We live in thankless times, especially in our politics. There, we experience a noxious concoction: spite mixed with pride, invective stirred in with despair. So fraught and degrading is our moment that these things have become virtues, and thankfulness a vice. Thus, as we approach American Thanksgiving, many may ask: what’s the point? In particular, can we, as a political community, still thank God in such times? If so, how?
We indeed may – but only if we know how to think about thanks, and only if we have a proper political theology of thanksgiving to God. One source for such thinking can be found in the earliest American Thanksgiving Proclamations, those given during the American Revolution (1777-1784) and the first by President George Washington (1789). These days of thanksgiving were occasional, taking place well before annual November observance began during the American Civil War. In these proclamations, we see a political thought articulated which was grounded in thankfulness to God. Through them, we may learn how this perspective can guide a political community even in hard moments.
The opening words to Washington’s first Thanksgiving Proclamation, given in the Fall of 1789, served as a helpful outline for this perspective. Washington opened this proclamation with four duties nations owed God, duties that aligned with prior proclamations and which wove together a political theology of thanks.
Acknowledgement of Providence
First, Washington declared that nations must “acknowledge” God’s “providence.” The 1777 Congressional Proclamation said it more emphatically, that it is “the indispensable Duty of all Men to adore the superintending Providence of Almighty God.” Nations must acknowledge God’s control over the affairs of men – “adore” it even. This control included both men’s inward thoughts and outward actions – the 1783 proclamation thanked God, as the “Supreme Ruler of all human events,” for working “to dispose the hearts of the late belligerent powers” to end the Revolutionary War. The proclamations are replete with declarations of God’s causation of actions, too, such as military and political victories, as well as agricultural abundance. The particular thanks that appear later in the documents stem from these declarations; one must ascribe to God the power in order to give him the praise.
These acknowledgments establish a baseline crucial for a political theology of thanks, for this posture puts human politics in its proper place: within the providence of God Almighty. The justification for and the exercise of politics is liable to conflate the political will of the ruler and the sovereign will of God. At one end of the spectrum, these conflations result in strident versions of the divine right of kings. Consider Shakespeare’s Richard II: “Not all the water in the rough rude sea/Can wash the balm from an anointed king.” At the other end, this conflations result in forms of popular rule according to“Vox Populi, Vox Dei”: “the voice of the people is the voice of God.” As with kingly divine right, this populist perspective often conflates the two not merely in expression but in essence. It is not that God establishes popular rule or that he acts through it for his purposes; instead, the sovereign people become God, their (majority) will the definition of justice. This temptation, in all its manifestations restates the one the serpent gave to Adam and Eve in the Garden that “you shall be like God” (Genesis 3:5). A corporate, public recognition of God’s sovereignty over history pushes back against political manifestations of this sin.
Gratitude for Benefits
Second, nations should “be grateful for [God’s] benefits.” Here we see the direct giving of thanks, and can learn much in what they say. These thanksgivings do not speak in generalities or platitudes, but thank God for specific blessings, and are a necessary corollary of our first point: if God is in providential control of all things, then all things become reasons for thanksgiving. These lists of thanksgiving instill even greater humility in the reader, and when we reach the end of them we must wonder what remains that is not a blessing of God? “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). This is because, as Washington put it, God is “the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.”
The Proclamations also link gratitude to the need for public confessions of sin and requests for forgiveness. The 1777 Proclamation said that, because of their “manifold Sins,” the people of the United States “had forfeited every Favor.” The 1780 proclamation expressed that the people should “confess our unworthiness of the least of his favors.” In this light, our thanks rightly comes from a position of unworthiness, not a demand for what God owes us. We must note the basis for this forgiveness as well. The 1777 Proclamation is most direct and explicit, hoping that “it may please GOD through the Merits of JESUS Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them [their sins] out of Remembrance.” Gratitude must be rendered for grace – both common and saving.
