Focus on the Family

George Washington's Thanksgiving Proclamation

by Bruce Hausknecht, Esq.

We all learned in elementary school that the American holiday known as "Thanksgiving" has its roots in the Pilgrims' survival of their first winter in the New World and successful harvest in 1621. They celebrated with a community meal, joined by local Native Americans. Names like Plymouth, Miles Standish, Squanto and Massasoit are familiar parts of the story. Although there is no historical evidence the Pilgrims actually "gave thanks" in prayer for the meal, the entire event, framed in our history by the nature of the Pilgrims' search for religious freedom, has become an enduring symbol for generations of thankful Americans.

Yet, Thanksgiving is more than harvests, family dinners, and celebrations of the Pilgrims' triumph over hardship. Indeed, Thanksgiving is also associated with the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and God's sovereign role in overseeing the founding — and survival — of the then-young nation.

In 1789, the nascent country was off to a fresh start. The Constitution, drafted at a convention two years earlier in Philadelphia, had been ratified by 11 states, and the first Congress sat down to begin the business of legislating. Many of the states that had ratified the Constitution had requested amendments guaranteeing the freedoms they had all fought for in the war for independence from England, and the new Congress worked through the summer to create that document. By the end of September of that year, Congress finished a draft of twelve* amendments, which were delivered to President George Washington with a request to submit them to the states for ratification.

George Washington - Library of Congress 

Congress also asked the president to do something else. A special committee, formed from both the U. S. House and Senate, asked President Washington to issue a proclamation, declaring a national Day of Prayer and Thanksgiving. Washington complied within a few days, and the opening paragraph of his proclamation sets the tone and explains its purposes:

"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."

Look again at the remarkable truth that Washington is proclaiming: It is the "duty of all nations" to acknowledge God, obey Him and be grateful for what He has done. What a powerful statement!

And, further on in the proclamation, Washington returns to his theme of thanking God for the founding documents of our young nation:

 "… 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. …"

Washington set Nov. 26, 1789, as the date Americans would "unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations." The entire proclamation is worthy of serious reflection by all Americans. So, as we gather with family and friends this Thanksgiving, let us thank God for how He has blessed this country with a form of government we've enjoyed for the last 224 years!  


 *The first two draft amendments, dealing with apportionment of the House and congressional salaries, did not receive sufficient state votes for ratification. The remaining 10 amendments were ratified on Dec.15, 1791.


A Presidential Proclamation

In his own words, President Washington asks Americans to pray and thank God for the Constitution and religious freedom.

by Bruce Hausknecht, Esq.

[New York, 3 October 1789]

By the President of the United States of America, a 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 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.

"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 (H)im our sincere and humble thanks—for (H)is 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 (H)is 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.

"(A)nd 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 encrease 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 1789." 

G. Washington

Image of Washington's 1789 Thanksgiving Proclamation

 

George Washington’s October 3, 1789, Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, 10/03/1789 (ARC Identifier: 299956); Series: Presidential Proclamations, 1791 - 1991; General Records of the United States Government, 1778 - 1992; Record Group 11; National Archives


Separation of Church and State?

The phrase “separation of church and state” has unfairly become shorthand for, and distorted the meaning of, the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

by Bruce Hausknecht, Esq.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution begins with "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion," a phrase commonly referred to as the Establishment Clause. In the 1947 U.S. Supreme Court decision Everson vs. Board of Education1, the Court explained the Establishment Clause as a "wall of separation between church and state."

But where did the phrase — "wall of separation between church and state" — really come from? What did it originally mean? Is it the proper way to interpret the Establishment Clause? Or, is it, as former Chief Justice William Rehnquist asserted, a "metaphor based on bad history," which should be rejected as an interpretive aid for the Establishment Clause?

'Separation of Church and State' Absent From the Constitution

The U.S. Constitution was drafted in 1787. The Bill of Rights followed in 1789, following the Constitution's ratificationduring the first Congress . Thomas Jefferson, the author of the "wall" metaphor, was in France during this period acting as our ambassador, and he didn't participate in the drafting or debate of either document. Neither document contains the phrase "wall of separation between church and state."

Jefferson's Letter to the Danbury Baptists

The phrase was first used in January 1802, in a private letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut by newly elected President Jefferson. The Danbury Baptists had written a congratulatory letter to Jefferson following his election victory and used the letter as an opportunity to solicit Jefferson's views on state interference with the exercise of religion and freedom of conscience. The Baptists were chafing under Connecticut's restrictions on their religious exercise (Congregationalism was then the "established" church in Connecticut; meaning, it was protected and promoted by the state with tax funds), and hoped for a presidential response that might be useful in shaping public opinion on their behalf.2

Whether he was taking the opportunity to address election campaign charges that he was an "infidel" and "atheist,"3 or to articulate his views on religion and government, and in particular his opposition to government proclamations of fast days and thanksgiving days4, Jefferson offered only indirect support for the Baptists' sensitivities. His letter focused not on the Baptists' specific situation, but rather on the language of the First Amendment and his views of the federal government's role regarding the free exercise of religion:

"Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God; that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship; that the legislative powers of government reach actions only and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church and State."5 (emphasis added)

This latter phrase became the centerpiece of the U.S. Supreme Court's 1947 Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Tp. opinion, a case about public funding of religious school busing.


1 Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Tp., 330 U.S. 1 (1947).

2 Philip Hamburger, Separation of Church and State, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2002), p. 157.

3 Daniel L. Dreisbach, "Origins and Dangers of the 'Wall of Separation' Between Church and State," Imprimus, 35 (2006): p.2.

4 Hamburger, p. 159.

5 "Jefferson's Letter to the Danbury Baptists," Library of Congress Information Bulletin, 57, no.6 (June 1998), http://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/9806/index.html (8 May 2008).


"Thriving Values" Video Series

How Can 'Separation of Church and State' Affect You?

In this video edition of "Thriving Values," Bruce Hausknecht, judicial analyst for Focus on the Family, discusses why Christians should care about the misconception — and misapplication — of the phrase "separation of church and state."

  Bruce Hausknecht