‘Sincere and Humble Thanks’: George Washington’s Vision for American Thanksgiving
With the 24/7 news cycle rapidly providing reasons to be deeply concerned for the state of our country, Thanksgiving offers an opportunity for us to reexamine our circumstances in life. President George Washington, who led under-supplied rag-tag American patriots in poor conditions against the mighty British army, was no stranger to hardship nor was he naive regarding the immense challenges faced by the new country he fought to establish. Instead of dwelling on the difficulties surrounding him — including internal divisions in his administration and even the fear that the burgeoning political system might fail — he pointed the American people to express gratitude to Almighty God.
It was the first national Thanksgiving, and he viewed this as a deeply important moment for the American people to reflect on the bounty with which they had been blessed. The proclamation read:
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.
With profound humility, Washington directed his fellow Americans to thank God for the many favors that had been bestowed upon them. Washington and the Congress issued this declaration with great thanks but also with hope for future provision from our heavenly father. The proclamation continues:
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.
Washington was not reticent in thanking God for the “kind care and protection” shown to the colonists before the creation of the United States and the “manifold mercies” experienced during the Revolutionary War. His call to acknowledge what God had done for the American people is significant. The Psalmist similarly calls us to remember the good works that God has done in the past: “O God, we have heard with our ears, our fathers have told us, what deeds you performed in their days, in the days of old” (Psalm 44:1, ESV). The proclamation concludes:
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 increase 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.
Throughout this text, Washington does not tie his expectations for the success of the United States to the determination of the Founders or the skills of his successors. His trust was in God alone to enable private citizens and government leaders to fulfill the duty they had been called to — that He would, in His wisdom, bless the nation. Today, our country faces many challenges which the Founders could not have envisioned. May we embrace their acknowledgement of God and proceed with a “firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence,” as the signers of the Declaration of Independence did.
The patriots who founded this great nation were firm believers in expressing thanks to God for our many blessings.
When we settle down for our own Thanksgivings this week, let us follow their example in humbly submitting to the will of God and thanking our Heavenly Father for those gifts which he has bestowed upon us.
Arielle Del Turco is Assistant Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council, and co-author of "Heroic Faith: Hope Amid Global Persecution."
Dr. Chris Gacek is Coalitions Senior Research Fellow at Family Research Council.