The spirit and tradition of Thanksgiving holiday in America is rooted in our nation’s miraculous victory in the great American Revolution. George Washington expressed his fervent hope that Americans would never forget God’s role in that great battle. In his first address as President, he said, “I am sure there never was a people who had more reason to acknowledge a divine interposition in their affairs, than those of the United States and I should be pained to believe that they have forgotten that agency, which was so often manifested during our Revolution, or that they failed to consider the omnipotence of that God who is alone able to protect them.”
No one was a more direct and frequent witness of the hand of Providence in the birth of our Nation than Washington who is rightfully hailed as the “Father of our Country”. He repeatedly assured his countrymen that God had intervened to rescue and preserve what he called “the sacred Cause of Freedom”. Unlike today, public expressions and demonstrations of faith in God and the Bible were routine for the Continental Congress. Throughout the War for Independence, they regularly called for national days of “humiliation, fasting, and prayer” and days of “public thanksgiving and prayer.” Throughout colonial America, there was a pervasive, deeply held belief that the Higher Law of God as revealed in the Bible takes precedence over the laws of man whenever the two conflict.
The heart and soul of America is reflected in a memorable comment by a veteran of the revolution who was interviewed at age 91. His name was Levi Preston. In 1775, he was a “Minute Man” – a citizen-soldier in the Massachusetts militia and engaged in the opening battle of the war. Although the Founders themselves were well read and experienced in the principles of government, the people were focused on those religious truths that had lead their ancestors to leave England at great peril and settle in the “New World.” When he was asked why Americans were willing to fight for freedom and independence, it was suggested by the interviewer that perhaps the people were motivated by the great philosophers of the day who spoke and wrote about the eternal principles of liberty? The old veteran looked up and replied, “Never heard of em’. We read only the Bible, the Catechisms, [the] Psalms and Hymns and the Almanack.”
The Continental Congress expressed the same faith-based belief and trust in God. In an open letter to the American people, the members of Congress described the Revolution in biblical terms:
America, without arms, ammunition, discipline, revenue, government or ally, almost totally stripped of commerce and in the weakness of youth, as it were with a “staff and a sling” only, dared “in the name of the Lord of Hosts,” to engage a gigantic adversary, prepared at all points, boasting of his strength, and of whom even might warriors were greatly afraid.”
As did the young boy David who prevailed in his battle with Goliath through faith in the God of Israel, America prevailed against the towering might of the British Empire to win its independence and become – in the words of George Washington — a place of refuge “for the oppressed and needy of the earth.” America did so through firm reliance on “divine providence.” As a people, they were motivated, disciplined and inspired by an unshakeable faith in their Creator. Today, that same enduring faith is expressed in our national motto, “IN GOD WE TRUST”.
Colonial Americans understood and fervently maintained that a citizen’s first responsibility is to live righteously according to biblical standards of morality. Biblical faith was the foundation of responsible citizenship. “[He] who neglects his duty to his Maker,” said Abigail Adams, the wife of John Adams, “may well be expected to be deficient and insincere in his duty towards the public.” David Ramsey of South Carolina was a member and President Tempore of the Continental Congress. He said that the people “looked up to Heaven as the source of their rights, and claimed [those rights] not from the promises of kings but from the parent of the Universe.” He also explained, “the political creed of an American colonist was short but substantial. He believed that God made all mankind originally equal: That he endowed them with the rights of life, property, and as much liberty as was consistent with the rights of others …. ”
When the King and British Parliament sought to tax the colonists without their representation, the Virginia House of Burgesses denounced all such “Intolerable Acts”. The Virginia legislators officially declared that the day on which the port of Boston was to be forcibly closed – June 1, 1774 – should be observed throughout Virginia as a day of “fasting, humiliation and prayer.” That resolution was crafted by a gifted young wordsmith named Thomas Jefferson. Virginia’s royal governor responded by ordering the legislators to disband and go home. Instead, they passed another resolution, this one calling for the creation of a continental congress that would represent the “united interests of America.” The united colonies next met and convened the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia in September of 1774. The creation of that Continental Congress would prove critical to the birth of the new nation. History thus records that the great coming together of the American colonies was triggered by a public act of faith – the vote by the Virginia House of Burgesses to declare a day of prayer and fasting and thanksgiving.
