Presidents, Pastors, and Prayer in Early America
During the days when the United States was still a young nation, one of the many practices which might surprise a person today were the frequent governmental calls to prayer. On top of that, pastors and congregations quite often sincerely and piously responded to the call, gathering together in their respective houses of worship to honor God.
One such occasion occurred when John Adams asked the nation to join together in thanksgiving on May 9, 1798. The Rev. Jeremey Belknap (who also was a noted historian) met together with his congregants and delivered a poignant sermon which was later published — probably at the request of the church members themselves as was common. This sermon provides a window into a different time when it was not uncommon for presidents, pastors, and prayer to all work together.
Rev. Belknap begins his sermon by reminding his congregation that it is a part of their duty — both as Christians and as citizens — to answer John Adams’ call for prayer. The minister explains saying, “The propriety of such a call, from such a person, is so evident, that nothing can be said to make it more evident. Every man who has a sense of his duty to God as our preserver, benefactor, and Supreme Governor, must, at once, approve it, and be pleased with it.”[i] With that said, however, the civically minded pastor notes that, “The proclamation is not an act of authority; but of friendship, of piety and gratitude,” meaning that there has been no infringement on their newly secured First Amendment rights.[ii]
Basing his sermon on Daniel 2:42–43, Rev. Belknap uses this passage to direct his church to look upon the kingdoms of the past, including even those involved in the recent Revolutionary War. He reminds them of how England, “by endeavoring to extend the spirit of corruption and scatter the seeds of despotism to the remote parts of her dominions, she roused in us the spirit of genuine liberty.”[iii] This spirit of liberty, under the guidance and providence of God, made it so that:
“All the wisdom of statesmen, all the eloquence of orators, and all the strength and power of fleets and armies could not counteract the decree of Heaven, that America must be separated from Britain.”[iv]
After discussing the current political struggles with Britain and France and offering an interpretation of the conflict based upon the prophecy in Daniel, Rev. Belknap encourages the congregation to evangelized and spread the Gospel. “Let your light so shine before men,” the pastor instructs them, “that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father in Heaven.”[v] Using the occasion created by President John Adams, the people of Boston who attended church that day received a very personal charge to go out into their community and lead good, godly lives. With this goal placed before the crowd, Rev. Belknap ended by exclaiming his hope that:
“May we ever be governed by the mild and peaceful dictates of the gospel! May it go on…till it shall have eradicated war, slavery, oppression tyranny…[and] till love and peace shall reign, and truth and righteousness shall be established in the earth.”[vi]
Over the first several decades after the War for Independence, such sermons preached on days of prayer and fasting called for by the government would not have been uncommon. These messages served as a way to teach the congregations how to apply a biblical worldview to the problems and issues they were seeing in the world around them. Ideally, it would equip them to take the Word of God with them into their daily lives, and Rev. Belknap’s sermon is a good representative of how presidents, pastors, and prayers would often intersect in the early days of America.
[i] Jeremy Belknap, A Sermon, Delivered on the 9th of May, 1798, the Day of the National Fast, Recommended by the President of the United States (Boston: Samuel Hall, 1798), v.
[ii] Ibid., v-vi.
[iii] Ibid., 18.
[iv] Ibid., 19.
[v] Ibid, 26.
[vi] Ibid, 28.