A republican form of government deriving its powers from the people? Check. A system of checks and balances? Check. A dual track of federalism? Check. Respect for natural law and fundamental rights? Check.
But there was one more missing component our Founders needed in order to succeed in establishing this country, an element universally regarded as the most important ingredient in prospering as a united nation. They needed God’s providence and his blessing. And in order to obtain such blessing, it was universally recognized that it was incumbent upon the nascent country to identify, publicly proclaim, and give thanks to God for the blessings that were already secured.
The biblical origin of Thanksgiving
The concept, timing, and customs of Thanksgiving are derived from the Bible. The Jewish holiday of the Feast of Tabernacles, also referred to as the Feast of Ingathering, was celebrated every fall as a means of giving thanks to God for the successful harvest and recognizing his providence as the source of the blessing. It was at that time, headed into the new rainy season that would prepare the land for the next year’s harvest, that the ancient Israelites would pray for rain. Hence, it was a recognition that all existing bounty came from God and that all future success was contingent upon being worthy of his continued blessing. Today, this holiday falls in late September or early October and is still celebrated by devout Jews around the world.
This is why, on September 25, 1789, the newly minted Congress passed a resolution requesting that President Washington declare a “day of public humiliation and prayer.” This day of prayer and thanksgiving to God, in the words of the great Roger Sherman, was to replicate “the solemn thanksgivings and rejoicings which took place in the time of Solomon, after the building of the Temple.” That celebration, referenced in I Kings, took place during the Feast of Tabernacles after the fall harvest.
President Washington issued the proclamation on October 3, to be observed on November 26 that same year. What was the nature of this public day of prayer? To beseech God “to pardon our national and other transgressions” and “to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue.”
It should be noted, as an eternal refutation to the ultra-secular zealots of our time, that the House passed this resolution on the very same day it voted to adopt the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights — to “make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” For while they clearly intended to ensure that nobody was coerced to serve God or a particular religion, they understood the need to promote public, though elective, recognition and thanksgiving to God. Much like a country needs a military and a functioning economy, it was universally understood that it needed divine providence. As William McKinley “advised” in his 1899 Thanksgiving proclamation, “this day religious exercises shall be conducted in the churches or meeting places of all denominations, in order that in the social features of the day its real significance may not be lost sight of, but prayers may be offered to the Most High for a continuance of the divine guidance without which man’s efforts are vain, and for divine consolation to those whose kindred and friends have sacrificed their lives for country.”
It’s interesting to note how President McKinley took the occasion of Thanksgiving to give thanks to those who sacrificed for our country along with proclaiming the day reserved for “religious exercises.” Fast-forward 120 years, and we have unelected judges who are erroneously granted power to ban public prayer and a 92-year-old WWI memorial. Indeed, one thing we should be thankful for this year is that when President Washington proclaimed Thanksgiving as a national holiday, the pagan extremists in the federal judiciary weren’t around. They would have “struck down” Thanksgiving as “unconstitutional.”
It’s more evident now than ever that we need God’s blessings
There’s no way to put on a happy face this year, given the utter depravity of our culture and irremediable nature of our political system. We have a system of government today that is truly antithetical to every founding value, particularly those embodied in this great holiday. But ultimately, we must remember, the earthly puppets that seem to be controlling (and destroying) our country have no power on their own. And for that alone — that we are placed solely in the hands of God — we must be thankful.
As President Calvin Coolidge acknowledged in his 1923 proclamation, “even in the least propitious times, a broad contemplation of our whole position has never failed to disclose overwhelming reasons for thankfulness.” It’s inspiring to read in Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation, the first year the country began universally celebrating Thanksgiving at its current date, how he was able to discern so much good despite the “civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity.”
When contemplating the recent natural disasters, it’s humbling to realize how we are like dust in the palm of God’s hands. We think we have everything figured out, but ultimately we are not in charge. “There are many thoughts in a man’s heart, but God’s plan — that shall stand” (Proverbs 19:21). Just as God can bring natural disasters and political calamities in a flash, he can turn things around if he feels we are deserving of it and if we reach out to him both on a personal and national level.
Clearly, the problems we face are insurmountable for any manmade plan of action. Therefore, we are left with one course of action — to once again recognize that in order to restore everything that made this country great, we must identify and beseech the one who bestows all blessings.
“And My people, upon whom My name is called, humble themselves and pray and seek My presence and repent of their evil ways, I shall hear from heaven and forgive their sin and heal their land” (Chronicles 7 :14).
With that in mind, let us turn to the Lord and lift our arms in prayer — the very prayer our forefathers delivered in the first Thanksgiving proclamation of the Continental Congress in November 1, 1777:
[I]t is the indispensable Duty of all Men to adore the superintending Providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with Gratitude their Obligation to him for Benefits received, and to implore such farther Blessings as they stand in Need of.
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Daniel Horowitz is a senior editor of Conservative Review. Follow him on Twitter @RMConservative.