Beyond George Washington to Abraham Lincoln
Special Note: This article, along with considerable additional information, is included in Jim’s Book “Thanksgiving Day – Religious to Secular” available for purchase in Paperback and FREE in eBook format at this link: Jim’s Books
This is the third in a series of four articles on the history of Thanksgiving Day in the USA and how it has changed from primarily a religious celebration to that of a long weekend of secular celebration. In my second article, I covered the background of how Thanksgiving Day became part of the fabric of the North American Colonies and then a part of the fledgling United States of America under the leadership of the first President, George Washington. In this third article, I will highlight the period of time from 1795 until 1863 and some of the major Thanksgiving Day related events and proclamations Beyond George Washington to Abraham Lincoln.
As the new nation began to develop an identity under its unique form of a republic based government and constitution, the role of the federal and state governments with respect to personal rights and religious freedom almost immediately came into question. James Madison introduced twelve legislative amendments to the Constitution at the Philadelphia Convention, ten of which were adopted by the states over the period of 1789 to 1791. These ten amendments are commonly known as the Bill of Rights. Among several protections for U.S. citizens, the First Amendment guarantees the freedom of religion and the freedom of speech. Abiding by the First Amendment would lead future Presidents to back away from proclaiming national days of Thanksgiving. I will discuss this further below.
In keeping with my normal practice, before I develop, discuss and reflect further on Part 3 of the series let’s ground ourselves in some of scripture to help expand our understanding of what it means for the Christian to give thanks to God and to live in a state of Thanksgiving.
Scripture: (all ESV unless otherwise noted)
1 Thessalonians 5:18 – 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
Under Paul’s leadership the Gospel came to Macedonia from Antioch to Philippi to Thessalonica (see Acts 15:36-17:15). The Matthew Henry Complete Commentary
on the Whole Bible” provides a wonderful explanation for these words of Paul on thankfulness to the church at Thessalonica found in 1 Thessalonians 5:18:
“We should be thankful in every condition, even in adversity as well as prosperity. It is never so bad with us but it might be worse. If we have ever so much occasion to make our humble complaints to God, we never can have any reason to complain of God, and have always much reason to praise and give thanks: the apostle says, This is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning us, that we give thanks, seeing God is reconciled to us in Christ Jesus; in him, through him, and for his sake, he allows us to rejoice evermore, and appoints us in every thing to give thanks. It is pleasing to God.”
Psalm 95:1-6 – Oh come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! 2 Let us come into His presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to Him with songs of praise! 3 For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods. 4 In His hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are His also. 5 The sea is His, for He made it, and His hands formed the dry land. 6 Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker.
As Creator of all that “is,” Almighty God is to be the object of our worship and our praise. How can we be anything but thankful for what He has done for us? We should never “come into His presence” with anything other than a spirit of complete thanksgiving. While we should live in a constant state of Thanksgiving, a special day or season of Thanksgiving can help place the focus squarely on God … not on ourselves. Our singing and praising should be especially joyful during our Thanksgiving celebrations.
2 Corinthians 2:14 – 14 But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of Him everywhere. 15 For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, 16 to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?
This scripture passage has been one of my favorites since I was a young adult. However, I’m not sure when I was younger that I really understood the full implication of this scripture. I often quoted verse 14 in particular with what I now know was a very shallow understanding. I had placed the emphasis on the “triumph” as somewhat of a guarantee that Christ always provides us victory in everything we do. But within the context of the broader scripture I now see that Paul is saying he and his small group of missionaries were giving thanks for not only good results as they spread the good news of the gospel, but they were also giving thanks even when their message fell on deaf ears ultimately producing “a fragrance from death to death.” What is important is spreading the message that Jesus is the Messiah and that through Him, and only Him, can man escape the eternal consequences of his sin. Our job as Christians is to spread the message and be thankful to God for allowing us to do so. ALL of the triumphs are of and in Christ! Not one triumph is of man! An attitude of Thanksgiving demands that God gets the glory for everything.
Keeping the above scriptures in mind, let’s return to some history of how Thanksgiving Day in the USA transitioned from a religious to primarily a secular celebration.
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution was adopted on December 15, 1791. This amendment, which is part of The Bill of Rights, reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” George Washington issued a Thanksgiving day proclamation in 1789 and in spite of the First Amendment he did so again in 1795.
