In honor of the upcoming election, which may well prove the most consequential since 1860, my friend Dr. David Hall is publishing a series of articles on historic American election sermons. This is the twenty-eighth, “Thanksgiving Sermon”. — RDM
by Dr. David W. Hall
November 6, 2016
A survey of congressional proclamations for days of fasting or Thanksgiving is instructive, especially to those who have been catechized in the dogma of strict separationism. 1 Indeed, the religious worldview of the 1770s betrays the following key theological assumptions, which were apparently noncontroverted at the time: (1) sinful depravity was the underlying cause of evil and immorality; (2) repentance was necessary to stay the hand of God’s judgment; (3) atonement was needed to pacify the wrath of the sovereign God; (4) God’s providence was at work in the course of human events; and (5) true (often “reformed”) religion was essential for liberty. Such theological non-negotiables were incompatible with anything other than the scriptural religion which had been passed down from Geneva.
In the first proclamation for a fast (June 12, 1775), Congress called not for what would today be a “moment of silence,” but for an entire “day of public humiliation, fasting, and prayer.” The specific aim was to “confess and deplore our many sins,” an idea almost infinitely remote from today’s predominantly secular worldview, and to beseech God to “forgive our iniquities.” God’s providence was mentioned no less than four times in this single bill, and God was described by that Congress as possessing “immutable justice,” again, a grim and solemn warning to believers which was lightyears from the muted “understanding” of today’s religion or agnosticism.
Besides praying for the people’s representatives who met in assemblies, this proclamation also specifically asked its citizens (Congress ordered the bill to be passed out in newspapers and hand bills as well.) to pray, “That virtue and true religion may revive and flourish throughout our land” and that God would “graciously interpose” to restore “invaded rights.” This proclamation was certainly not compatible with Deism or agnosticism (much less with many forms of rigid separationism). Its conclusion urged that “Christians of all denominations assemble for public worship and abstain from servile labor and recreations on said day.” Thus Congress declared a sabbath in OT fashion, using phrasing contained in the Calvinistic confessions which define lawful sabbath behavior.
Then in March 1776, a few months prior to the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, Congress (which did not intend to establish a federal denomination) called for “true penitence of heart” and reverent devotion to stir public acknowledgement of God’s active providence. Citizens were also summoned, as Genevans had been by the Council of Two Hundred two centuries earlier, to “confess and deplore their offenses against God.” Americans feared that their actively judging God had permitted the British to “subvert our invaluable rights [note; several times the phrase “invaluable” was preferred over “inalienable” as used in the Declaration] and privileges.”
The 1776 fast proclamation urged people to pray for “pure undefiled religion universally [to] prevail” and repeated the recommendation that “Christians of all denominations” abstain from servile labor on the fast day. That this proclamation was based on clear theological notions may also be seen by its urging citizens to seek to “appease [God’s] righteous displeasure, and through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, obtain his pardon and forgiveness.” Such explicit scriptural formulation would later fade from American government rhetoric, but its overwhelming presence here indicates that this formulation was by no means problematic in 1776. Indeed, this symphony of proclamations provides a deeper understanding of the theological codas in the Declaration, whose adoption was sandwiched between this March 1776 act and later acts in the same period.
Later, a 1781 Thanksgiving proclamation, authored by Presbyterian minister John Witherspoon, again invoked the blessing of Isaiah 11:9 and pled with “the God of all grace” (1 Peter 5:10) to “incline our hearts . . . to keep all his laws.” It was not common law alone that guided, but God’s law. The next year, the Scotsman of Knoxian descent would also lead the Congress in committing to “a cheerful obedience to his laws,” and the practice of “true and undefiled religion [James 1:27] which is the great foundation of public prosperity and national happiness.”
In October 1783, a New Jersey student of Witherspoon, Elias Boudinot (of Huguenot lineage), led the Congress in affirming “our dependence on that Almighty Being,” who was yet again asked to “smile upon our seminaries and means of education to cause pure religion and virtue to flourish, to give peace to all nations, and to fill the world with his glory.” Instrumental in these great ends was the continuation, for which Congress was grateful, of “the light of the blessed gospel.” This evangel was the settled faith of the vast majority, and nowhere did it seek to repudiate the legacy of Calvinism.
Toward the end of the Revolutionary hostilities, Congress called for a day of prayer and thanksgiving in which people would “assemble in their respective churches and congregations” to celebrate the “mercies and praises of their all-bountiful Creator, most holy and most Righteous, for his innumerable favors and mercies.” In words that reflected the sincere piety of the day, this declaration of August 1784 also asked support of the seminaries for the following purposes: “to raise up from among our youth, men eminent for virtue, learning, and piety to his service in church and state; to cause virtue and true religion to flourish; to give to all nations amity, peace and concord, and to fill the world with his glory.”
