On Thanksgiving Day, one can guess the schedule of most Americans. They will watch football. They will visit family and friends. And, of course, they will feast.
But will people go to church on Thanksgiving? Doing so might prove difficult. Not many churches offer services. Doing so might also seem lonely. Even among those churches which do offer services, not many people attend them.
However, public worship used to be a central element of public days of thanks (of which Thanksgiving is not the only one in American history). This tradition existed well before President Lincoln established Thanksgiving as recurring every fourth Thursday in November. Public worship occurred during public days of thanks in colonial and early Republic times. Indeed, it not only occurred, it took a central role in how many people gave gratitude.
One prominent example came in President George Washington’s second term. On January 1, 1795, Washington issued a Thanksgiving proclamation. It consisted of a recommendation to, “all Religious Societies and Denominations and to all persons whomsoever within the United States to set apart and observe Thursday the nineteenth day of February next as a day of public Thanksgiving and prayer.” While setting aside this day, Washington further exhorted the country “to meet together” in order to corporately “render their sincere and hearty thanks” to God for his blessings to the country. In other words: Americans should go to church and give thanks.
We know the American church heeded this recommendation. A number of published sermons remain from thanksgiving services held on February 19, 1795. They come from various denominations, including Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists, among others, and choose from a wide range of Biblical texts. Levi Frisbie (1748-1806), pastor of The First Church in Ipswich, chose Psalm 100:3-4; Samuel West, pastor of the South Church in Boston, spoke from Daniel 2:20-21; William White (1748-1836), Episcopal Bishop of Pennsylvania, selected Deuteronomy 33:27a for a service attended by President Washington himself.
Despite differences in text and denomination, the sermons preached at these services overlapped greatly in content. The ministers used this opportunity to educate believers in a political theology of public gratitude.
Thanksgiving as an Obligation
These sermons framed public thanks to God as more than merely “a good idea.” They argued that such days of thanksgiving were obligatory for political communities. Reverend Frisbie, for example, declared, “It is the indispensable duty of all nations of the earth, to know that the LORD he is God, and to offer unto him sincere and devout thanksgiving and praise.”
Knowing that the LORD is God involved understanding his character. Frisbie further declared God’s attributes as including his “infinite power, wisdom, and goodness.” John Andrews (1764-1845), of the First Church in Newburyport, seconded this point almost exactly in speaking of God’s “infinite power and wisdom.” God possesses perfect power, meaning none can equal, much less surpass him in might. God is perfect wisdom, knowing all. Finally, God’s character includes perfect goodness—he is the fount and measure of all righteousness, all virtue.
Thanksgiving for Providence
Prior to any intervention in history then, God’s character demands praise from man. But praise for his acts swiftly follows, and each of these ministers urged thanksgiving for the way God had acted in relation to political communities, including America. To make this point, these ministers rejected any deistic view of God’s relationship to the world. Bishop White declared that the United States “is bound to acknowledge the presiding Providence of God.” Providence was not limited to individuals or the church; political communities too exist in relationship with God.
This relationship begins with formation. God created all regimes and thus set out their nature, purposes, and ultimately controlled their structures of law and order. In declaring this point, these preachers did not try to turn America into a new Israel, a new chosen people. Frisbie distinguished between the “miraculous” and “extraordinary” formation of ancient Israel compared with the “ordinary manner” in which God constituted all other regimes, including America. But affirming God’s creation of political communities admitted “the doctrine of a general and particular providence” which God exerted over his creation, a providence which showcased God’s power, wisdom, and goodness.
These ministers saw American’s mere existence as a manifestation of God’s power for which all should show thanks. In his might, God had caused America to win its struggle for independence against the mighty British armies and navies, and the preachers of February 19, 1795 mostly read this as a signal of divine favor upon the country. Left unchecked, America’s victory in the Revolutionary War might elicit arrogance and self-congratulation; these sermons pushed Americans toward a humble thankfulness.
