In past years at this time, we have noted Thanksgiving proclamations in American history here at CLR Forum. On the occasion of this year’s Thanksgiving, I want to draw attention again to President John Adams’s 1798 Proclamation For a National Fast, which he issued on March 23 of that year and prescribed for the month of May. Two things are striking to me about the proclamation, though of course they are not unique to this particular proclamation.
First, days of public prayer are closely associated in the mind of Adams (and likely in the minds of his audience) with “humiliation”–that is, with the recognition of the limits of human power, with humility, and with the need and desire for guidance beyond oneself to set to the affairs of governance wisely. It has longed seemed to me that this was the principal function of legislative and other public prayer. Is is an irony of history that legislative prayer has now come to signify, in the minds of many of its opponents, something like the opposite of “humiliation.”
Second, note the emphasis on fasting. The idea behind such days was not to gorge on as much food as one could hold down, or to acknowledge one’s own comfortably sated life, or to revel in the capacity to spend lots of money on entirely useless nonsense on “Black Friday.” It was to thank God for one’s gifts by abstaining from consumption.
Now, if you will excuse me, I’m off to stuff the turkey and, then (Grace having been said) myself. A very happy Thanksgiving to all of our readers.
As the safety and prosperity of nations ultimately and essentially depend on the protection and blessing of Almighty God; and the national acknowledgment of this truth is not only an indispensable duty, which the people owe to him, but a duty whose natural influence is favorable to the promotion of that morality and piety, without which social happiness cannot exist, nor the blessings of a free government be enjoyed; and as this duty, at all times incumbent, is so especially in seasons of difficulty and of danger, when existing or threatening calamities, the just judgments of God against prevalent iniquity, are a loud call to repentance and reformation; and as the United States of America are at present placed in a hazardous and afflictive situation, by the unfriendly disposition, conduct, and demands of a foreign power, evinced by repeated refusals to receive our messengers of reconciliation and peace, by depredations on our commerce, and the infliction of injuries on very many of our fellow-citizens, while engaged in their lawful business on the seas;—under these considerations, it has appeared to me that the duty of imploring the mercy and benediction of Heaven on our country, demands at this time a special attention from its inhabitants.
I have therefore thought fit to recommend, and I do hereby recommend, that Wednesday, the 9th day of May next, be observed throughout the United States, as a day of solemn humiliation, fasting and prayer; that the citizens of these States, abstaining on that day from their customary worldly occupations, offer their devout addresses to the Father of mercies, agreeably to those forms or methods which they have severally adopted as the most suitable and becoming; that all religious congregations do, with the deepest humility, acknowledge before God the manifold sins and transgressions with which we are justly chargeable as individuals and as a nation; beseeching him at the same time, of his infinite grace, through the Redeemer of the world, freely to remit all our offences, and to incline us, by his Holy Spirit, to that sincere repentance and reformation which may afford us reason to hope for his inestimable favor and heavenly benediction; that it be made the subject of particular and earnest supplication, that our country may be protected from all the dangers which threaten it, that our civil and religious privileges may be preserved inviolate, and perpetuated to the latest generations, that our public councils and magistrates may be especially enlightened and directed at this critical period, that the American people may be united in those bonds of amity and mutual confidence, and inspired with that vigor and fortitude by which they have in times past been so highly distinguished, and by which they have obtained such invaluable advantages, that the health of the inhabitants of our land may be preserved, and their agriculture, commerce, fisheries, arts, and manufactures, be blessed and prospered, that the principles of genuine piety and sound morality may influence the minds and govern the lives of every description of our citizens, and that the blessings of peace, freedom, and pure religion, may be speedily extended to all the nations of the earth.
And finally I recommend, that on the said day, the duties of humiliation and prayer be accompanied by fervent thanksgiving to the bestower of every good gift, not only for having hitherto protected and preserved the people of these United States in the independent enjoyment of their religious and civil freedom, but also for having prospered them in a wonderful progress of population, and for conferring on them many and great favors conducive to the happiness and prosperity of a nation.