While thanksgiving days are as old as history, e.g., King David dancing with all his might in a loincloth before the returning Ark of the Covenant, 2 Kings 6: 13-16, it is Thanksgiving Days in American history that concern Noman today.
I. THE "FIRST" THANKSGIVING (1621)
• The Historical Context
- 1492 - Columbus discovers America
- 1492 - First Christmas celebrated in America when Columbus's ship, the Santa Maria, is grounded on a reef off Haiti.
- 1511 - Spanish settle Cuba
- 1517 - Reformation begins in Europe
- 1528 - Fray Suarez, first Catholic bishop in present day U.S., arrives in Florida (April 14)
- 1531 - Our Lady of Guadalupe appears to the Indian Juan Diego
- 1539 - Hernando de Soto leads first armed conflict against American Indians, in present-day Alabama (May)
- 1565 - Billiards brought to America by Spaniards who settle St. Augustine, Florida
- 1588 - Spanish Armada defeated by the English
- 1607 - Jamestown colony established by the English in present day Virginia
- 1618 - Outbreak of the Thirty Years War in Europe
• The Pilgrims
Unwilling to worship within the Church of England and persecuted for such, the Separatists [Pilgrims] had moved to Holland in 1607. At the time, Holland was the most religiously tolerant society in Europe. They eventually asked permission of the Virginia Company, a joint-stock company operated on a charter, or written contract, from the English Crown granting them rights of trade monopoly, to settle in America "as a distinct body by themselves."
The Mayflower's 66 day voyage to America ended in November of 1620 at Plymouth, off Cape Cod on the Massachusetts coast.
• The Mayflower Compact
In 1620, shortly before they landed at Plymouth, 41 of the colonists aboard the Mayflower drew up the Mayflower Compact. It is hailed for being the original expression of the principle of self-governance in America:
We, whose names are underwritten,...having undertaken for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and the honor of our King and country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents, solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation; and furtherance of the ends aforesaid...do enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices from time to time as shall be thought most [proper] and convenient for the general good of the colony until which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names at Cape Cod the eleventh of November, in the year of our sovereign lord King James of England...anno domini 1620.
• The First Thanksgiving Day
That first winter, disease and death struck with such fury that "the living were scarce able to bury the dead." (William Bradford, historian of the colony and its first governor) Half their number died by spring.
With the help of the only surviving Ptuxet Indian, Squanto, the remaining Pilgrims lived the ensuing spring by planting the extinct Ptuxet's tribal fields with corn, beans and pumpkins. Squanto acted as interpreter to the nearby Indian tribes that traded furs and clapboard (lumber used in building houses, which was then forwarded to the Virginia Company in satisfaction of the charter).
Sometime in the fall of 1621—the date is uncertain—the Plymouth settlement celebrated the blessings of survival and a good harvest by holding a three-day celebration. This feast, giving thanks to God, was the first Thanksgiving. The only description of it is in a letter written back to England. According to the writer:
Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week. At which time ... many of the Indians [came] amongst us ... whom for three days we entertained and feasted. And they went out and killed five deer which they brought to the plantation...
II. CONGRESSIONAL DEBATE RE: A NATIONAL PRAYER DAY OF THANKSGIVING (1789)
• 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof...
(Concurred on by the House and Senate joint conference Sept. 24, 1789)
In the debates leading to the adoption of the 1st amendment, James Madison had championed a clause ("no State shall infringe the equal rights of conscience...") which would have restrained the States, as well as the Federal Government, from "establishing" a public religion. He argued that this was: "the most valuable amendment in the whole list. If there was any reason to restrain the Government of the United States from infringing upon these essential rights, it was equally necessary that they should be secured against the State Governments." Mr. Tucker countered that: "This is offered, I presume, as an amendment to the constitution of the United States, but it goes only to the alteration of the constitutions of the United States. It will be much better, I apprehend, to leave the State Governments to themselves, and not to interfere with them more than we already do; and that it is thought by many to be rather too much. I therefore move, sir, to strike out these words."
The Senate killed the article binding the States that Madison had thought "the most valuable" at the time of enactment of the 1st amendment,
• Debate re: a Thanksgiving Day
In the House of Representatives, 9/24/1789, the same day the House and Senate concurred on the 1st Am.