But the reasons for thanks hardly stopped there. These sermons saw God’s wisdom playing out as well as his power. These sermons painted the state as a necessary means for human beings to live decent lives, a view arising from a Christian conception of what human nature was originally in relation to what it had become. Thomas Barnard introduced this point when he spoke of the importance of “safety and happiness” for human beings. Bishop White noted humanity’s “social” nature wherein people desired community both for physical, spiritual, and other needs. These observations encompass man’s natural, created needs, but the sermons further noted the fallible, sin-soaked nature of human beings and what that entailed of government. Left to themselves, fallen people did not do justice to each other but actively harmed their neighbors. God, in his wisdom, ordained government as a means to address these elements of human nature, both those inherent and those resulting from the Fall. It was an essential means to the safety and to the happiness of God’s human creation. By it, basic rights would receive protection from threats. Through establishing and maintaining government, mankind could achieve something of its intended virtues and enjoy preservation from some of its fallen vices.
Thanksgiving for Peace
The focus on safety and happiness in these sermons focused particularly on the issue of political peace. This focus stemmed from Washington’s thanksgiving proclamation which highlighted God’s blessing of the United States with such peace. This point was of particular note because of attempts in that time to draw the country into the hostilities then flaring in Europe. In Newburyport, John Andrews focused his sermon on this point. “Peace,” he said, “has ever been accounted one of the greatest blessings which the children of men enjoy upon earth.” He contrasted this blessing to the scourging of war, which brought with it “some of the greatest plagues and afflictions of mankind.” God’s goodness was on display in the peace he had afforded America. It provided a needed context for humans to prosper economically and to worship in safety. For the gift of peace, these ministers exhorted, we should be thankful.
Thanksgiving for Government
This goodness extended beyond safety to happiness for human beings, too. These sermons rejected a view of politics that reduced it to merely physical protection of person and property. They understood Washington’s suggestion to thank God , “particularly for the possession of Constitutions of Government which unite and by their union establish liberty with order.” Here we see both an end and a means for which God was the ultimate author.
For the end, these sermons seized on the blessing of liberty. Frisbie noted its two-fold nature, “civil and religious liberty.” America possessed the twin blessings of self-government (rather than tyranny) and the ability to worship God according to one’s conscience. The two went together in these ministers’ minds. Bishop White said that, while distinct in their “sanctions” and their “states of being,” religion and politics “are contemplated by revelation, as having an action and reaction on one another.” What kind of liberty, civil and religious, could also involve the cooperation of the political and the theological, of the church and of the state? Barnard brought these points together when he declared that “VIRTUE… is the soil in which society best flourishes.” Liberty joined with order was the self-governing practice of virtue. That virtue-loving liberty was the soil in which the happy society, composed of happy persons, resided. Far from a libertarian view of the state, these sermons posited a perspective on politics that sought habituation toward the good, the true, and the beautiful. Thus, John Andrews said, “as they wish to be happy, let them become a religious people.”
Regarding the means, these men thought God had blessed America with a system unusually conducive to this kind of liberty. John McKnight (1754-1823), a Presbyterian minister in New York, stated that, “The goodness of God has been manifested in continuing us in the possession of constitutions of government, which unite, and by their union establish, liberty and order.” Barnard spoke with thankfulness about the Constitution, “both with respect to the excellence of its form, and the kindness of its operation.” He went on to highlight the document’s separation of powers, its republican form of government, and its frequent elections as means inspired by God to help America achieve the virtuous liberty at the core of true human happiness. Again, rather than boast in America’s system as a man-made achievement, it should redound to the ultimate ruler—the King of Kings. His goodness here meshed perfectly with his wisdom in a system which, Baptist Thomas Baldwin (1753-1825) said, “marked a new epoch in the history of the world,” one of the advancement of ordered liberty.
