Days of Thanksgiving


November 23, 2022
by Editors Also by this Author


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Days of Thanksgiving were frequently declared in colonial and early America. We asked our contributors for their favorite proclamation of Thanksgiving between 1765 and 1805?

Jane Hampton Cook

The Stamp Act caused conflict at Thanksgiving dinner tables in Massachusetts in 1765. Newlyweds John and Abigail Adams dined with her father, William Smith, a minister who alternated the pulpit with Rev. Ebenezer Gay. “Went to Weymouth with my wife. Dined at Father Smith’s. Heard much of the uneasiness among the people of Hingham, at a sermon preached by Mr. Gay, on the Day of Thanksgiving, from a text in James,” John Adams recorded in his diary on December 28, 1765. Strongly advocating submission to the Stamp Act, Reverend Gay believed the weapons of the church were prayers and tears, not protests. The Smith and Adams families believed that “Mr. Gay would do very well for a (stamp) distributor, and they believed he had the stamps in his house.” In contrast, Reverend Smith had preached a different Thanksgiving sermon supporting civil disobedience, which the people had admired very much. “ The tenor of it was to recommend honor, reward, and obedience to good rulers; and a spirited opposition to bad ones, interspersed with a good deal of animated declamation upon liberty and the times.”

Shawn David McGhee

The Thanksgiving proclamation that stands out to me is Jonathan Mayhew’s sermon, The Snare Broken, a Thanksgiving-Discourse, Preached at the Desire of the West Church, in Boston (Boston: Richard and Samuel Draper, Edes and Gill, 1766). Delivered after Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in March 1766 (and shortly before he died at forty-six), Mayhew offered a stern warning to Parliament about encroaching upon American liberty. He legitimized Whig resistance to the Stamp Act with the doctrine of “Self-Preservation,” the natural desire for political communities to survive at all costs. He then offered praise to the British system while describing the rest of humanity as “ groaning in vain under the sceptre of a merciless despotism.” Toward the end of his life, John Adams credited Mayhew with bringing about “the commencement of the Revolution.”

Taylor Stoermer

I find Virginia’s June 1, 1774 “Day of Fasting, Humiliation, and Prayer” of considerable interest, mainly because of the political cynicism and calculation that inspired Jefferson, Henry, and the Lees (none of whom were remotely religious) to craft it. According to Jefferson, they “cooked up a resolution” by mining John Rushworth’s Historical Collections—a Parliamentarian-centric documentary history of the English Civil War—as a playbook for popular actions to destabilize the British monarchy. Taking the language directly from a similar action of the House of Commons in the 1640s, Jefferson knew that none of his colleagues in the House of Burgesses would support the use of religion for purely political ends if he or one of his allies introduced it, so he enlisted someone known for his piety—Robert Carter Nicholas—to give it legitimacy and ensure its adoption. John Randolph, a constitutional loyalist, saw it for what it was, drawing on the Book of Isaiah and its treatment of the proper observance of fasting, prayer, and humiliation for pointed criticism of the measure. John’s son, Edmund Randolph, later recalled it as an underhanded act disguised to “appease offended heaven” but registered by Jefferson and Henry “in the cabinet of the politician as an allowable trick of political warfare.”

Eric Sterner

I have always had a soft spot for the November 1, 1777 Thanksgiving Proclamation by the Continental Congress. Despite the victory at Saratoga, the year had not gone well for the American cause. Washington’s defeat at Brandywine had driven the Continental Congress to York, Pennsylvania. Additional defeats followed at Germantown and the Delaware River forts. George Washington was mere weeks away from going into winter quarters at Valley Forge while the frontier was under siege by British-supposed Native Americans. Yet, the Congress found reason to thank the “Providence of Almighty God” for the “innumerable Bounties of his common Providence,” before it offered appreciation for progress in the war. The 1777 proclamation is always a good reminder to count the year’s blessings even in unhappy times. (Also chosen by James M. Deitch and Nancy K. Loane)

Timothy C. Hemmis

A few weeks after the Patriot victories in the Hudson River Valley, the Continental Congress issued its first proclamation of thanksgiving to be on December 18, 1777. Unlike the modern Thanksgiving there was no gluttonous feasting on turkey and a multitude of pies. Instead, December 18 was national day of prayer and giving thanks to the Creator. Congress recommended that no labor or recreation to take place as it was a solemn holy day. To a modern American, this type of proclamation seems very foreign because today such declarations are more symbolic than spiritual. (Also chosen by Joseph Lee Boyle)

Geoff Smock

It has to be Washington’s original Proclamation in 1789. It had all of Washington’s directness and dignity, and it was issued at a time when the United States had reason to be thankful for both their independence and for navigating the shoal waters of the Confederacy years and arriving successfully at ratification of the new Constitution. Like most of what Washington did as president, no one who came after was able to do it better than he. (Also chosen by Nancy Bradeen Spannaus, Jeff Dacus, and Keith Muchowski)

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