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Thanksgiving Day Sermons: Where the Pulpit Met the Rule of Law

November 25, 2008

thanksgiving_sm.jpgFor a student of public policy and the law, Thanksgiving is one of our most fascinating holidays.  Originally intended, literally, to “give thanks” to God, Thanksgiving has evolved into a secular holiday, established by the government to be celebrated by all citizens, regardless of religious affiliation.

It’s interesting to be reminded, however, of the complex relationship our civil code has with religious doctrine throughout the history of our country.  One of the most potent examples of this intersection between public and religious life is the Thanksgiving Day Sermon.  Delivered on Thanksgiving Day in many Congregationalist churches in the 19th Century, the Thanksgiving Day Sermon gave a local preacher the opportunity to use Thanksgiving to comment on the perceived importance–if not the centrality–of religion in American life.

I came across one such sermon in Biddle’s collection of bound pamphlets.  Delivered on Thanksgiving Day, 1853, “The Duty and Limitations of Civil Obedience” was delivered by Reverend Samuel C. Bartlett at the Franklin Street Church in Manchester, New Hampshire.  Early on, Bartlett makes the intent of his sermon plain: “…I am to show that Civil Government, or the State, is a divine institution, clothed with divine authority.  It is the ‘ordinance of God.’”  This pamphlet serves as an interesting cultural artifact that reflects what was a popular theme of the era: the use of Thanksgiving to give thanks not just to one’s Maker, but also to one’s Country.

Happy Thanksgiving from the Biddle Law Library!