs and attempts against it; and, finally, that by inspiring the enemy with dispositions favorable to a just and reasonable peace its blessings may be speedily and happily restores.

Given at the city of Washington, the 16th day of November, 1814, and of the Independence of the United States the thirty-eighth.
JAMES MADISON
And Madison's Proclamation of 1815:
The senate and House of Representatives of the United States have by a joint resolution signified their desire that a day may be recommended to be observed by the people of the United States with religious solemnity as a day of thanksgiving and of devout acknowledgments to Almighty God for His great goodness manifested in restoring to them the blessing of peace.

No people ought to feel greater obligations to celebrate the goodness of the Great Disposer of Events of the Destiny of Nations than the people of the United States. His kind providence originally conducted them to one of the best portions of the dwelling place allotted for the great family of the human race. He protected and cherished them under all the difficulties and trials to which they were exposed in their early days. Under His fostering care their habits, their sentiments, and their pursuits prepared them for a transition in due time to a state of independence and self-government. In the arduous struggle by which it was attained they were distinguished by multiplied tokens of His benign interposition. During the interval which succeeded He reared them into the strength and endowed them with the resources which have enabled them to assert their national rights, and to enhance their national character in another arduous conflict, which is now so happily terminated by a peace and reconciliation with those who have been our enemies. And to the same Divine Author of Every Good and Perfect Gift we are indebted for all those privileges and advantages, religious as well as civil, which are so richly enjoyed in this favored land.

It is for blessings such as these, and more especially for the restoration of the blessing of peace, that I now recommend that the second Thursday in April next be set apart as a day on which the people of every religious denomination may in their solemn assembles unite their hearts and their voices in a freewill offering to their Heavenly Benefactor of their homage of thanksgiving and of their songs of praise.
As noted in Washington's proclamation, Madison's tone is noticeably neutral and intentionally sensitive in recognizing ALL brands of faith.

And while Washington and Madison's presidential proclamations are clearly absent any clear Christian language, it is worth pointing out that President John Adams' proclamation of 1798 for a "Day of Fasting and Humiliation" (not Thanksgiving) does contain specific Christian wordage that cannot be applied to any other belief system:
I have therefore thought fit to recommend and I do hereby recommend, that Wednesday, the 9th day of May next, be observed throughout the United States as a day of solemn humiliation, fasting, and prayer; that the citizens of these States, abstaining on that day from their customary worldly occupations, offer their devout addresses to the Father of Mercies agreeably to those forms or methods which they have severally adopted as the most suitable and becoming; that all religious congregations do, with the deepest humility, acknowledge before God the manifold sins and transgressions with which we are justly chargeable as individuals and as a nation, beseeching Him at the same time, of His infinite grace, through the Redeemer of the World, freely to remit all our offenses, and to incline us by His Holy Spirit to that sincere repentance and reformation which may afford us reason to hope for his inestimable favor and heavenly benediction.
For the complete text of President Adams' proclamation, click here.

As is obvious above, Adams' petition to "the Redeemer of the World" is clearly a Christian petition and cannot be applied to any other religion. So this must mean that John Adams was a devout orthodox Christian, right?

Well, not so fast. Several years later, Adams admitted to a friend his regret in issuing what he saw as an ultra-orthodox declaration of Christian piety, which he believed cost him the election with Thomas Jefferson. Adams writes:
The National Fast, recommended by me turned me out of office. It was connected with the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church, which I had no concern in. That assembly has allarmed and alienated Quakers, Anabaptists, Mennonists, Moravians, Swedenborgians, Methodists, Catholicks, protestant Episcopalians, Arians, Socinians, Armenians, & & &, Atheists and Deists might be added. A general Suspicon prevailed that the Presbyterian Church was ambitious and aimed at an Establishment of a National Church. I was represented as a Presbyterian and at the head of this political and ecclesiastical Project. The secret whisper ran through them “Let us have Jefferson, Madison, Burr, any body, whether they be Philosophers, Deists, or even Atheists, rather than a Presbyterian President.” This principle is at the bottom of the unpopularity of national Fasts and Thanksgivings. Nothing is more dreaded than the National Government meddling with Religion.

~John Adams to Benjamin Rush, June 12, 1812. Old Family Letters, 392-93; taken from Hutson’s The Founders on Religion, 101-02.
And while the founding generation -- the earliest presidents in particular -- did strive to maintain a neutral prose when recognizing deity, it would be a dire mistake to assume that such declarations are evidence of a desire for secularism to thrive over religion. Even if the language is noticeably absent any specific Christian references, the fact remains that ALL of these proclamations do call for the national recognition of the role of providence in America's prosperity. Such a petition appeals to Franklin's declaration of an American "public religion" and Jefferson's belief in "the Laws of Nature."

So, no matter which side of the fence you fall, try to remember that giving thanks to whatever it is you believe in is a time-honored tradition in this nation. Whether you are a person of faith or not, Thanksgiving provides us all with at least one day to be a "glass is half full" person. And thank God/Allah/Yahweh/L. Ron Hubbard for that!

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