God in Thanksgiving Proclamations

Each fall since 1863, the sitting US president has issued a proclamation declaring a national day of Thanksgiving. Though perhaps viewed by some as merely a pro forma holiday ritual, these proclamations evidence the rich American tradition of government leaders’ officially invoking God’s guidance and care.

Without violating the First Amendment’s prohibition of establishing an official American religion, these proclamations highlight the validity of official and public appeals to God. They provide a corrective to those who seek to remove Scripture from courthouse walls, expunge “in God we trust” from money or disallow prayer in public schools. Consider the following:

Every president to issue a Thanksgiving proclamation since 1863 has mentioned God. Before 1863, there were occasional thanksgiving proclamations from the president and Congress. But the annual tradition of setting aside a Thursday for thanksgiving began with Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 declaration. After that, James Garfield didn’t live long enough in office to issue a Thanksgiving proclamation, and some presidents, though mentioning God, opted not to thank Him explicitly in their proclamations.

Despite media reports to the contrary, President Obama’s 2009 proclamation was not the first to omit explicit thanks to God. Herbert Hoover (1930), Dwight Eisenhower (1960), and Jimmy Carter (1978) were among those to reference God without directing their thanks explicitly to Him. And Gerald Ford’s 1975 statement did not mention God apart from a vague reference to “a dynamic spirit that will continue to nurture and guide us.”

All U.S. presidents to issue Thanksgiving proclamations since Ulysses S. Grant have called on Americans to attend worship gatherings. While “places of worship” seems to have been the preferred presidential term, in 1909, William Howard Taft called Americans specifically “to repair to their churches and unite in appropriate services of praise and thanks to Almighty God.”

On at least 15 occasions since 1863, presidents have quoted the Bible in their Thanksgiving proclamations. Psalms appears to be the book most frequently quoted, with Franklin Delano Roosevelt quoting Psalm 23 in its entirely in 1942 and George H.W. Bush quoting all but one verse of Psalm 100 in 1989. Roosevelt told Americans before quoting Psalm 23, “I recommend that all of us bear in mind this great Psalm.”

Turning to the New Testament, Woodrow Wilson quoted Luke 2:14 in 1913, and Grover Cleveland’s 1885 proclamation referenced James 1:17. Cleveland (1885) and later Taft (1909) utilized the phrase “wars and rumors of wars” from Matthew 24:6 and Mark 13:7. Harry Truman referenced Acts 20:35 in his 1947 proclamation.

At least two presidents have made explicit reference to Christianity in their proclamations. Cleveland, in 1896, said, “Let us, through the mediation of Him who has taught us how to pray, implore the forgiveness of our sins and a continuation of heavenly favor.” Four years later, William McKinley referred to “Christian charity.”

At least once, a president articulated a specific prayer in which he recommended all Americans join him. Eighty-one years later, Americans would do well to once again heed Franklin Roosevelt’s advice, “On the same day, in the same hour, let us pray:

“Almighty God, who hast given us this good land for our heritage; We humbly beseech Thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of Thy favor and glad to do Thy will. Bless our land with honourable industry, sound learning, and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogancy, and from every evil way.

“Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in Thy Name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that, through obedience to Thy law, we may show forth Thy praise among the nations of the earth. In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in Thee to fail; Amen.”

David Roach is editor of the BibleMesh blog. This post first appeared in Baptist Press.