President Washington’s successor was John Adams who served as President from 1798-1801. On March 23, 1798 Adams proclaimed “a day of solemn humiliation, fasting and prayer” (noticeably not a day of thanksgiving) be observed on Wednesday, May 9, 1798. Adams recommended that the day was to “be observed throughout the United States…” You can read the full text of John Adams proclamation at this link. Adams made a number of significant references to God in his proclamation. I have listed those references in bold to make them easy to locate. One of the references in particular speaks to the devout belief of Adams that it is Almighty God alone who provides nations with protection and blessing:
“As the safety and prosperity of nations ultimately and essentially depend on the protection and the blessing of Almighty God, and the national acknowledgment of this truth is not only an indispensable duty which the people owe to Him, but a duty whose natural influence is favorable to the promotion of that morality and piety without which social happiness can not exist nor the blessings of a free government be enjoyed; …”
Thomas Jefferson succeeded John Adams as President serving from 1801-1809. Jefferson stood his ground throughout his presidency against proclaiming a day of Thanksgiving repeatedly citing the First Amendment as his reasoning. As one example of his stance, Jefferson wrote a letter to the Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut on January 1, 1802, relating that this amendment builds “… a wall of separation between Church & State.” Notably, when Jefferson was the governor of the state of Virginia in 1776, he signed a proclamation prepared by the state legislature for a day of “Thanksgiving and Prayer” to be held on December 9, 1779. Jefferson did not author the document, nor did he have the authority to do so on his own, as that authority was a legislative responsibility at the time.
James Madison succeeded Thomas Jefferson as President serving from 1809-1817. James Madison was one of only two U.S. Presidents (along with Washington) who signed the U.S. Constitution. Madison also served as a U.S. Representative in the First Federal Congress (1789-1791). Madison did not follow the practice of Jefferson declaring a Thanksgiving Day in 1814 in response to resolutions of Congress at the close of the war of 1812 and two days of Thanksgiving in 1815. The full text of the 1814 and 1815 proclamations by President Madison is included at this link.
James Monroe became the next President in 1817 following James Madison. For the next forty-four years (1817-1861) not one national Thanksgiving Day was proclaimed by a sitting president (view a list of the presidents at this link). However, over that period many of the states proclaimed their own Thanksgiving Day celebrations. Three early examples include: Governor William Plumer (1816) of New Hampshire; Governor John Brooks (1816) of Massachusetts; and DeWitt Clinton (1817-1822 & 1825-1828) of New York. By the year 1858, twenty-five of the existing thirty-two states and two of the eight territories issued proclamations appointing a Thanksgiving Day.
In spite of the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights, many citizens in the United States were denied basic rights at the state level. Slavery was active in many states, primarily those located in the south, supposedly protected under the banner of “states rights.” Major disagreement on states rights and slavery issues, among others, led to the American Civil War fought between 1861-1865.
Abraham Lincoln served as the eighteenth president of the United States from March 4, 1861 to April 15, 1865. During the midst of the bloody Civil War, President Lincoln revived a practice of the early national government and continued by the majority of the states by proclaiming a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens” to be celebrated on Thursday, November 26, 1863. The proclamation document was written by Secretary of State William Seward. It spoke freely of Almighty God saying in part:
“… 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 voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States … 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.”
At the conclusion of the Civil War Congress dealt with some of the dividing issues that caused the war by passing the Reconstruction Amendments, one of which was the Fourteenth Amendment officially adopted on July 9, 1868. The Fourteenth Amendment more clearly defined USA citizenship and provided for the extension of equal protection to ALL citizens. Equal protection was now the law of the land including the states. The “separation of church and state” protection required of the federal government through the First Amendment was now fully extended to the states as well.
The principle of “separation of church and state” implied by the USA Constitution at times can present great difficulty for members of Congress and the President. Their personal religious beliefs or lack thereof could potentially lead them to seek positions that may be in conflict with the freedom of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment. Such issues as the posting of the Ten Commandments in public places, the banning of prayer in public schools and sporting events, the passage of a national healthcare program (PPACA, aka Obamacare) that requires religious entities to violate their basic beliefs and support insurance coverage for abortion, the prohibition of Nativity scenes on public property, and many more too numerous to mention.
For the Christian it is often hard to “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). For example, when governments and courts seemingly go against the “will of God,” the immediate response is often that of anger or questioning. But one has to remember that our religious freedom is protected by our Constitution and we would not want that to change. So it is up to us as Christians, and not the government to ensure that days of Thanksgiving are observed in an appropriate manner. One way for us to do that is to regularly attend, invest our time, and financially support our local church … not just at Christmas and Easter. Another way is to make the focus on God the strength of our family by raising our children “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4, KJV).
