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What George Washington Teaches Us about Thanksgiving and God’s Providence

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In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.

– Proverbs 16:9

It was George Washington who, in his first year as president, originally set aside Thursday, November 26th, 1789 as “A Day of Publick Thanksgiving and Prayer.”

There certainly had been many Thanksgiving observances in America before Washington’s proclamation.

  • The colonists of the Plymouth Plantation held a celebration of food and feasting in the fall of 1621.
  • The first recorded Thanksgiving observance was held on June 29th, 1671 at Charlestown, Massachusetts.
  • During the 1700s, it was common practice for individual colonies to observe days of thanksgiving throughout each year.
  • A Thanksgiving Day celebration was held in December of 1777 by the colonies nationwide, commemorating the surrender of British General Burgoyne at Saratoga.

Washington’s proclamation represents the first to be so designated by the new government of the United States of America. This “general thanksgiving” was a day appointed, “to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God.”

Gratitude for God’s Providence

It should not surprise us that one of those blessings mentioned in Washington’s Thanksgiving Day Proclamation was the Almighty’s care of Americans during their fight for independence only thirteen years earlier.

I recently finished reading David McCullough’s book 1776, in which he writes:

The year 1776, celebrated as the birth year of the nation and for the signing of the Declaration of Independence, was for those who carried the fight for independence forward a year of all-too-few victories, of sustained suffering, disease, hunger, desertion, cowardice, disillusionment, defeat, terrible discouragement, and fear, as they would never forget, but also of phenomenal courage and bedrock devotion to country, and that, too they would never forget.

In reading about the events of 1776, it is impossible not to believe that without Washington’s unwavering belief in God’s providence, the American Revolution would have been over before it started. McCullough writes about Washington:

With the situation as gray as it could be, no one was more conspicuous in his calm presence of mind than Washington. They must be “cool but determined” he had told the men before the battle, when spirits were high. Now, in the face of catastrophe, he was demonstrating what he meant by his own example. Whatever anger or torment or despair he felt, he kept to himself.

At the close of his book, David McCullough suggests the cause for the colonials’ victory in the face of such overwhelming odds rested on a single virtue held by Washington: his perseverance.

He was not a brilliant strategist or tactician, not a gifted orator, nor an intellectual. At several crucial moments he had shown marked indecisiveness. He had made serious mistakes in judgment. But experience had been his great teacher from boyhood, and in this his greatest test, he learned steadily from experience. Above all, Washington never forgot what was at stake and he never gave up…. Without Washington’s leadership and unrelenting perseverance, the revolution almost certainly would have failed.

How was Washington able to persevere when it looked like all was lost?

Perseverance and Providence

The answer is found in a letter written in January of 1776 to Joseph Reed. Washington foretold what he believed the basis for his perseverance would be:

If I shall be able to rise superior to these, and many other difficulties which might be enumerated, I shall most religiously believe that the finger of Providence is in it.

Washington believed that God’s blessing of providence was the sole reason he persevered. As he writes in a letter to Reverend William Gordon on May 13th, 1776, “No man has a more perfect reliance on the all-wise and powerful dispensations of the Supreme Being than I have, nor thinks His aid more necessary.”

In 1776, with everything falling apart around him, Washington was able to see, by faith, the bigger picture of what God was doing and the role he was called to play in it.

By 1778, George Washington had so often witnessed God’s intervention that on August 20th, he wrote Thomas Nelson to say:

The Hand of providence has been so conspicuous in all this, that he must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith, and more than wicked, that has not gratitude enough to acknowledge his obligations.

Upon Washington’s death in 1799, John Adams addressed the U.S. Senate, saying,

His example is now complete, and it will teach wisdom and virtue to magistrates, citizens, and men, not only in the present age, but in future generations, as long as our history shall be read.

Although most of us will not be called to help start a new country, we all can gain from Washington’s example. We need to see God’s larger plan and how our story fits into his story. This is what will help each of us to persevere daily amidst the up and downs of living in a fallen world.

This Thanksgiving let us look back and give God thanks for his providence in our own lives, and let us also look forward to the work he has yet for us to do.

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  • Sid in Missouri

    This is a fine article and raises several excellent points, particularly about perseverance and reliance upon God in all things, but especially when times are bleak. At the same time, I wonder how many British generals were also relying on God during these times? I would guess quite a few. I hope they were not too devastated when things didn’t work out for the good of “king and country.”

    The only times we know for certain which “side” God took in a war was the Old Testament when his told Israel via the prophets that he was “giving so-n-so nation into their hands.” Everything since then has been very murky. This isn’t to say God wasn’t with Washington–doubtless God is with all his children–but I try to stay away from ever suggesting it was God’s plan for the colonials to whoop the British.

    Early men took victory in battle as a sign of God’s / the gods’ favor. I think God is largely ambivalent regarding the wars of humans other than anger at the devastation to life and the world caused in such conflicts. To be clear, I do not think the author of this article was trying to promote God’s blessing upon founding of our country by war–far from it. But it’s to easy to read an article about Washington, Thanksgiving, the war of independence, God’s providence and then just make the assumption that all of those things go together. I’m not sure they do.

    I think God’s love is bigger than such early things as generals, presidents, countries, government and festivals. Those things are certainly good so long as we never lose sight of where our ultimate citizenship lies. And I am very thankful that I live in a prosperous, relatively peaceful country. The alternative isn’t very appealing. My goal is to better understand what I’m supposed to do with the legacy left by my forefathers and the founding fathers, to the glory of God’s kingdom. If Washington was able to depend on God’s providence in the middle of a devastating and dismal war, perhaps I can use his example when I’m tempted to be a little dissatisfied with whatever in my life isn’t living up to my expectations.

    Great article. Thanks for allowing me to think out loud here a bit.

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