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  • God and Liberty: Reasons for Thanksgiving

    Of the many influences that shaped the American concept of liberty, the first and most formative was faith. More than anything else, religion formed the backbone of colonial culture and defined its moral horizon.

    This religious character was largely a product of the fact that many came to the New World in search of religious liberty—to freely practice and spread their faith.

    As a whole, America’s Founders were strongly religious. Thanksgiving proclamations, as official statements of the American president, underscore the Founders’ faith. Some were more traditional, such as John Jay and John Witherspoon. Some were more skeptical of religious institutions and doctrines, such as Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson.

    But the vast majority of the Founders were firmly in the mainstream of religious belief. They understood God as having created man with an immortal soul, as actively involved in human affairs and as “the Supreme Judge of the world”—in the words of the Declaration of Independence.

    The day after approving the First Amendment to the Constitution and its protections of religious liberty, Congress called upon the president to “recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the many signal favors of Almighty God.”

    President George Washington responded by proclaiming Nov. 26, 1789 the first official Thanksgiving. He noted:

    It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly implore his protection and favor.”

    Even the deists among the Founders—and it is by no means the case that they were mostly deists, as some have claimed—held that God created the world and determined the rules of human action.

    Wrote Paine:

    It is a fool only, and not the philosopher, nor even the prudent man, that will live as if there were no God.”

    In 1620, more than 150 years before Washington’s first Thanksgiving proclamation, a small group of pilgrims granted land by King James arrived in what is now New England. They wrote out the Mayflower Compact creating their own political community “for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith and Honour of our King and Country.” This was, in essence, a social contract to form a body politic for the sake of survival.

    The Puritans came to America believing “their errand was not a mere scouting expedition: it was an essential maneuver in the drama of Christendom,” writes Perry Miller, pre-eminent historian of the subject. “These Puritans did not flee to America; they went in order to work out that complete reformation which was not yet accomplished in England and Europe.”

    The British colonists were overwhelmingly Christian and overwhelmingly Protestant. Congregationalists dominated New England. New York had more Presbyterian and Dutch Reformed churches, along with the Church of England in lower counties. The South was largely Anglican, with some Presbyterian, Quaker and Baptist populations. The Baptists took a much more visible role, particularly in the Carolinas, in the mid-1700s.

    During the early decades of the 18th century, the main churches grew at a rapid and astonishing rate, according to research by James Hutson of the Library of Congress. This growth was fueled in large part by the Great Awakening, the religious revival of the 1730s and 1740s, but it continued. Throughout the 1770s, some 70 percent to 80 percent of the population attended church on a regular basis.

    One can speculate about the details of each Founder’s faith. But we know the Founders as a whole took religious beliefs seriously and understood religion, Christianity in particular, was a necessary component of republican government.

    That there are laws of God that exist prior to, outside of and above the laws of the state necessarily means the laws of the state are limited and controlled by a higher or transpolitical authority. Take the injunction in the Bible to “render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). In other words, although man has responsibilities to legitimate government authority, the state must not negate or replace man’s responsibilities to God.

    The distinction demanded a space for other institutions—church and religious communities, families and tribes—to exist and flourish. The idea of human dignity, that we are created in the image of God, forms the theological underpinning of human nature and human equality—core principles of liberty.

    The belief that all men are sinners is the theological equivalent of the commonsense observation that human beings are drawn to their passions and prone to be selfish. It also informs the political idea that no one is to be trusted with absolute power. At the same time, the idea that all are redeemable—that there is a divine spark in each person, as a young George Washington wrote in his childhood copybook—grounds the belief that all can govern themselves and are capable of justice and benevolence.

    These concepts in turn became crucial to the beginnings of liberty in America and creation of conditions favoring a yearning not only for self-government but for limited constitutional government. And for all of this we can give thanks.

    Note: Matthew Spalding is director of The Heritage Foundation’s Kenneth B. Simon Center for American Studies. This post is excerpted from his new book, “We Still Hold These Truths: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future” (ISI).

    Posted in First Principles [slideshow_deploy]

    25 Responses to God and Liberty: Reasons for Thanksgiving

    1. Kathleen Williams, S says:

      God bless you all for what you are doing. I live in fear of losing this country and I pray to God that Obama fails in his attempt to destroy this great nation. Happy Thanksgiving to you all.

    2. Kathleen Williams, S says:

      God bless you all for what you do. I live in fear of losing this great country. I pray to God that Obama fails in what he is attempting to do. Happy Thanksgiving to you all.

    3. Freedom of Speech, T says:

      …endowed by our Creator.

    4. Terry Fallis, West H says:

      Thank you Mr. Spalding for writing such a great article explaining the connected history of faith and Thanksgiving. As some members of society try to move this country towards a more secular direction it's always import to be reminded of where we came from and how "faith" is connected to individual freedoms.

    5. Phil Winkler, Colora says:

      Were the founders religious? Benjamin Franklin believed God had answered the prayers offered in Congress during the War for Independence, and urged prayer at the Constitutional Convention. Washington said Religion and Morality were indispensable supports for political prosperity, and believed that America owed her freedom to Divine Intervention. Jefferson considered himself a Christian, made repeated references to Deity in the Declaration of Independence, and said liberty's only firm basis was the belief that it was the gift of God, and that it's violation would bring His wrath.

      Phil Winkler

      Liberty & Independence Press

      LibertyIndependence.com 877-4 July 76

    6. Mary Beth, TN says:

      Would've liked to "share" this on my page on facebook for non-Heritage Foundation fans.