Thanksgiving All Year
Though speaking on a singular day of thanksgiving, these preachers challenged their audience to a response for the future: obedience. Baldwin argued that a nation possessed a “particular character” apart from particular individuals within it. It could exhibit virtues in keeping with God’s law or vices that sinned against them. That nation, in God’s response to its character, “may receive temporal blessings, as the fruits and rewards of virtue, and also suffer national calamities as the punishment of our vice and impiety.” As God had blessed America in the past for its good, so he might in the future. Alternatively, if America fell into sin corporately, God could punish the country for disobedience.
To further the good, these preachers as one articulated a public role for religion. Bishop White criticized those—in the church and out—who claimed “there is no necessary connection, between civil government and religion; or, in other words, between the duties of the social state, and those which are supposed to be the dictates of devotion.” Bishop White saw in this view “the seeds of the dissolution of morals and government.” Frisbie lamented that, “the people have seemed to have too much forgotten that government has any connection with religion, or any dependence on the appointment or authority of God.” None of these men saw a church so spiritualized that it forgot God’s continuing work on earth through human institutions. Quite the contrary, these sermons articulated the need for religious principles to inform the public sphere.
White in particular laid out a cooperative relationship between the political and religious spheres. He, along with the others, celebrated and defended religious liberty, especially regarding the rights of conscience. He cautioned against any attempts to institute despotism by clergy or by state officials. However, he saw laws as rightly putting down immoral behavior, politicians as necessary role models for piety, and all political action as resting on the foundational belief that religion “is the proper principle of all duty.” Religion, as a work of God, truly formed souls for proper citizenship in a free state committed to liberty in the religious as well as social spheres. Perhaps Washington, hearing this sermon, was better convinced of his own claims, a year later in his famous farewell address, of the essential nature of religion for public morality and thus for workable republican government.
On Thanksgiving 2023, most of us will not be in church. Many of us will not even have the opportunity to go. In not so being, we have lost more than a longstanding and deeply entrenched American tradition. We have lost a crucial means to seeing and celebrating Thanksgiving properly. We have lost an important way to focus on God as the source of our political blessings. We in the same vein have lost a way to participate as a political community in expressing gratitude to that ultimate source of all blessing, political or other. And with that loss, finally, we no longer have a needed means to remind ourselves of our collective principles and obligations, points that undergird our deepest understanding of justice, law, and government.
This Thanksgiving, let us do what we can to remember and thereby to learn again the political theology of public thanksgiving.
Adam Carrington is an Associate Professor of Politics at Hillsdale College where he is the Patricia and LaMothe Chair in the U.S. Constitution. He holds a Ph.D. from Baylor University. He is a Commonwealth Fellow at Ad Fontes. In addition to scholarly work, he is a contributing columnist for the Washington Examiner and World Magazine. His book on the jurisprudence of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field was published in 2017 by Lexington Press. In the 2020-2021 academic year, he served as a Garwood Visiting Fellow in the James Madison Program at Princeton University.
Levi Frisbie, “A Sermon Delivered February 19, 1795, the Day of Public Thanksgiving (Newburyport: Blunt and March, 1795), 9. ↑
John Andrews, “A Thanksgiving Sermon” (Newburyport: Blunt and March: 1795), 14. ↑
William White, “A Sermon on the Reciprocal Influence of Civil Policy and Religious Duty” (Philadelphia: Ormrod and Comrad, 1795), 12. ↑
Frisbie, 9. ↑
Thomas Barnard, “A Sermon Delivered on the Day of National Thanksgiving” (Salem: Thomas C. Cushing, 1795), 9. See also Andrews, 20. ↑
White, 13-14. ↑
Andrews, 5. ↑
Andrews, 5. ↑
Frisbie, 14. ↑
White, 11. ↑
Barnard, 9. ↑
Andrews, 20. ↑
John McKnight, “The Divine Goodness to the United States of America” (New York: Thomas Greenleaf, 1795), 15. ↑
Andrews, 12. ↑
Thomas Baldwin, “A Sermon Delivered February 19, 1795, Being the Day of Public Thanksgiving” (Boston: Manning and Loring 1795), 14. ↑
Baldwin, 6. ↑
Frisbie, 23. ↑
White, 20. ↑