Despite the objections and threats of the royal governor, the Virginia legislature published their prayer and fasting resolution in the newspapers so that the people of Virginia could all participate. On June 1, 1774, countless faithful citizens did so. They dropped all other duties to attend church and express their profound Thanksgiving in common prayer for their families and their countrymen. Among them was George Washington, who wrote in his diary, “Went to church and fasted all day.”
Washington’s most common and frequent reference to God was through the use of the term “providence”. He spoke of it often and expressed his firm conviction that America’s future would be forever determined by the “hand of providence”.
In our day, President Ronald Reagan quoted, “Nothing which is morally wrong can ever be politically right.” (The Notes p. 171). As moral justification for the bold act of declaring America’s independence, the Continental Congress formally and officially appealed to the “Creator”, “Supreme Judge of the World”, “The laws of Nature and Nature’s God” and “for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other, our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.” When that immortal Declaration was so bravely issued, the Commander-in-Chief had already left to assume his command in the field. He urged each soldier to trust God for their ultimate victory. “Let us therefore rely upon the goodness of the Cause,” he stated, “and the aid of the Supreme Being, in whose hands Victory is, to animate and encourage us to great and noble Actions. The Eyes of all our Countrymen are now upon us.”
On December 18, 1777, Congress again called for a “nationwide day of solemn thanksgiving and praise” in recognition of the recent victory at Saratoga. The people knew exactly to whom Washington was referring when he spoke so often of “Providence”. It was the God of the Bible. The leading dictionary of the day defined providence as “the care of God over created beings; divine superintendence.”
Throughout the long ordeal of Lexington, Concord, Bunker Hill, the Delaware crossing, Valley Forge and, finally, Yorktown, the elected delegates to the Continental Congress came and went and the composition of that Congress changed with each session. Still, the one constant was its many outspoken professions of biblical faith by the people’s representatives. A day of national thanksgiving was declared by Congress and “recommended to the several states” on Thursday, December 9, 1779. Consider the specific content of that humbling pronouncement in contrast with today’s Congress and the degree to which public expressions of religious belief in God are now being muzzled if not outright purged from the public square. Consider how blessed we have been as a nation when we stand firm and do not weaken or let go of that firm reliance on divine providence that gave rise to our nation and is the source of all future happiness and protection:
Americans were asked on December 9,1779, to pray and petition the Lord to “influence our public councils, and bless them with wisdom from on high, with unanimity, firmness and success; that he would go forth with our hosts and crown our arms with victory; . . . and spread the light of Christian knowledge through the remotest corners of the earth . . . [and that God] would dispense the blessings of peace to the contending nations; that he would in mercy look down upon us, pardon our sins and receive us into his favor, and finally, that he would establish the independence of these United States upon the bases of religion and virtue….”
Such is our history and our legacy of faith and trust and firm reliance on divine providence to the extent we live worthy of it as a nation from generation to generation. And what do we now see in our midst? Judicial amnesia and court ordered apostasy, I am afraid as prayer in schools is banished, Normandy and Arlington type memorial crosses are prohibited on public property as memorials to fallen heroes who sacrificed to protect the public and Christmas and nativity commemorations are similarly challenged in ways never before imagined. Still, atop the Speaker’s chair in the Hall of Congress in our nation’s capitol and etched in gold, are the words of our great American covenant: “IN GOD WE TRUST.” We are indeed a thankful nation and we must never weaken or let go of our firm reliance on divine providence. As we count and give thanks for our individual blessings, may the priceless blessings of liberty secured by our Constitution and the vital connection between public virtue and independence never be lost, forgotten or neglected.
NOTE: For an inspiring account of Washington and the Founders’ faith and emphasis on morality, religion and public virtue as the foundation of American greatness and the continuing trust owed by posterity, see By The Hand of Providence, How Faith Shaped the American Revolution by Rod Cragg.
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