Twelve years after he lost his bid for re-election, John Adams blamed it all on Thanksgiving. And the Presbyterians.
Adams, I suppose, felt that he was simply following the lead of George Washington. Our first president, apparently, had set a bad example when he declared a couple Thanksgiving Days during his terms in office, urging Americans to praise the “Ruler of all Nations” and requesting pardon for our “national and other transgressions.”
When Adams succeeded the General into the top seat, things were getting a little scary for the young nation: British ships were impressing American sailors and a second war with England loomed. So it seemed a good time, once again, to confess the nation’s gratitude and “transgressions” before the “Great Mediator and Redeemer.” In 1798 and 1799 Adams set aside a couple “National Days of Fasting and Humiliation” for the observance of the “sacred duties of religion.”
Such public piety, Adams later groaned, threw the election of 1800 to Mr. Jefferson. As Adams told his old colleague Benjamin Rush, “a General Suspicion prevailed that the Presbyterian Church was ambitious and aimed at the establishment of a National Church. I was represented as a Presbyterian and at the head of this political and ecclesiastical Project.”
Plenty of non-Calvinists presumably took offense, among them “Quakers, Anabaptists, Methodists, Catholics, protestant Episcopalians, Arians, Socians, Armenians, Atheists and Deists.” “Nothing is more dreaded than the National Government meddling with Religion,” Adams wrote to Rush. “This principle is at the bottom of the unpopularity of national Fasts and Thanksgivings.”
For all of Adams’s grousing, Thanksgiving has long remained popular, often as the day when Quakers, Catholics, Methodists and Episcopalians extol the values of religious freedom. That freedom has been mixed, of course, with steady doses of civil religion, our alternative to a national church. Once Abraham Lincoln declared the holiday an annual affair, presidents have annually used their Thanksgiving Day proclamations to urge Americans to praise the “Giver of all Good and Perfect Gifts” for the nation’s fortunes. Ulysses S. Grant thanked “Almighty God” for freedom from “civil strife” and “exemption from pestilence.” Woodrow Wilson was grateful for the Panama Canal and for leading the “right” cause in the war to end all wars. Like virtually every chief executive, Truman thanked God for the “bounties of our soil” and the “autumnal beauty of our land.” And Eisenhower echoed the familiar anthem that God’s guidance has “kept us a religious people with freedom of worship for all.”
What did not survive long past Adams’s day, however, were the “fasting and humiliation.” To be honest, I am reluctant to forgo the cranberries and stuffing next Thursday, and I would prefer my humiliation limited to my loyalty to the Detroit Lions.
But I do wonder if we have lost some sense that gratitude should be mixed with introspection and reconciliation. Religious liberty is no longer just a pledge against a national church, but has become the right of private conscience, though the “free exercise” of religion is seldom solitary. Whatever Washington’s and Adams’s partisan aims, neither president was truly lobbying for a national liturgy, but rather hopeful that a little soul searching, prayer and confession in one’s own religious community might do the public welfare some good.
So I owe myself a modest proclamation. That I will use my liberty this Thanksgiving to consider some of the small measures that might help bridge a gap or two and invigorate our own sense of community: a commitment to listen a little longer, to understand both perspective and need; a little more good humor about old grievances; a check up on the values and goals lost in the tyranny of the urgent; a quicker word back to this request, a softer word here, a braver word there. And, perhaps most of all, a willingness to consider how some of my own habits and silences might contribute, even unwittingly, to disparities and injustices.
Recently, I read an interesting pamphlet suggesting how “we can extend the love of Christ beyond our dining room tables,” regardless of our denomination. It offered familiar reminders—the benefits of regional foods, the impact of food pantries, the importance of memory, and the tales of global pilgrims and gratitude. It was prepared for all of us—the Adamses and Jeffersons alike—as a pledge of “hospitality” from the Presbyterian Church.
(Top photo: Heading of a Boston broadside announcing John Adams's Thanksgiving Proclamation)
*Originally published in Faith + Ideas = (November 18, 2009) and the Salem News (November 25, 2009).