Jefferson’s Thanksgiving wish

JUST LAW AND RELIGION Michael Kessler Happy Thanksgiving. Simple words that conjure images of national traditions like pumpkin pie and … Continued


Michael Kessler

Happy Thanksgiving. Simple words that conjure images of national traditions like pumpkin pie and roasted turkey, and family and friends gathered in holiday cheer. Central to that tradition is the presidential proclamation for a National Day of Thanksgiving.

You can read each of them from the beginning, when George Washington issued the first, fulfilling the “duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor – and Whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”

Such sentiments are widely shared, deeply woven into the fabric of our civil traditions. Likewise, expressing these sentiments seems harmless.

President Thomas Jefferson, however, famously did not issue such proclamations. Was this the omission of a curmudgeonly atheist? Not at all. He was motivated by concern for the protection of religious liberty. In reply to a letter from Rev. Samuel Miller as to why he refused to issue proclamations, Jefferson espoused not hatred for religion, but concern for the dangers to religion that could result if the civil executive of the country makes statements that give the appearance of sanction to religious practices. For the President to call for fasting and prayer is to usurp their proper role and enter into the province of ecclesial authority. Even without threat of legal sanction, the possibility of public pressure that might ostracize the non-compliant was too great for Jefferson to countenance. The full text of his reply:

To Rev. Samuel Miller
Washington, Jan. 23, 1808

–I have duly received your favor of the 18th and am thankful to you for having written it, because it is more agreeable to prevent than to refuse what I do not think myself authorized to comply with. I consider the government of the US. as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises. This results not only from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment, or free exercise, of religion, but from that also which reserves to the states the powers not delegated to the U. S. Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general government. It must then rest with the states, as far as it can be in any human authority. But it is only proposed that I should recommend, not prescribe a day of fasting & prayer. That is, that I should indirectly assume to the U. S. an authority over religious exercises which the Constitution has directly precluded them from. It must be meant too that this recommendation is to carry some authority, and to be sanctioned by some penalty on those who disregard it; not indeed of fine and imprisonment, but of some degree of proscription perhaps in public opinion. And does the change in the nature of the penalty make the recommendation the less a law of conduct for those to whom it is directed? I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct it’s exercises, it’s discipline, or it’s doctrines; nor of the religious societies that the general government should be invested with the power of effecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. Fasting & prayer are religious exercises. The enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, & the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the constitution has deposited it.

I am aware that the practice of my predecessors may be quoted. But I have ever believed that the example of state executives led to the assumption of that authority by the general government, without due examination, which would have discovered that what might be a right in a state government, was a violation of that right when assumed by another. Be this as it may, every one must act according to the dictates of his own reason, & mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the US. and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.

I again express my satisfaction that you have been so good as to give me an opportunity of explaining myself in a private letter, in which I could give my reasons more in detail than might have been done in a public answer: and I pray you to accept the assurances of my high esteem & respect.

While Jefferson had formal and principled reasons for not issuing a Proclamation, since the 1860s, there has been a Proclamation in one form or another each year. Some are more explicitly generic (President Ford: “Let each of us, in his own way, join in expressing personal gratitude for the blessings of liberty and peace we enjoy today. In so doing, let us reaffirm our belief in a dynamic spirit that will continue to nurture and guide us as we prepare to meet the challenge of our third century.”) and others are decidedly sectarian (President Reagan: “Although the time and date of the first American thanksgiving observance may be uncertain, there is no question but that this treasured custom derives from our Judeo-Christian heritage. ‘Unto Three, O God, do we give thanks,’ the Psalmist sang).

Regardless, the practice is here to stay. So, take your Thanksgiving advice from the President, if you will, but remember that your cleric, your mentors, and the wisdom of your traditions are resources in which you may more deeply and richly engage for yourself to find theological and spiritual meaning about gratitude and humility.

As for me, Charles Schulz’s A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving captures the spirit of Thanksgiving well. Linus (my childhood hero) offers words of reflection before the Peanuts gang’s feast by recalling the earliest Thanksgiving celebration:

In the year 1621, the Pilgrims held their first Thanksgiving feast. They invited the great Indian chief Massasoit, who brought ninety of his brave Indians and a great abundance of food. Governor William Bradford and Captain Miles Standish were honored guests. Elder William Brewster, who was a minister, said a prayer that went something like this: ‘We thank God for our homes and our food and our safety in a new land. We thank God for the opportunity to create a new world for freedom and justice.

Later, Marcie reminds Charlie Brown that the spirit of the holiday transcends the food and hubbub:

“But Thanksgiving is more than eating, Chuck. You heard what Linus was saying out there. Those early Pilgrims were thankful for what had happened to them, and we should be thankful, too. We should just be thankful for being together. I think that’s what they mean by ‘Thanksgiving,’ Charlie Brown.”

Happy Thanksgiving!

Dr. Michael Kessler is Assistant Director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and Visiting Assistant Professor of Government at Georgetown University.

By Michael Kessler | 
November 25, 2009; 9:27 AM ET

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Just Law and Religion

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  • Counterww

    Yes, CCNL, we know that Jefferson did not believe.His loss, as it is yours.Jesus is waiting for you.Crossan cannot save you, Jesus already did.

  • ccnl1

    Ahh, poor, poor “Counterww” still suffering from all that “resurrecting Jesus” saving him from the fires of hell.Professor Crossan’s take on it:(from his book, “Who is Jesus” co-authored with Richard Watts)”Moreover, an atonement theology that says God sacrifices his own son in place of humans who needed to be punished for their sins might make some Christians love Jesus, but it is an obscene picture of God. It is almost heavenly child abuse, and may infect our imagination at more earthly levels as well. I do not want to express my faith through a theology that pictures God demanding blood sacrifices in order to be reconciled to us.” “Traditionally, Christians have said, ‘See how Christ’s passion was foretold by the prophets.” Actually, it was the other way around. The Hebrew prophets did not predict the events of Jesus’ last week; rather, many of those Christian stories were created to fit the ancient prophecies in order to show that Jesus, despite his execution, was still and always held in the hands of God.” “In terms of divine consistency, I do not think that anyone, anywhere, at any time, including Jesus, brings dead people back to life.”

  • norriehoyt

    “… there is no question but that this treasured custom derives from our Judeo-Christian heritage.”And…?So what? July 4th doesn’t, and it has better weather.

  • khote14

    there’s something truly barbaric about a group of people worshipping a dead guy on a roman torture device. About half of these people imagine in one particular religious ceremony that certain carbohydrate-laden disks are magically transformed into the flesh of this dead guy, that some wine is transformed into his blood.So not only are they worshipping this corpse, they’re eating too!This is one of the more grotesque things I’ve ever heard people do, divine cannibalism.I am thankful to have never been infected with such barbaric habits.