Monday, November 23, 2009

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 the God of the early Pilgrims and Founding Fathers, who bravely established a new -- and in their opinion Christian -- nation.

So what did these early Founding Fathers think of celebrating a national day of thanksgiving? Well, 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 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.
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."

At the same time, Christian Nation apologists would be wise to recognize the reality that our earliest presidents did not favor a uniquely Christian heritage:

So, no matter which side of the fence you fall, try to remember that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Sometimes "fence-sitting" isn't such a bad thing!!!


Tom Van Dyke said...

As noted in Washington's proclamation, Madison's tone is noticeably neutral and intentionally sensitive in recognizing ALL brands of faith.

But here's the thing, Brad---the real "culture war" that's being fought, especially in the courts, is God vs. no God atall. We got the Almighty coming out our ears here in these quotes.

The Christian part is secondary. I agree with your post here in large part, and that "Heavenly Benefactor" or "Almighty God" [and often, not even the word "God"] was the common language. Even very devout orthodox guys like Samuel Adams used it.

As for John Adams, I think the very quote you use goes to the heart of the multiple meanings [and misundertandings] of "establishment of religion". Adams isn't saying the problem was "an ultra-orthodox declaration of Christian piety," as you paraphrase, but that

"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."

"Ecclesiastical" is the key word here, and it was a dirty word back then, I think, meaning "church" as in those Romish Catlicks or pushy Presbyterians trying to establish power. Politically speaking, "ecclesiastical" was synonymous with "tyranny," not only of the religious conscience, but in real political terms as well.

So add being seen as aligned with the Presbyterians, and being of the Federalist Party, which used the Sedition Act to prosecute its critics, no wonder Adams was booted from office.

His opponent Jefferson was critical of the Sedition Act, and Adams is quite right that the feeling was better an atheist than a Presbyterian if you were Episcopalian, Baptist or one of the other sects, let alone nonreligious.

Brad Hart said...

I totally agree with you, Tom that these quotes are saturated with religious wordage. That's at the very heart of my argument. I believe that this proves the founders advocated for a religious/moral society, but not necessarily a CHRISTIAN one...and certainly not one in the orthodox sense. Yes, the anti-God crowd is about as pathetic (if not more so) than the uber-Christian Nationalists.

As for Adams, I think he regretted what he wrote for two reasons: as you mention, he didn't want to appeal aligned with the Presbyterians but he also realized (through his own experience) that, "Nothing is more dreaded than the National Government meddling with Religion."

In a nutshell, I think the founders would LOVE the idea of a national day of thanksgiving, prayer, etc. They'd just be turned off to the nut-jobs who take it too far (i.e. Barton, Pat Robertson, et al).

Tom Van Dyke said...

I don't hear the Bible-thump from David Barton. Just don't see it in his record, regardless of whatever criticisms of his record are valid.

Whatever it is Pat Robertson says or said [as usual, I didn't have the patience or bandwidth to view the video], I'll provisionally give you blanket agreement. I'll not defend him on anything except on his right to speak and influence the polity.

As for "Christian," I think in those days, God---the One God---was sufficient, and it was impolite to push it further.

As it is today---if a Christian has a Jewish person as a guest at his dinner table, is it really necessary to add the Christian formulation "through Jesus Christ Your Son Our Lord" when you say grace together?

Some Jews have told me they don't mind---probably being PC and multi-cultural, but I think it's gauche.

The Founders weren't gauche, and good on them. My recollection is that at the first meeting of the Continental Congress, the various Protest sects were wary of praying together, and it was Samuel Adams who broke the ice.

Transferred thus to Philadelphia, and from the Massachusetts general court to a continental congress, Adams began now to act on a broader scene. His first act was one of conciliation. He was himself a strict Congregationalist, and the recent attempts to extend Episcopacy in America, and the controversy thence arising, had produced a good deal of feeling. A motion by one of the Massachusetts delegates to open the proceedings of the congress with prayer was opposed by Mr. Jay, one of the delegates from New York, on the ground that as there were in that body Episcopalians, Quakers, Anabaptists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists, they would hardly be able to join in the same act of worship. Thereupon "Mr. Samuel Adams arose " - so wrote John Adams in a letter to his wife describing the scene - "and said he was no bigot, and could hear a prayer from a gentleman of piety and virtue who was at the same time a friend to his country. He was a stranger in Philadelphia, but he had heard that Mr. Duche deserved that character, and therefore he moved that Mr. Duche, an Episcopal clergyman, might be desired to read prayers to the congress." The motion passed, and Duche, at that time the most popular preacher in Philadelphia, appeared the next morning and officiated with great unction.