A Response of Obedience
Third, nations must “obey his [God’s] will.” Obedience is a grateful response to divine providence, blessings, and mercies. Washington wrote of both knowing and practicing “true religion and virtue,” with similar expressions found in the 1779 and 1783 Proclamations. The 1777 Proclamation singled out “Liberty, Virtue, and Piety.” Whether intended or not, these formulations call to mind Christ’s words in Matthew’s Gospel that we follow the Law in its entirety by properly loving God and neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40). True religion or piety consists first and foremost of our obligations to God; thus, these proclamations express the hope that God will “fill the world with his glory” and that God will “build up his churches in their most holy faith and to cause the knowledge of Christianity to spread over all the earth.” They, moreover, call for persons to take the time set aside on these thanksgiving days for prayer and worship, which is God’s due. Virtue, next, concerns our obligations to others. These proclamations comment on such obligations in discussing “the dearest and most essential rights of human nature” and wishing for the “peace, liberty, and safety” of America. We owe to each other the protection of life and its cultivation—mind, heart, and body—toward the good.
Moreover, we must understand the confession of sin and request for pardon within this call to obedience. We will fall short in pursuing piety and virtue – far short, since our sins are described in these proclamations as “manifold” and “heinous.” This recognition should temper utopian ambitions that exist among us, ambitions which tyrannize in their demands for an impossible perfection. Our politics instead needs a place for mercy, one that does not deny justice but allows for reconciliation. These Proclamations, in their combined calls for obedience and forgiveness, show how this can be done.
Request for Blessing
Fourth and finally, Washington wrote that countries should “humbly…implore [God’s] protection and favor.” Such implorations further explain the command to obey God’s will as revealed in the two ends of his law, for we should ask for those protections and favors that accord with his will. The 1782 Proclamation requested that God grant “a cheerful obedience to his laws” because that which we owe to God we also request his power to fulfill. It then adds the supplication that God “promot[e]…the practice of true and undefiled religion, which is the great foundation of public prosperity and national happiness.” Extraordinary as we might find this statement, its link between true religion and public, political good is historically unremarkable, and flows naturally from claims already made. True and undefiled religion concurs with the will of God who superintends events. It conforms to our nature, as beings made for community with other humans and for worship of the true God.
In asking for protection and favor, these proclamations also request means to those ends of loving God and neighbor. These proclamations ask God “to inspire with wisdom and a true sense of the public good, all our public councils”, recalling how in Proverbs, Wisdom declares that “[b]y me kings reign, and rulers decree what is just” (8:15). They also ask God to “prosper our husbandmen, and give success to all engaged in lawful commerce.” Economic prosperity, they knew, depends on God’s providence more than governmental policy. The most consistent request comes in the form of education. The 1781 Proclamation, for example, asks God to “bless all seminaries of learning,” with the 1784 version praying for blessings “especially” for “our schools and seminaries of learning.” Proper submission, gratitude, obedience, and imploration require right knowledge and right desires. Within human capacity, education pursues these objects.
In these various means, we do see implicit limits on the government’s tools for pursuing its goals. Washington’s Proclamation thanks God for “the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed.” The 1783 Proclamation also thanks God for the fact that he has “secured to us in the fullest extent the rights of conscience in faith and worship.” By giving thanks for these freedoms on behalf of the nation, Washington implicitly acknowledged the limits of his government: if these are things for which God is to be thanked, they are things which no government should ever be allowed to restrict, for such behaviour would amount to ungrateful rejection of God’s gifts. There are God-given limits set upon how the government might coerce submission to God, gratitude for his works, obedience to his will, and request for future favor. Protections exist for conscience and freedom to worship as we see fit.
Still, numerous means of appropriate coercion and conformity remain, and these proclamations declare the rightfulness of those principles. They ask that Americans set aside special time to act in accordance with them, as a common expression of our political order. And they certainly leave room, even with liberty of conscience and worship, for some modes of public conformity.
We sorely need these templates today. For this virtue of thankfulness has, can, and may yet again sow the seeds for virtues which are sorely needed today. Thankfulness as a political theology would help us to define better our place in God’s order. It would give us guidance for what we as political communities should strive for and how. And, both in giving thanks and in imploring for more divine blessing, we would find the means to fight anew for the Good. Because to be thankful for something is to know its value. To know its value entails willingness to fight to achieve and to defend it. This Thanksgiving, may we renew the political vision articulated in these early American proclamations. May we, in so doing, trade our bitter brews to feast on gratitude.
Adam M. Carrington is Associate Professor of Politics at Hillsdale College. He has published on matters of Constitutional law, separation of powers, and Protestant political thought.