November 12: Election Day Sermon Series Wrap-up

Thanksgiving Proclamations and Congressional Fast-Days
by Dr. David W. Hall

A previous post introduced the custom of the Continental Congress calling for days of fasting and thanksgiving. This was premised, of course, on the existence and biblical attributes of God. Excerpts from those over a short period (1776-1781) may be instructive for us in our own day. Then again, it is seldom wrong to call for thanksgiving or due repentance. A review of some of these may be timely.

In December 1776, Congress called for another day of fasting and humiliation, once again highlighting the providence of God, who was “the arbiter of the fate of nations.” It is fair to note that this Congress believed that individuals had limited ability to establish their own destinies because “the arbiter” of entire nations controlled human events. In accordance with the received Calvinism, this December 1776 proclamation called for “repentance and reformation,” and the forbidding of swearing and immorality. Each state, in this proclamation, was allowed to set the day as it saw fit to “implore Almighty God [for] the forgiveness of the many sins prevailing among all ranks.”

No proclamation for fasting and prayer was issued in 1777. Under the enormous pressures of conducting and financing the war, Congress combined fasting with Thanksgiving that year. In 1778, however, Congress called for yet another day of “fasting, humiliation, and prayer” to implore God for mercy and forgiveness and to avoid immorality and evil. This proclamation also called for the nation to “be a reformed and happy people,” and asked God to bless the schools and seminaries to “make them nurseries of true piety, virtue, and useful knowledge.” The Congress’ call for true piety was hardly the kind of neutrality that would later oppose public expression of all religion. The following year, the congressional proclamation would include numerous biblical references.[4] That later act also reaffirmed belief in God as the “Supreme Disposer of all events,” and admitted that his judgments were “too well deserved.” In addition, these congressional evangelists also asked the citizens to pray toward a specific goal: that God, “our kind parent and merciful judge through time and through eternity” would “extend the influence of true religion.” Most of these theological affirmations are unthinkable apart from a broad, basically Calvinistic consensus.

In March 1780, Congress again named God “the sovereign Lord,” and prayed that he would “banish vice and irreligion among us, and establish virtue and piety by his divine grace.”[5] This proclamation went so far as to forbid both labor and recreation on that declared sabbath, although the enforcement mechanism is by no means clear. Earlier Genevans and Zurichers could have adopted the same declaration.

In what would become a customary part of these bills, the March 1781 proclamation asked the citizenry to pray for “all schools and seminaries of learning . . . [that] pure and undefiled religion may universally prevail.” This explicit statement, besides calling for true repentance, also asked that such repentance would “appease [God’s] righteous displeasure, and through the merits of our blessed Savior, obtain pardon and forgiveness.” With James Madison’s approval, the Congress of 1782 measured itself against the still applicable “holy laws of our God,” and denounced “arbitrary power” which had sought to steal “invaluable” (the original “unalienable” was stricken to give way to this preferred idiom) privileges. Moreover, the 1782 proclamation asked God to “diffuse a spirit of universal reformation (emphasis added) to “make us a holy, that so we may be an happy people.” In light of the continental and British Puritan history of the previous century, “reformation” had definite connotation. The standard of holiness summoned was that of the Scriptures, and this Congress even desired (in the words of Isaiah 11:9) that “the religion of our Divine Redeemer, with all its benign influences, may cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.”

Thanksgiving proclamations of the Continental Congress strummed the same strings. The first was signed by George Washington and forwarded to the individual states. In November 1777, the Congress combined elements of thanksgiving “to their divine benefactor” with notes of contrition, making “penitent confession of their manifold sins.” This Thanksgiving proclamation also pled for forgiveness “through the merits of Jesus Christ.” They viewed ministerial training academies as “necessary for cultivating the principles of true liberty, virtue and piety . . . to prosper the means of religion for the promotion . . . of that kingdom which consisteth ‘in righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost,’” a clearly Trinitarian reference.[6] No attempt was ever made in any of these to express pluralism (e. g., by citing the Koran) or to invoke any other sacred canon. A Genevan-like sabbath was declared again by the 1777 proclamation.

On occasion Congress even interrupted its proceedings, as it did on July 5, 1778, to attend divine worship corporately, with chaplains officiating and preaching to the assembled representatives.[7] Later, on October 12, 1778, Congress entertained a resolution (which was defeated) endorsing that “true religion and good morals are the only solid foundations of public liberty and happiness.”[8] In view of the earlier and manifold references to theology, this defeat may have been an exception to the rule, for the following month they once again endorsed God’s “overruling providence,” and called for “penitent confession of our sins, and humble supplication for pardon, through the merits of our Savior.”

The next Thanksgiving proclamation (October 1779) urged that God “grant to his church the plentiful effusions of divine grace and pour out his holy spirit on all ministers of the gospel.” Moreover, they supported education as a means to this end: to “spread the light of Christian knowledge through the remotest corners of the earth.” This Congress asked for God’s mercy, and prayed that these states would be established “upon the basis of religion and virtue.”

The Thanksgiving proclamation of 1781, 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.”

Our heritage of prayer and thanksgiving days might be helpful if dusted off, moving forward.

By Dr. David W. Hall, Pastor
Midway Presbyterian Church

For others like this order a copy of Twenty Messages to Consider Before Voting from Reformation Heritage Books.

[4] The references are to Ecclesiastes 9:11, Exodus 9-11, Psalm 18:2, and John 14:27.

[5] Deleted from the final adoption, although sincerely held by some, was the call to revive patriotism and eschew hedonism that rendered “us forgetful of our country and of our God.”

[6] Taken from Romans 14:17.

[7] Similarly in October 1781, Congress processed to corporate worship in a Dutch Lutheran church to thank God for the surrender of the British army.

[8] In April 1785, an attempt was thwarted to set aside a section in every town, “immediately adjoining [the school] to the northward for the support of religion.” Although supported by some delegates, mainly from Rhode Island, Maryland, and New York, the motion to set aside a locale for a religious center in every town failed.



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