Remember God has a plan for each of us, a plan for our family, a plan for our church, and a plan for our nation. Our prayer should be that more and more of our citizens and more and more of our governing officials will turn to Him for saving grace and daily guidance. We should also pray that our governing officials will seek to align our nation’s plans with those of Almighty God. On a personal level, Jesus is “the rock of our salvation” and He deserves our thanksgiving and praise (Psalm 95:1-6). And just as Paul advised … no matter the circumstances … Christians, as God’s “fragrance from life to life,” are to give thanks to God “who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of Him everywhere.“
As our country continues its slide deeper and deeper into abject paganism it becomes increasingly important that Christians continue to openly give thanks to God … especially during the official “Thanksgiving” season we celebrate each year in late November. God has indeed blessed our nation over our relatively brief history. In spite of all of our flaws, the USA continues as a nation where religious freedom is guaranteed. and where “In God We Trust” still appears on our currency.
The First Amendment provides an extremely important set of protections for the citizens of the United States. However, the original framers of the constitution left the definition of “citizen” somewhat ambiguous leaving too much room for interpretation by the states and sadly allowing slavery and other forms of discrimination to continue for far too many years.
The full meaning of the First Amendment has been argued and re-argued ever since its original adoption. But one thing is for certain, without it the federal government could easily force a standard form of religion, or no religion at all, on the people of the USA. Thank God that was not, and is still not, the case in the USA! That is exactly what led many early settlers to leave their homelands in Europe for new homes in the Americas. They did not want to have to deal with any form of a theocratic government that interfered with their religious beliefs. They wanted freedom to worship as they pleased without worry of intervention from governmental leadership.
As a modern comparison consider today’s world … there are numerous Islamic theocracies where the government basically outlaws all religions other than their preferred version of Islam. For example, in today’s Pakistan (and other Islamic countries as well) it is against the law for a Muslim to convert to Christianity. Pakistan’s Blasphemy laws (see my article “On Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws“) call for severe punishment including death to anyone who “blasphemes” (the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for God) the Koran or Mohammed, its author. Would you want to live in such a country? I wouldn’t!
Abraham Lincoln’s memory book, The Lincoln Memorial Album—Immortelles, contains an entry by Reverend John H. Barrows, D.D., claiming that President Abraham Lincoln became a Christian in 1863. Courtesy of Wikipedia here is that entry:
“In the anxious uncertainties of the great war, he gradually rose to the heights where Jehovah became to him the sublimest of realities, the ruler of nations….When darkness gathered over the brave armies fighting for the nation’s life, this strong man in the early morning knelt and wrestled in prayer with Him who holds the fate of empires. When the clouds lifted above the carnage of Gettysburg, he gave his heart to the Lord Jesus Christ.“
I wonder??? What effect did Lincoln’s supposed salvation experience there at Gettysburg in 1863 have on his willingness to officially sign a proclamation for a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens” to be celebrated on Thursday, November 26, 1863? That had not been done by a President since 1815! I wonder???
Part 4 of this series of articles will cover the period of time beyond the presidency of Abraham Lincoln to the current day under the presidency of Barack Hussein Obama.
Related Links and Articles:
- What is the origin of America’s annual Thanksgiving Day?
- Spark Notes on The American Revolution
- Wikipedia on Thanksgiving
- Timeline: From Founding Through the American Revolution
- Thomas Jefferson’s Religious Beliefs –
- Religious affiliation of all US Presidents
- List of All USA Presidents in Chronological Order
- Chronology of Significant USA Thanksgiving Events 1798-1865
- Day of Thanksgiving and Prayer
- Congress Establishes Thanksgiving
- John Adams Religious Views
- Religious affiliation of Abraham Lincoln
- Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamations
- Answers.com on Thanksgiving
Related Articles by Jim Davenport:
- Thanksgiving Day – Religious to Secular – Part 1
- Thanksgiving Day – Religious to Secular – Part 2
- Thanksgiving Day – Religious to Secular – Part 3
- Thanksgiving Day – Religious to Secular – Part 4
- Thank You Lord for Saving My Soul
- Thank You Lord for Saving My Soul – Update
- Blessings in Disguise – a Thanksgiving Devotional
- An Attitude of Thankfulness
- An Attitude of Thanklessness
- An Anchor in the Time of the Storm
- How to Become a Christian
- A Summary of All of Jim Davenport’s Articles
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