MR. BOUDINOT said, he could not think of letting the session pass over without offering an opportunity to all the citizens of the US of joining with one voice, in returning to Almighty God their sincere thanks for the many blessings he had poured down upon them. With this view, therefore, he would move the following resolution:
Resolved, That a joint committee of both Houses be directed to wait upon the President of the US, to request that he would recommend to the people of the US 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 Constitution of government for their safety and happiness.
MR. BURKE did not like this mimicking of European customs, where they made a mere mockery of thanksgivings. Two parties at war frequently sung Te Deum for the same event, though to one it was a victory, and to the other a defeat.
MR. BOUDINOT was sorry to hear arguments drawn from the abuse of a good thing against the use of it. He hoped no gentleman would make a serious opposition to a measure both prudent and just.
MR. TUCKER thought the House had no business to interfere in a matter which did not concern them. Why should the President direct the people to do what, perhaps they have no mind to do? They may not be inclined to return thanks for a Constitution until they have experienced that it promotes their safety and happiness. We do not yet know but they may have reason to be dissatisfied with the effects it has already produced... If a day of thanksgiving must take place, let it be done by the authority of the several States; they know best what reason their constituents have to be pleased with the establishment of this Constitution.
MR. SHERMAN justified the practice of thanksgiving on any signal event, not only as a laudable one in itself, but as warranted by a number of precedents in holy writ; for instance, the solemn thanks giving and rejoicings which took place in the time of Solomon, after the building of the temple, was a case in point. This example, he thought, worthy of Christian imitation on the present occasion...
The motion was carried; George Washington issued the requested proclamation.
MR. BOUDINOT quoted further precedents from the practice of the late Congress; and hoped the motion would meet a ready acquiescence.
III. EARLY PROCLAMATIONS
• George Washington (1st President of the United States)
Whereas it is 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 Hoses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me 'to recommend to the people of the US a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness;'
Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be...'
And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions... (Oct 3, 1789, New York)
• John Adams (2nd President of the United States)
As the safety and prosperity of nations ultimately and essentially depend on the protection and the 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 can not exist nor the blessings of a free government be enjoyed...
I have therefore thought fit to recommend, and I do hereby recommend, that Wednesday, the 9th day of May next, be observed throughout the US as a day of solemn humiliation, fasting, and prayer...
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... (Mar 23, 1798)
•Thomas Jefferson (3rd President of the United States)
DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE:
When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires the they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness....
LETTER TO THE DANBURY BAPTISTS:
In Connecticut, Congregationalist dominance over Baptists, Episcopalians, and Methodists moved one Episcopalian priest to write: "Connecticut is more completely under the administration of a Pope than Italy," referring to Yale's President, Timothy Dwight, a Congregationalist minister. The Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut wrote to Thomas Jefferson: "We have reason to believe that America's God has raised you up to fill the chair of state." Jefferson replied on New Year's Day, 1802:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinion, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.... I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common Father and Creator of man, and tender you for yourselves and your religious association assurances of my high respect and esteem.
...I shall need...the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life; who has covered our infancy with His providence and our riper years with His wisdom and power, and to whose goodness I ask you to join in supplications with me that He will so enlighten the minds of your servants, guide their councils, and prosper their measures that whatsoever they do shall result in your good, and shall secure to you the peace, friendship, and approbation of all nations (1805)
IV. ABRAHAM LINCOLN
ANNOUNCEMENT OF NEWS FROM GETTYSBURG, JULY 4, 1863
The President announces to the country that news from the Army of the Potomac ... is such as to cover that Army with the highest honor, to promise a great success to the cause of the Union, and to claim the condolence of all for the many gallant fallen. And that for this, he especially desires that on the day, He whose will, not ours, should ever be done, be everywhere remembered and reverenced with profoundest gratitude.
PROCLAMATION OF THANKSGIVING, JULY 15, 1863
It has pleased Almighty God to hearken to the supplications and prayers of an afflicted people, and to vouchsafe to the army and the navy of the US victories on land and on the sea so signal and so effective as to furnish reasonable grounds for augmented confidence that the Union of these States will be maintained, their constitution preserved, and their peace and prosperity permanently restored. But these victories have been accorded not without sacrifices of life, limb, health and liberty incurred by brave, loyal and patriotic citizens....It is meet and right to recognize and confess the presence of the Almighty Father and the power of His Hand equally in these triumphs and in these sorrows.