Likewise, in a Thanksgiving Day sermon in 1786, Witherspoon’s student Joseph Lathrop stated: “All the measures of civil policy ought to be founded on the great principles of religion; or, at the least, to be perfectly consistent with them: otherwise they will never be esteemed, because they will be contrary to that moral sense of right and wrong which God has implanted in the breast of every rational being.” 2 Choosing Isaiah 1:19-20 as his text, Lathrop outlined and applied as follows:
What was spoken by the prophets to the ancient people of God, is written for our use, that we, through the warnings of scripture, might be moved with fear; and, through the comforts of scripture, might have hope.
OUR relation to God, as a people redeemed by his hand and preserved by his care, as a people enjoying his oracles and professing obedience to his laws, is so similar to theirs, that we may justly apply to ourselves what was here spoken to them. I shall therefore consider my text in accommodation to our own case: and shall observe,
- That the land, in which we are placed, is a good land: and,
- That our enjoyment of the good of the land depends on our obedience to God.
This sermon viewed British encroachments as unconstitutional and oppressive. In contrast, the platform of America’s federalist government was “framed and ratified in a manner still more liberal. It is not, in any sense whatever, a compact between the rulers and the people; but it is a solemn, explicit agreement of the people among themselves.” It was constructed by a convention of wise men, whom the people deputed solely for that purpose, and who, at that time, could have no share, and no appearance of a future share in the government they were framing.” “It was,” Lathrop continued, “then remitted to the people at large, and competent time allowed for their deliberate examination and discussion; and it was finally adopted and confirmed in consequence of their general approbation. So happily was it adjusted to the views of the people, at a time when the spirit of liberty was at the height, that not a single article was found in the whole, but what met the approbation of more than two thirds of the inhabitants assembled in the several towns to give their voices upon it. It is therefore, in the most absolute sense, THE CONSTISTUTION OF THE PEOPLE; and, in this view, it is more sacred than any form of government in Europe.”
Being framed by the people, it never ought to be changed, or altered without their general consent fairly asked, and freely given. There may undoubtedly be defects in it: nothing human is perfect: but still it is our own; not imposed, but chosen. And whatever imperfections attend it, yet it is acknowledged, by all, to be formed on the highest principles, of liberty.
The administration of it is committed to men appointed by, and from among ourselves; to men who are frequently to return to private life; to men who are subject to the same laws and burthens, which they impose on their fellow citizens. The people have it in their power always to influence the measures of government by petition and instructions, and often to change their rulers by new elections. Nations, whose government is absolute, may be under the sad necessity of submitting to oppression, or of repelling it by force. This is a dreadful alternative, and usually terminates in the increase of the evil. We are under no such necessity. Our government is so constituted, that publick oppressions may be soon removed without force, either by remonstrances against the measures of rulers, or by a change of the rulers themselves.
Lathrop also argued from his Boston pulpit for proper resistance to civil government under the following condition: “when rulers usurp a power oppressive to the people, and continue to support it by military force in contempt of every respectful remonstrance . . . the body of the people have a natural right to unite their strength for the restoration of their own constitutional government. And, for the same reason, if a part of the people attempt by arms to control or subvert the government, the rulers, who are the guardians of the constitution, have a right to call in the aid of the people to protect it. If the people may use force to suppress an armed usurpation of unconstitutional authority, rulers may, on the same principle, use force to suppress an armed insurrection against constitutional authority.”3
Agree with all this or not, this election sermon is admirable for seeking to mine the depths of an OT prophecy and apply it to the day. He offers several other worthwhile applications. It is also a timely reminder that repentant praying and thanksgiving praises are properly called for. Lathrop’s sermon is printed in Ellis Sandoz, Political Sermons of the American Founding Era (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998). It is online at: http://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/evans/N15978.0001.001/1:3?rgn=div1;view=fulltext.
— Dr. David W. Hall is pastor of Midway Presbyterian Church, Powder Springs, Georgia, and author of over 20 books on theology and church history. For others like this order a copy of Twenty Messages to Consider Before Voting from Reformation Heritage Books.
- All references, identified by date, are taken from the Library of Congress’ Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1906-1913) ↩
- Ellis Sandoz, ed., Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730-1805 (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1991), 839. ↩
- Ellis Sandoz, ed., Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730-1805 (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1991), 872. ↩