Thanksgiving Day is a day on which Americans are reminded to give thanks for the blessings that we, as individuals and as a nation, have received. Many spend their Thanksgiving watching football, others travel, and almost everyone eats more than they probably should. Many celebrants thank the people with whom they spend the day, usually family and friends, most thank whoever prepared the meal, and everyone should thank God, ultimately the One who provided everything we have.
Of course, to thank God requires that we believe in a personal God. It makes no sense to thank God if you don’t believe that one exists, and it also makes no sense to thank a god who isn’t a person, someone who isn’t a “someone”; unless you are of the sort who thanks the air that you breathe or the water that you drink. Surveys suggest that about 95% of Americans believe in god in some form, although perhaps 20% of those believe that god is a cosmic force, as opposed to a Person.
The Theory of Evolution plays a role. Those who believe that the universe began in a Big Bang and proceeded to develop into what we see today in the absence of divine intervention are entirely logical if they ask “why thank God for anything that we have received when the impersonal forces of evolution gave it to us?” Even if they believed in such a distant god they would be justified in withholding thanks from someone who never did anything for them.
Of course, in the absence of a personal God it is hard to explain where human personality came from. It is far easier and more logical to assume that human personality is as illusory as divine personality. If people who believed this were entirely rational, they would conclude that there was no point in thanking whoever made their Thanksgiving dinner or gave them Christmas presents. In such a belief system, these actions are equally the result of impersonal, deterministic forces.
The difference in how we see Thanksgiving in modern times is suggested in the above discussion, but it is better illustrated in comparing Presidential Thanksgiving Day Proclamations over the past two centuries.
Thanksgiving Day Proclamation – 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 tranquility, 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.
Thanksgiving Day Proclamation – 1863
October 3, 1863
By the President of the United States – A Proclamation
The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.
In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and provoke their aggressions, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict; while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.
Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.
No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.
It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.
In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United Stated States to be affixed.
Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.
Thanksgiving Day Proclamation 2012
On Thanksgiving Day, Americans everywhere gather with family and friends to recount the joys and blessings of the past year. This day is a time to take stock of the fortune we have known and the kindnesses we have shared, grateful for the God-given bounty that enriches our lives. As many pause to lend a hand to those in need, we are also reminded of the indelible spirit of compassion and mutual responsibility that has distinguished our Nation since its earliest days.
Many Thanksgivings have offered opportunities to celebrate community during times of hardship. When the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony gave thanks for a bountiful harvest nearly four centuries ago, they enjoyed the fruits of their labor with the Wampanoag tribe – a people who had shared vital knowledge of the land in the difficult months before. When President George Washington marked our democracy’s first Thanksgiving, he prayed to our Creator for peace, union, and plenty through the trials that would surely come. And when our Nation was torn by bitterness and civil war, President Abraham Lincoln reminded us that we were, at heart, one Nation, sharing a bond as Americans that could bend but would not break. Those expressions of unity still echo today, whether in the contributions that generations of Native Americans have made to our country, the Union our forebears fought so hard to preserve, or the providence that draws our families together this season.
As we reflect on our proud heritage, let us also give thanks to those who honor it by giving back. This Thanksgiving, thousands of our men and women in uniform will sit down for a meal far from their loved ones and the comforts of home. We honor their service and sacrifice. We also show our appreciation to Americans who are serving in their communities, ensuring their neighbors have a hot meal and a place to stay. Their actions reflect our age-old belief that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and they affirm once more that we are a people who draw our deepest strength not from might or wealth, but from our bonds to each other.
On Thanksgiving Day, individuals from all walks of life come together to celebrate this most American tradition, grateful for the blessings of family, community, and country. Let us spend this day by lifting up those we love, mindful of the grace bestowed upon us by God and by all who have made our lives richer with their presence.
NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim Thursday, November 22, 2012, as a National Day of Thanksgiving. I encourage the people of the United States to join together – whether in our homes, places of worship, community centers, or any place of fellowship for friends and neighbors – and give thanks for all we have received in the past year, express appreciation to those whose lives enrich our own, and share our bounty with others.
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this twentieth day of November, in the year of our Lord two thousand twelve, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-seventh.
– BARACK OBAMA
Comparison of the Presidential Proclamations George Washington
Notice the differences of the proclamations over time. In 456 words, George Washington reminded Americans of the providence (care, guardianship and control) of Almighty God and implored them to “obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor.” He suggested that we spend our time in thanksgiving and prayer, and to “promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue”. God is mentioned or at least alluded to in almost every sentence.
George Washington did not refer to individual ethnic groups but referred only to the “People”. He highlighted science and liberty and his desire for our nation to be a blessing, and for God to bless, all Mankind. Washington referred repeatedly to the People “establishing a government”, “becoming a Nation” and “establishing Constitutions.” He mentioned the importance that each individual do his part “whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually”. Aside from “I”, he never referred to himself. Finally, Washington asked pardon for our national sins.
In the midst of the terrible Civil War, Lincoln also referred to the providence of the Almighty God and the Most High God. He mentioned the human tendency to forget the source of our blessings, and alluded to the hardness of the human heart. After reflecting upon the blessings that the Union had enjoyed, despite the hellish conflict, Lincoln gave credit to the personal God, not the strength of men. He also referred to the sins of his nation.
“No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”
As in Washington’s proclamation, Lincoln focused on God as the benefactor to whom our thanks belong. He never mentioned individual ethnic groups but simply referred to “fellow citizens” and “the American people.” As with Washington, God is referred to in the masculine personal. Lincoln referred to himself as “fellow citizen”. The length is 519 words.
Only 74 years passed between the proclamations of Washington and Lincoln, compared to 150 years between Lincoln and Obama, but America has become a different nation. We read of “God-given bounty”, “our Creator” and “God” but compared to Washington and Lincoln, the Divine One is barely an afterthought. There is no mention of His providence, His judgment, His service, His glory, or even “Him”.
In 550 words, Obama emphasized “lending a hand”, helping each other and “giving back.” One ethnic group is mentioned, and the word “Americans” is used. Obama honored the military and the rest of the nation separately, while the others did not honor the nation at all. Washington and Lincoln suggested that we humble ourselves, while the word is absent in 2012. Having little history as a country, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln referred to present events. In contrast, Barack Obama spoke at length of history. His only Biblical allusion was “we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers” (Genesis 4:9). While Lincoln stated that America’s greatest gifts came from God, Obama attributes them to “our bonds to each other”. He referred to himself as “President of the United States.”
There can be little doubt that the themes of America, as revealed in Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamations, have changed. Biblical Christianity has given way to a humanistic communalism. God is mentioned but is in no way central. Sin and repentance are entirely absent, as is the providence of God. Honor is reserved for man, and not for the Creator of all men.
If modern American Christians were to write a Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, what would ours say? Would it resemble Washington and Lincoln or Obama? If the latter, can we wonder why America has changed so much over the years? Renewal in our land will not be found first at the ballot box but in the prayer room, at the pulpit, in the home, and at the workplace. If Christians humble ourselves, pray, seek God’s face, and turn from our wicked ways, He will hear from heaven, forgive our sins, and heal our land (2 Chronicles 7:14).