Now, therefore, be it known that I do set apart Thursday the 6th of August next, to be observed as a day for National Thanksgiving, Praise and Prayer, and I invite the People of the US to assemble on that occasion in their customary places of worship, and in the forms approved by their own consciences, render the places of worship, and in the forms approved by their own consciences, render the homage due to the Diving Majesty, for the wonderful things he has done in the Nation's behalf, and invoke the influence of His Holy Spirit to subdue the anger, which has produced, and so long sustained a needless and cruel rebellion...and finally to lead the whole nation, through the paths of repentance and submission to the divine Will, back to the perfect enjoyment of Union and fraternal peace.
V. FIXING OF THE DATE
Encyclopedia Britannica (1960)
"THANKSGIVING DAY, a national holiday celebrated throughout the United States, is a day of religious observance, set apart to give thanks for the blessings of the past year, as well as an occasion for family reunions bountiful dinners and festivities in the home."
"...Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 appointed the third Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day ... In Dec. 1941, however, congress by joint resolution approved by the president set the fourth Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day, a national public holiday.
VI. PRESENT DAY AMERICA
MAX WEBER, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905)
In America recently the characteristic tendency to deny their own sectarian origins has led many university libraries to provide little or nothing new of that sort of literature [referring to the Corpus Reformatorum]. It is an aspect of American life which will in a short time have dissolved the traditional national character and changed the significance of many of the fundamental institutions of the country completely and finally. (Ch. IV, n. 4 Scribner Ed. 1976)
THE ACTIVIST ROLE OF THE SUPREME COURT:
In 1941, the Supreme Court of the United States, the country's final arbiter, initiated a series of constitutional interpretations that have had the effect of extricating religion from the public life of the nation. Thus "freedom of religion" has been converted into "freedom from religion," and the same Constitution for which thanks to God was publicly offered by Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln among others, is now said to prohibit the public offering of thanks to God.
•Lee v. Weisman (1992)
JUDGES: KENNEDY, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BLACKMUN, STEVENS, O'CONNOR, and SOUTER, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., and SOUTER, J., filed concurring opinions, in which STEVENS and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. SCALIA, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, C. J., and WHITE and THOMAS, JJ., joined.
SYLLABUS: Principals of public middle and high schools in Providence, Rhode Island, are permitted to invite members of the clergy to give invocations and benedictions at their schools' graduation ceremonies. Petitioner Lee, a middle school principal, invited a rabbi to offer such prayers at the graduation ceremony for Deborah Weisman's class, gave the Rabbi a pamphlet containing guidelines for the composition of public prayers at civic ceremonies, and advised him that the prayers should be nonsectarian. Shortly before the ceremony, the District Court denied the motion of respondent Weisman, Deborah's father, for a temporary restraining order to prohibit school officials from including the prayers in the ceremony. Deborah and her family attended the ceremony, and the prayers were recited. [*2] Subsequently, Weisman sought a permanent injunction barring Lee and other petitioners, various Providence public school officials, from inviting clergy to deliver invocations and benedictions at future graduations. It appears likely that such prayers will be conducted at Deborah's high school graduation. The District Court enjoined petitioners from continuing the practice at issue on the ground that it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The Court of Appeals affirmed.
Held: Including clergy who offer prayers as part of an official public school graduation ceremony is forbidden by the Establishment Clause. Pp. 7‑19.
(a) This Court need not revisit the questions of the definition and scope of the principles governing the extent of permitted accommodation by the State for its citizens' religious beliefs and practices, for the controlling precedents as they relate to prayer and religious exercise in primary and secondary public schools compel the holding here. Thus, the Court will not reconsider its decision in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602. The principle that government may accommodate the free exercise of religion does not supersede the fundamental [*3] limitations imposed by the Establishment Clause, which guarantees at a minimum that a government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise, or otherwise act in a way which establishes a [state] religion or religious faith, or tends to do so." Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668, 678. Pp. 7‑8.
