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Thomas Jefferson and a Prayer for Peace

Posted by sbh on Sunday, 6 February 2011

Did Thomas Jefferson proclaim the following prayer

Almighty God, Who has given us this good land for our heritage; We humbly beseech Thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of Thy favor and glad to do Thy will. Bless our land with honorable ministry, sound learning, and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion, from pride and arrogance, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people, the multitude brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endow with Thy spirit of wisdom those whom in Thy name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that through obedience to Thy law, we may show forth Thy praise among the nations of the earth. In time of prosperity fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in Thee to fail; all of which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

on 4 March 1801 as claimed at the Shades of Grace website, for example?

No, it’s from the American Book of Common Prayer, and has been attributed to George Lyman Locke (1835-1919), a Rhode Island minister.

In 1880 the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America appointed a committee to consider “certain alterations in the Book of Common Prayer in the direction of liturgical enrichment and increased flexibility of use.” This committee issued its report in 1883. A number of alterations and new prayers were proposed; one of these, entitled simply “For the Country,” appeared on pp. 63-64 of the Report of the Joint-Committee on the Book of Common Prayer in the section “The Proper Order for Thanksgiving-Day.” It read:

ALMIGHTY God, who in the former time leddest our fathers forth into a wealthy place, and didst set their feet in a large room, Give thy grace, we humbly beseech thee, to us their children, that we may alway approve ourselves a people mindful of thy favour and glad to do thy will. Bless our land with honourable industry, sound learning, and pure manners. Defend our liberties, preserve our unity. Save us from violence, discord and confusion, from pride and arrogancy, and from every evil way. Fashion into one happy people the multitude brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endue with the spirit of wisdom those whom we entrust in thy Name with the authority of governance, to the end that there be peace at home, and that we keep our place among the nations of the earth. In the time of our prosperity, temper our selfconfidence with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in thee to fail; all which we ask for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.

No author is given, and the committee explicitly disclaim authorship, observing

Their object has been to search for what seemed necessary or desirable in the way of additions among the rich stores of devotional forms which are the common heritage of the Catholic Church, rather than to undertake new compositions of their own. Among the later sources which have thus been drawn upon, they feel bound to mention, especially, Canon Bright’s Ancient Collects, and The Daily Service of our own lamented Hutton.

Nothing quite like it appears in the named sources, though Canon Bright’s

We beseech Thee, Almighty God, that the prosperity bestowed upon us may not lead us to be ashamed of Thy worship, but rather may alway enkindle us to render heartier thanks to Thee…[Ancient Collects, pp. 90-91]

could have suggested

In the time of our prosperity, temper our selfconfidence with thankfulness…

and his

…give the Spirit of wisdom to those to whom Thou hast given the authority of government… [p.182]

is not dissimilar to

Endue with the spirit of wisdom those whom we entrust in thy Name with the authority of governance…

in “For the Country.” According to Christopher L. Webber (Give Us Grace: An Anthology of Anglican Prayers, [Harrisburg PA, 2004], p. 318), however, the author was George Lyman Locke (1835-1919) who “wrote the Prayer for Our Country at the suggestion of the Reverend Daniel Reed Huntington.” This same attribution is given in a reprint in a Life Magazine editorial (“The American Moral Consensus,” 25 December 1955, pp. 56-57). In any case this change was approved and the prayer duly appeared in the 1885 edition of the Book of Common Prayer.

In 1913 another committee was appointed to revise the Book of Common Prayer, and their 1916 report suggested the following version, entitled “For Our Country” (pp. 29-30):

ALMIGHTY God, who hast given us this good land for our heritage; We humbly beseech thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of thy favour, glad to do thy will. Bless our land with honourable industry, sound learning, and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogancy, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties; preserve our unity; fashion into one happy people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in thy Name we entrust the authority of government, to the end that there be justice and peace at home, and that through obedience to thy law we show forth thy praise among the nations of the earth. In the time of prosperity fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble suffer not our trust in thee to fail; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

And in this form it duly appeared in the 1928 edition of the Book of Common Prayer.

So, how exactly did it come to be attributed to Thomas Jefferson? Well, in 1994 William J. Federer wrote, “President Thomas Jefferson, March 4, 1805, offered A National Prayer for Peace:”, and followed it with the prayer, complete with the changes of “honourable industry” to “honorable ministry” and “arrogancy” to “arrogance”. [America’s God and Country: Encyclopedia of Quotations (St. Louis, 1994), pp. 327-8] Federer in turns claims to have got it from a Plymouth Rock Foundation newsletter. So far no older source for the misattribution has turned up, and there is no clear answer to how the confusion originated. However it may have originated, though, Federer and the Plymouth Rock Foundation (assuming it actually made this claim) are flat wrong. It’s not by Jefferson.

And as noted by the Monticello site,

it seems unlikely that Jefferson would have composed or delivered a public prayer of this sort. He considered religion a private matter, and when asked to recommend a national day of fasting and prayer, replied “I consider the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from inter meddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises…” [Letter to Samuel Miller, 23 January 1808]

Links

Thomas Jefferson, Letter to the Reverend Samuel Miller, 23 January 1808, (in Paul Leicester Ford, The Works of Thomas Jefferson, Federal Edition [New York and London, 1904-5), Vol. 11)

William Bright, Ancient Collects and Other Prayers (London, 1862)

Report of the Joint Committee on the Book of Common Prayer (1883)

Book of Common Prayer (1885 edition)

Report of the Joint Commission on the Book of Common Prayer (1916)

Book of Common Prayer (1928 edition)

Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, National Prayer for Peace (Monticello website)

Ed Brayton, Rodda on NCBCPS Bible Curriculum (Dispatches from the Culture Wars, 2007)

Fake Quotation Sources

William J. Federer, America’s God and Country: Encyclopedia of Quotations (St. Louis, 1994), pp. 327-8 [no link available]

Natalie Nichols, Is America a Christian Nation? More Quotes from the Founders (Shades of Grace, 2010)

Anonymous, Prayers of the Presidents (BeliefNet, 2005)

Ben Rast, Separation of Church and State?
Don’t Blame Thomas Jefferson
(Contender Ministries, 2003)

Jeff Disario, What Separation of Church and State? (The National Report, 2008)

Thomas Spence, Moving Towards the National Day of Prayer with Thomas Jefferson’s Prayer for our Nation (Examiner.com, 2010)

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