To whom are we thankful on Thanksgiving? And for what are we thankful? Let's allow George Washington himself to answer in his proclamation regarding a general thanksgiving. We will then draw out some implications.
"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, requested 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 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 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 enable 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 favours which He has 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 publick 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 governments, 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.
GIVEN under my hand, at the city of New York, the third day of October, in the year of our Lord, one thousand seven hundred and eighty-nine." A number of implications flow from this document.
First, we have a sacred duty to thank God for all that He has granted us by His grace. Washington points out the duty that all nations, and by way of implication, all people have, to give thanks to God. He mentions God’s providence and benefits. It is the Lord Himself who has made us what we are and blessed us with what we have. Thus, we have an obligation to be grateful. "It is good to give thanks to the LORD, And to sing praises to Your name, O Most High (Ps. 92:1)."
Second, an understanding of who God is becomes critical in order for us to respond to him rightly. Washington regards God as the "Almighty." He refers to Him as the "Lord and ruler of nations." How rich is Washington's understanding of God. He is "that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be." He speaks of "His kind care and protection of the people of this country," of His "signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence," and of "all the great and various favours which He has been pleased to confer upon us." We hear in Washington's words the voice of worship and adoration. At the same time, we hear the voice of understanding. He understands that God is all powerful and rules the created realm in sovereignty. His providence is that which unfolds before us. Christians would do well to understand something about the God they worship: He works all things according to the counsel of His own will (Eph. 1:11). Washington was not only a man who was President of the United States, but as one reads his proclamation, one must conclude that he was a man who understood biblical theology more than most Christians today. This fact is why Washington, though President, maintains that not only are we to be grateful to God, but we are to obey Him and pray for His protection and favor. Without Him and His grace toward us, we die.
Third, both houses of Congress recommended to Washington that a day of public thanksgiving and prayer be set aside to acknowledge God and His favor upon us as a nation and, in particular, His favor in allowing us to establish a government built upon principles of liberty and God-given rights. Not only does Washington acknowledge that it is God who gave them "the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty," and a "peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enable to establish Constitutions of government for our safety and happiness," He thanks God specifically "for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed." In such an environment, public acknowledgement of God is not only acceptable, it is encouraged. This dynamic is no violation of the First Amendment or the separation of church and state. Government here does not establish religion. No one is forced to participate in this thanksgiving. Neither is another's worship prohibited. People may worship as they like. How twisted we have become as a nation in regard to these things by virtue of a well-organized God-hating minority. Good government encourages religious liberty. Evil government squelches the same.
Fourth, Washington encourages the people to confess their sins. Those sins include individual sins as well as national sins. When have we last heard a President call for that kind of prayer? Moreover, he urges the people to beseech the Lord to help them perform their duties. He calls upon them to pray for the wise execution of government, the protection and guidance of all nations, and the increase of science throughout the world. Here Washington no doubt understands that God as the Creator of all things has revealed great and wonderful things to mankind for his temporal good. Washington understands General Revelation and pleads for common grace. Again, how many Christians understand the depth of biblical truth behind these powerful words?
Fifth, he prays that God would "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." Again, what an amazing thing it is to ask the people to pray for wise governance. Further, relevant to the turmoil and misery that has been heaped upon the American people of late by way of judicial activism and tyranny, Washington prays that God would render us a nation of constitutional laws. Of course, those laws are grounded in higher laws that do not change over time or with cultures. The Constitution is not a living document but a fixed document that guarantees all people their unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Not only do we not hold to those dynamics as a nation any longer, but, it appears that the church as a whole does not pray for those dynamics any longer. May God grant us an overturning of Roe v. Wade for starters if we say that we believe in life and liberty. May He grant us the rule of law rather than the rule of tyrants. May He grant us justices faithful to the Constitution. May He grant us a spirit of prayer.
Sixth, Washington asks the people to pray for God "to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue." In a day when government officials are fighting tirelessly to rid the land of the acknowledgement of God and indeed religion, Washington's plea is a massive corrective. Let his call be heard again. Let the light of liberty shine that the gospel might run free again. Let us acknowledge that without God we have no hope. And, may I ask, when did we last pray for God "to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue" in our land? Today, this Thanksgiving day, would be a good day to start.
Seventh, Washington again asks the people to pray that God would "grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best." My appeal here is again to sound doctrine. The President understood that God had to grant that which we have. He is sovereign and that is indeed why we pray to Him. Further, Washington left the issue of temporal prosperity in the hands of God. God knows what we need and provides what we need. He alone knows best. Again, let us understand God's sovereignty in the affairs of men and then let us pray to God and rest in His providence.
Eighth, what we see in this proclamation is the outworking of a Christian worldview that is pervasive in a society. The worldview was the result of gospel proclamation, not government coercion. The government was built on freedom as a result of gospel influence. If we would return to those days, we must spend much more time in genuine gospel proclamation than we do in political action. The problem lies in the fact that we spend much more time in political action than we do in genuine gospel proclamation. Such a formula is doomed to fail. While political involvement is part of Christian, cultural engagement, our Lord never promised success in transforming society through political action nor did He give us a commission for such. He did promise, however, to build His church through the preaching of the gospel and He did give us a commission for that. He promised that He would be with us in that endeavor (Matt. 28:18f). Moreover, religious freedom can only flourish under a thoroughgoing biblical worldview. The sinfulness and selfishness of man prevents freedom in any other context. Only those who have been set free and understand that freedom will fight to protect the freedom of others.
While the original Thanksgiving was declared by Pilgrim Governor William Bradford in 1621, in Washington's national proclamation, we see the heart and essence of that original Thanksgiving and what should be the heart and essence of Thanksgiving today. Let us not through our ignorance or compromise allow this day to fall on hard times. Let us not allow the True and Living God to be marginalized, ignored, and forgotten. Let us not participate in our own demise. Let us understand what the Thanksgiving holiday (holy day) is about and let us follow the counsel of our first President and devote ourselves to "that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be;" even the Lord Jesus Christ.
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About Paul Dean
Dr. Paul Dean is a pastor, cultural commentator, and author. He serves as a Regional Mentor with the International Association of Biblical Counselors, speaks at several conferences throughout the year, and provides training for ministers and churches on a regular basis. Paul resides in the Upstate of South Carolina with his wife and three children.
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