(b) State officials here direct the performance of a formal religious exercise at secondary schools' promotional and graduation ceremonies. Lee's decision that prayers should be given and his selection of the religious participant are choices attributable to the State. Moreover, through the pamphlet and his advice that the prayers be nonsectarian, he directed and controlled the prayers' content. That the directions may have been given in a good faith attempt to make the prayers acceptable to most persons does not resolve the dilemma caused by the school's involvement, since the government may not establish an official or civic religion as a means of avoiding the establishment of a religion with more specific creeds. Pp. 8‑11.
(c) The Establishment Clause was inspired by the lesson that in the hands of government what might begin as a tolerant expression [*4] of religious views may end in a policy to indoctrinate and coerce. Prayer exercises in elementary and secondary schools carry a particular risk of indirect coercion. Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421; Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203. The school district's supervision and control of a high school graduation ceremony places subtle and indirect public and peer pressure on attending students to stand as a group or maintain respectful silence during the invocation and benediction. A reasonable dissenter of high school age could believe that standing or remaining silent signified her own participation in, or approval of, the group exercise, rather than her respect for it. And the State may not place the student dissenter in the dilemma of participating or protesting. Since adolescents are often susceptible to peer pressure, especially in matters of social convention, the State may no more use social pressure to enforce orthodoxy than it may use direct means. The embarrassment and intrusion of the religious exercise cannot be refuted by arguing that the prayers are of a de minimis character, since that is an affront to the Rabbi and those for whom the prayers [*5] have meaning, and since any intrusion was both real and a violation of the objectors' rights. Pp. 11‑15.
(d) Petitioners' argument that the option of not attending the ceremony excuses any inducement or coercion in the ceremony itself is rejected. In this society, high school graduation is one of life's most significant occasions, and a student is not free to absent herself from the exercise in any real sense of the term voluntary." Also not dispositive is the contention that prayers are an essential part of these ceremonies because for many persons the occasion would lack meaning without the recognition that human achievements cannot be understood apart from their spiritual essence. This position fails to acknowledge that what for many was a spiritual imperative was for the Weismans’ religious conformance compelled by the State. It also gives insufficient recognition to the real conflict of conscience faced by a student who would have to choose whether to miss graduation or conform to the state‑sponsored practice, in an environment where the risk of compulsion is especially high. Pp. 15‑17.
(e) Inherent differences between the public school system and a session of a state legislature [*6] distinguish this case from Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783, which condoned a prayer exercise. The atmosphere at a state legislature's opening, where adults are free to enter and leave with little comment and for any number of reasons, cannot compare with the constraining potential of the one school event most important for the student to attend. Pp.17 ‑ 18. 908 F.2d 1090, affirmed.
RABBI GUTTERMAN'S "UNCONSTITUTIONAL" PRAYERS:
INVOCATION: God of the Free, Hope of the Brave: For the legacy of America where diversity is celebrated and the rights of minorities are protected, we thank You. May these young men and women grow up to enrich it. For the liberty of America, we thank You. May these new graduates grow up to guard it. For the political process of America in which all its citizens may participate, for its court system where all may seek justice we thank You. May those we honor this morning always turn to it in trust. For the destiny of America we thank You. May the graduates of Nathan Bishop Middle School so live that they might help to share it. May our aspirations for our country and for these young people, [*9] who are our hope for the future, be richly fulfilled. AMEN"
BENEDICTION: O God, we are grateful to You for having endowed us with the capacity for learning which we have celebrated on this joyous commencement. Happy families give thanks for seeing their children achieve an important milestone. Send Your blessings upon the teachers and administrators who helped prepare them. The graduates now need strength and guidance for the future, help them to understand that we are not complete with academic knowledge alone. We must each strive to fulfill what You require of us all: To do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly. We give thanks to You, Lord, for keeping us alive, sustaining us and allowing us to reach this special, happy occasion. AMEN"
POSTSCRIPT: Thanksgiving remains a national holiday, but today has more to do with turkey, overeating, football on TV, and family gatherings, than it does with God. Mostly now, thanks are given to ourselves for being the recognized "authors" of all our own good.
That's not the way it was meant to be in America, or ever was until relatively recently.
Noman wishes you all a happy thanksgiving, and thanks God for showering his many blessings on No-family and the United States of America.