    7. Wayne Pruitt says:

      Anyone with common sense will come to the conclusion America was founded upon Judeo-Christian ethics and having a living Biblical faith. Such faith is not founded upon make-believe ideas or blind faith but a proven and tested faith in the God of the Bible and his Son Jesus Christ. It is the principles that are taught in the letters to the churches throughout the entire New Testament that gives credences to the faith of Christian belivers who rely upon the sure promises found within the New Testament. Faith is not a mere wishful thinking but a living force that propels one forward with the hope and assurance they have a better tomorrow to look forward and rest in the assurance their Creator will bring forth what he promises within his word.

    8. Charles Gu, Californ says:

      Thank God for bringing me to this blessed land from China. Thank my fellow Americans who tiredlessly defend for the liberty and freedom in USA, which I called it my home country, as well as in other part of the world. May God bless America!

    9. Tommy McKinney says:

      Thank you for writing this article. My Pastor used it in his sermon this evening at church. Once he quoted some of this article I had to find it for myself. I put this link on my Face Book hopeful some of my Atheist friend will read it and relies that this country was founded on the word of GOD and without him this country cannot stand.

    10. Pingback: Nicolas Minacapelli: An Independent Authentic Conservative Voice :: Holiday & Seasonal :: Happy Thanksgiving!

    11. Freedom of Speech, T says:

      The fact that people who believe in God even have to argue with secularists about the Almighty's role in the founding fathers decisions, shows the fight we are in to maintain some sort of civil society instead of an "anything goes" mentality.

      One does not have to be "religious" to understand this country was founded on Judeo/Christian ethics. That is part of our history and that is a fact.

      Happy Thanksgiving and Merry Christmas.

    12. Thomas Barnes, Pitts says:

      Today I will be observing Thanksgiving with my in-laws, children and grandchildren. I am going to read them George Washington's 1789 Thanksgiving Day proclamation. Some are teachers and probably have never heard it before.

    13. Pingback: Headlines Exposed — ExposeTheMedia.com

    14. Kellie McIntyre, Lay says:

      Wonderful piece. Like so many, I linked to Facebook.

    15. larry ahern says:

      We have taken prayer out of our schools. Removed the teaching of the Bible and Banned the ten commandments. Amen unless we restore God to His rightful place, we don't deserve what we have been blessed with. Wake Up America. Get in the fight for your rights. 912.com

    16. Lynn B. DeSpain says:

      The Pilgrims, Jamestown and all the rest in the early attemps to "Colenize the New World by Englan we failed attemps at Socialism. They failed maunly because eigth out of ten would not work and do their share, so all suffered.

      It was only after we won our Independence that George Washington declared Thanksgiving a Day to give Thanks to our "Creator, the most Highest one." The one without whose backing and understanding of our endevors for Freedom we, as a Republic, would have most assuredly failed.

      It was Aberahm Lincoln who set aside the third Thusday of November as a day of Giving Thanks to our God, our Creator, for this Nation of ours, this Republic, withour who's mighty guidence we would have been torn assunder.

    17. Linda Carlsbad, CA says:

      God and Liberty! Is this why this administration is trying to destroy our Christian way of life?

      Take away our Christian way of life, take away our FREEDOM!

      Thank you for this article!

    18. Rita Lawrence, KC says:

      I too appreciate your article that is uplifting because it validates Christian beliefs in the United States. There is a conscious effort to stamp God out. I don't know how long it will go on for but God will prevail. The power of prayer is mighty in our lives. We have been given a spirit of courage. Look your oppressor in the face.

    19. Christopher M. Snyde says:

      Thank you, Mr. Spalding, for reframing our perspective. During times such as these in which it is difficult to have faith in our representative government and ask, "How did these people who allegedly represent us become elected in the first place?" "Were we all asleep?" "Will we finally awaken before it's too late, either in terms of our growing financial crises, or in terms of the moral bankruptcy that seems to grow deeper year-by-year"?

      Reading your article reminds us that there was a time when America had a core of believers that were strong enough to risk it all and to strive against much more difficult odds than even those against which we do so today. However, those of us who have remained silent must speak up and begin to make certain that the tide is changed. If we do not, we will have only ourselves to thank. It is an article like yours that helps awaken those of us who have indeed been sleeping and strengthen those of us who have been less vociferous than we ought to have been.

      Thank you so much for blessing our Thanksgiving holiday with your perspective and what should be accepted as a challenge.

    20. Richard says:

      Good article to study to remind the athist this country was founded by Christians. Even Jamestown, VA had a christian mission in addition to its for profit enterprise. Easy living and television has made us what we are.

    21. Nelson P. Scott says:

      Does the founding father's purported religiosity require that I follow suit? Is that implied or explicit within the bounds of your argument? Furthermore, how does the separation of Church and State play into this discussion; the living-room and the state-room are two very different places, even by the lights of the founding fathers. You're a smart guy Matt, there's no question there, but the true pedagogy of the fine theo-philosophical line you're walking is difficult to tease apart.

      The world is mysterious. I don't claim to have the answers and I don't mind the various theological attempts to find truth via metaphor and narrative. But I do believe, in an explicitly secular way, that the crucial issue for both conservatives and dutiful citizens, is insuring that those who choose to worship certain stones don't throw them at those who don't. Not the recitation of the founding father's personal convictions.

    22. Chris Walker says:

      Here is an interesting article about Thanksgiving.

    23. ELI, Carson, CA says:

      Every country loving American must read this article on God and Liberty to learn and confirm for him or herself that Christian faith formed a major role in the building of this great country. We must do more to prevent the erosion of this foundation by Obama and his liberal stooges who love to tell the world that U.S. is not a Christian country.

    24. Pingback: Happy Thanksgiving! | Nicolas Minacapelli: An Independent Authentic Conservative Voice

    25. Pingback: Matthew Spalding and the Identity Foundation | The Identity Foundation of American Freedom

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