A Day of Thanksgiving

  • Pete Johnson

In 1789, the first United States Congress asked the first U.S. President, George Washington, to issue a proclamation for a national day of thanksgiving. The Revolutionary War was over, the colonies had obtained their independence, yet this young nation was not yet fully united. On October 3, 1789, in an attempt to unite the country, George Washington issued the first ever presidential proclamation for a “day of public thanksgiving and prayer.”  The first President of the newly formed United States of America designated Thursday, November 26 as a national day of thanking and prayer, what we call Thanksgiving.

In his declaration, Washington confirmed that the obligation for such a day originated from the Almighty’s care of all Americans before the Revolution, His providential assistance in attaining independence, and His wisdom in establishing the constitutional government.

However, presidents after George Washington did not all adhere to a national proclamation of public thanksgiving and prayer. Thomas Jefferson did not, but both Adams and Madison did. But, from the presidency of James Monroe up to James Buchannan, no president issued a proclamation for a national day of public thanksgiving and prayer!

However, in 1863, during the middle of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln put forth a proclamation, written by Secretary of State William H. Seward, declaring the last Thursday of November as a National day of Thanksgiving to God. Since then every U.S President has called for a national day of Thanksgiving.

Below is a copy of that proclamation: 

Washington, D.C.
October 3, 1863

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. 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 one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, 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. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

William H. Seward,
Secretary of State

We live in an era where we are experiencing the destruction of harmony among our nation. A nation so divided along political and religious lines that multitudes of its population refuse to acknowledge the provision and protection that God Almighty has bestowed upon us, and believe that those who do, need to cease, mandated by law if need be.

Calls have been made by political pundits, as well as social reconstructionists to do away with Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Size limitations to Thanksgiving gatherings, even today, are being limited, and celebrating Thanksgiving is being heralded as a cultural foul. Yet God’s Word commands us to give thanks, even in unprecedented times like today.

“Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;  for his steadfast love endures forever!” ( I Chronicles 16:34)

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16–1)

But even before George Washington and Abraham Lincoln’s proclamations, another national leader proclaimed a day of thanksgiving. King David, arguably Israel’s greatest king, decreed a day of thanksgiving to proclaim God’s goodness. 1 Chronicles Chapter 16 describes that day. As the Ark of the Covenant was brought back into Jerusalem, David and all of Israel gave thanks in recognition God’s goodness. This day was nationally celebrated with, praise, prayer, song, and food. 

“…and distributed to all Israel, both men and women, to each a loaf of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins. Then he appointed some of the Levites as ministers before the ark of the LORD, the God of Israel.” (I Chronicles16:3–4)

Let us celebrate Thanksgiving, for all the bounty that the Lord has bestowed upon us, and our nation. During this season let us not just focus on our bounty of material things, but let us give thanks and praise for His eternal gift of salvation.