Perhaps this is American myth---I haven't tracked it down reliably. But it's a good myth regardless, and we do know that moments after they inaugurated George Washington to kick off the republic, they all went over to church to pray together. It's a fact, you could look it up. Well, here, I'll save us the trouble:

I guess we could say the republic that prays together, stays together, but I won't. It's far too late for that anyway.

In a nutshell, I think the founders would LOVE the idea of a national day of thanksgiving, prayer, etc.

Well, it seems most of 'em did, but in fairness, Jefferson didn't, Madison seems quite half-hearted about it, and Andrew Jackson, the first president of the post-Founding period, refused to issue such proclaimations as well, as beyond his constitutionally authorized powers, even though he himself was devout enough to build a chapel at The Hermitage, his private residence.

In other words, it's a gray area: The Founding demands neither banning nor encouraging national prayer.

If Angie wants a starting place for where we should go from here, in 2009, this might be an interesting one. We're on our own.


Brian Tubbs said...

The Founding Fathers clearly and unequivocally founded the United States in a monotheistic context. Atheism was NOT part of their belief system and was, in no way, a part of the early American fabric (at least not in any meaningful way). While people should be free to NOT worship God or not believe in God, they do not have an equal claim to America's heritage. This nation was founded as being under God.

As for the "Christian" part, it just so happened that the vast majority of Americans at the time (including a majority of the Founders - and I'm referring to the BROAD group of Founders, not just the Top Tier) were associated with a Christian congregation and/or considered themselves aligned with at least basic Christian doctrine.

And given recent polls, that's still arguably the case today.

So, in a demographic or cultural sense, the US has always been a majority "Christian" nation. But its government has never been "Christian." But the government was founded on religious and moral grounds. It was founded in a monotheistic context.

Jonathan Rowe said...


You don't have the bandwith? Are you still on dial-up?

I suffer from severe attention deficit problems (when I used to watch TV more than the minimal amount that I do now, most folks would be driven nuts by my remote control behavior); but I've practically given up TV for these short, informative Internet video-clips.

I can't believe I've lived so many years without YouTube and related sites. Likewise growing up, I wouldn't be able to live without TV.

My mom always thought all the TV watching I did growing up would ruin my mind; I wonder if she was right.

Brad Hart said...

An excellent summation, Brian. I completely agree. If I had to pick something to disagree with, I would say that just because a majority of people -- then and now -- were Christians really doesn't matter too much. The majority of Americans are White, but who amongst us would call America a White nation? That would just be silly.

Or course Christianity was THE religion of the founding -- and of America throughout its history. But what I think makes America so special is that we've never shoved any brand of Christianity down anyone's throat -- as is evidenced in the Thanksgiving proclamations above. And, in the end, allowing for religious pluralism and equality is THE MOST Christian act the U.S. government has made.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Or course Christianity was THE religion of the founding -- and of America throughout its history. But what I think makes America so special is that we've never shoved any brand of Christianity down anyone's throat -- as is evidenced in the Thanksgiving proclamations above. And, in the end, allowing for religious pluralism and equality is THE MOST Christian act the U.S. government has made.

Agree, Brad. And if there's anything to be learned from Jon's continual pumping of Gregg Frazer's "theistic rationalist" thesis, it's that Christianity gets all over the map in a hurry.

And Madison's argument in the Virginia Religious Freedom Charter controversy was that even if Sect X and Sect Y agree on what genuine Christianity is, Sect Z could gain control of the gov't and declare the X and Y "not Christianity."

Good argument. Great frigging argument, Mr. Madison. The Baptists, a very significant minority in Virginia, accepted that logic, and swung the day.