“Whereas it becomes us humbly to approach the throne of Almighty God, with gratitude and praise, for the wonders which his goodness has wrought in conducting our forefathers to this western world; for his protection to them and to their posterity, amidst difficulties and dangers …
I … issue this my proclamation, hereby appointing Thursday the 9th day of December next, a day of publick and solemn thanksgiving and prayer to Almighty God, earnestly recommending to all the good people of this commonwealth, to set apart the said day for those purposes, and to the several Ministers of religion to meet their respective societies thereon, to assist them in their prayers, edify them with their discourses, and generally to perform the sacred duties of their function, proper for the occasion.
Governor Jefferson: Proclamation Appointing a Day of Thanksgiving and Prayer, November 11, 1779
… I consider the government of the U S. as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises. 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 …
I am aware that the practice of my predecessors may be quoted …
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 U S. has no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.
President Jefferson To Rev. Samuel Miller, January 23, 1808
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
A state leader can do what a national leader cannot.
On October 20, 1779, the Continental Congress, “impressed with a grateful sense of the goodness of Almighty God,” recommended to the states the adoption of “a day of publick and solemn thanksgiving and prayer.” Governor Jefferson did that for Virginia. The first excerpt is the opening and closing of that proclamation.
Nearly 30 years later, in 1808, a clergyman asked President Jefferson to do the same thing for the country. He declined. The second excerpt explains why.
– The Constitution prohibited it.
– Such matters were left to the states.
– Nor would he recommend it, doing indirectly what the Constitution prohibited directly.
– He acknowledged Presidents Washington and Adams acted differently.
– He repeated: “the President of the U S. has no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.”
It is good to give thanks to God. It is not good for the government to tell its citizens to do so or even recommend it.
“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.
His love endures forever.”
Psalm 136:1, NIV