The first proclamation for a national day of dedication to God’s graciousness was signed in March 1776 by John Hancock as president of the Continental Congress of the United Colonies. The language is startlingly different with its emphasis on humility, fasting and prayers for peace. We might consider embracing its message with a breakfast fast on Thanksgiving morning.
At the time England’s government had high taxes despite severe poverty to pay debts from a century of global conquests, and most recently by debt from wars against France in Europe and the French and Indian war in North America. Parliament insisted Colonialists pay their share of the successful and ongoing defense of North America.
The colonies had been prosperous. Benjamin Franklin in 1750 had publically proclaimed it was “Impossible to find a happier and more prosperous population on all the surface of the globe.”
Colonists fed themselves by hunting and harvesting crops and enriched themselves by shipping products from their hands and the hands of their slaves and indentured servants. Merchants traded with government issued paper money called Colonial Scrip which did not require banker financed debt. They smuggled in sugar and molasses with bribes and lax enforcement from sympathetic juries.
Beginning in 1763 parliament’s taxes, newly vigorous enforcement and British credit for commerce that replaced Colonial Script undermined the prosperity and self-government of the colonies. By 1776 battles in Lexington, Concord, Bunker Hill and George Washington’s command of the Continental Army, formed by the First Continental Congress in 1774, had driven all British forces from American soil.
Colonists in 1776 feared their rights and prosperity would be crushed as the British military prepared to return fortified by signed alliances with the “savages of the wilderness.”
Colonists were locked between an ocean on the east that carried British warships and haunting forests on the west from which Native Americans ambushed remote settlers and quickly vanished back inside. Land to the north provided a launching platform from which British armies could flow down the Hudson to divide and conquer. There was no escape to the south.
The Second Continental Congress tried one last time to avoid war by asking people to seek “God’s superintending providence” to assist all non-violent “lawful enterprises” and provide better direction.
“The Congress [does] carefully recommend, this Friday, the seventeenth of May next, be observed by the said colonies as a day of HUMILIATION, FASTING, AND PRAYER.” The proclamation urges everyone “with united hearts confess … our sins … and by a sincere repentance appeal to [God’s] righteous displeasure” and by the “mediation of Jesus Christ, obtain His pardon and forgiveness” to “frustrate the cruel purposes of our unnatural enemies, and by inclining their hearts to justice and benevolence, prevent the further effusion of kindred blood.”
The irony is the original Thanksgiving proclamation by our Second Continental Congress desperately recommended its anxious people offer a day of humiliation, fasting and prayer in hopes of using non-violent lawful enterprises and appeals to the justice and benevolence of English people to preserve the Colonies’ abundant life and freedoms against a nation burdened by debt and poverty while brandishing a seemingly overwhelming military power continuously engaged around the globe.
Less than two months after the Day of Fasting, disappointed delegates wrote the Declaration of Independence, a declaration of war.
To honor the origins and original purpose of Thanksgiving beneath our unfurled flags on this national holiday, I recommend we rekindle that hope for peace with a breakfast fast of humiliation and reflection as we confess our shortcomings and rededicate ourselves to primarily depend on lawful enterprises and the justice and benevolence of people around the world.
And possibly most difficult at a time when respect for Congress is at a record low, we should thank Congress for its wisdom in originating a national day of Thanksgiving seeking peace and pray it rededicates itself to find ways to reduce or restrict war.