Giving Thanks for Emancipation
For years Thanksgiving has been my favorite holiday. I’m like a lot of people who love the commercial-free nature of the celebration, the emphasis on family, the bounty and abundance in thanks to God, and the rest that accompanies the day. Like a lot of families, part of our Thanksgiving ritual is literally the giving of thanks for God’s blessing in our lives. From the seemingly small notices of our six year old to the seemingly more thoughtful gratitude of the oldest members, we bow our heads and hearts to recall God’s providence and kindness.
The Cayman Islands doesn’t officially observe the American holiday, so most workplaces are humming right along (In fact, the Cayman Islands informally observes three Thanksgiving celebrations—the Canadian, American and a newly proposed Caymanian). So this Thanksgiving I’m working on a sermon for Sunday. While doing so, I was taken to another “Thanksgiving Sermon” preached in 1808. It wasn’t preached on Thanksgiving day, but a little over a month later on January 1. The sermon, famous in the annals of African-American history, was delivered by Rev. Absalom Jones to commemorate the official ending of the slave trade.
Jones takes as his text: “And the Lord said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their task-masters; for I know their sorrows; and I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians.” He first makes two short doctrinal observations: the affliction suffered by Israel in Egyptian slavery and “in this situation, they were not forgotten by the God of their fathers, and the Father of the human race” (p. 9). Then Rev. Jones, as so many African-American preachers before and after have often done, applied the sufferings and redemption of Israel to the sufferings and redemption of enslaved African Americans.
In Jones’ own words:
The history of the world shows us, that the deliverance of the children of Israel from their bondage, is not the only instance, in which it has pleased God to appear in behalf of oppressed and distressed nations, as the deliverer of the innocent, and of those who call upon his name. He is as unchangeable in his nature and character, as he is in his wisdom and power. The great and blessed event, which we have this day met to celebrate, is a striking proof, that the God of heaven and earth is the same, yesterday, and to-day, and for ever. Yes, my brethren, the nations from which most of us have descended, and the country in which some of us were born, have been visited by the tender mercy of the Common Father of the human race. He has seen the affliction of our countrymen, with an eye of pity. He has seen the wicked arts, by which wars have been fomented among the different tribes of the Africans, in order to procure captives, for the purpose of selling them for slaves. He has seen ships fitted out from different ports in Europe and America, and freighted with trinkets to be exchanged for the bodies and souls of men. He has seen the anguish which has taken place, when parents have been torn from their children, and children from their parents, and conveyed, with their hands and feet bound in fetters, on board of ships prepared to receive them. He has seen them thrust in crowds into the holds of those ships, where many of them have perished from the want of air. He has seen such of them as have escaped from that noxious place of confinement, leap into the ocean; with a faint hope of swimming back to their native shore, or a determination to seek early retreat from their impending misery, in a watery grave. He has seen them exposed for sale, like horses and cattle, upon the wharves; or, like bales of goods, in warehouses of West India and American sea ports. He has seen the pangs of separation between members of the same family. He has seen them driven into the sugar; the rice, and the tobacco fields, and compelled to work—in spite of the habits of ease which they derived from the natural fertility of their own country in the open air, beneath a burning sun, with scarcely as much clothing upon them as modesty required. He has seen them faint beneath the pressure of their labours. He has seen them return to their smoky huts in the evening, with nothing to satisfy their hunger but a scanty allowance of roots; and these, cultivated for themselves, on that day only, which God ordained as a day of rest for man and beast. He has seen the neglect with which their masters have treated their immortal souls; not only in withholding religious instruction from them, but, in some instances, depriving them of access to the means of obtaining it. He has seen all the different modes of torture, by means of the whip, the screw, the pincers, and the red hot iron, which have been exercised upon their bodies, by inhuman overseers: overseers, did I say? Yes: but not by these only. Our God has seen masters and mistresses, educated in fashionable life, sometimes take the instruments of torture into their own hands, and, deaf to the cries and shrieks of their agonizing slaves, exceed even their overseers in cruelty. Inhuman wretches! though You have been deaf to their cries and shrieks, they have been heard in Heaven. The ears of Jehovah have been constantly open to them: He has heard the prayers that have ascended from the hearts of his people; and he has, as in the case of his ancient and chosen people the Jews, come down to deliver our suffering country–men from the hands of their oppressors. He came down into the United States, when they declared, in the constitution which they framed in 1788, that the trade in our African fellow-men, should cease in the year 1808: He came down into the British Parliament, when they passed a law to put an end to the same iniquitous trade in May, 1807: He came down into the Congress of the United States, the last winter, when they passed a similar law, the operation of which commences on this happy day. Dear land of our ancestors! thou shalt no more be stained with the blood of thy children, shed by British and American hands: the ocean shall no more afford a refuge to their bodies, from impending slavery: nor shall the shores of the British West India islands, and of the United States, any more witness the anguish of families, parted for ever by a publick sale. For this signal interposition of the God of mercies, in behalf of our brethren, it becomes us this day to offer up our united thanks. Let the song of angels, which was first heard in the air at the birth of our Saviour, be heard this day in our assembly: Glory to God in the highest, for these first fruits of peace upon earth, and good will to man: O! let us give thanks unto the Lord: let us call upon his name, and make known his deeds among the people. Let us sing psalms unto him and talk of all his wondrous works. (pp. 10-14)
I can nearly hear Jones’ delivery of this sermon. The assuredly slow, deep, almost moaning voice as he enumerates the sufferings of slaves. The clear and defiant tone as he describes the hypocrisy and cruelty of overseers and masters. And the rhythmic, repeated, powerful thunder of “He came down… He came down… He came down” as Jones directed the congregation’s hearts to the superintending providence and condescension of God!
“A Thanksgiving Sermon” stands as a testament to the theological and rhetorical genius of some early African-American preaching. But more than that, it stands as a testimony to the graciousness and kindness of God in delivering the oppressed from both physical enslavement and spiritual enslavement.
Jones goes on to enjoin five responses from his hearers in light of God’s goodness: continual thanksgiving to God, intercessory prayer for African peoples, gospel conduct becoming the Lord, gratitude to earthly benefactors, and making January 1 an annual remembrance of thanksgiving.
This Thanksgiving I’m thankful to be a free man. I’m thankful God that 150 years ago God dealt a final death blow to the peculiar institution. I’m thankful to have never known the lash because of the goodness and power of God, who came down to hear the cries of that Israel pressed by boot and whip into the soil of the Americas. I’m thankful the Lord has freed us from bondange but also freed many from sin through faith in His Son. And I’m thankful a long line of witnesses—slave and free—give testimony to God’s saving, delivering power and grace so that all may find His salvation.
Jones ended “A Thanksgiving Sermon” with a prayer that’s appropriate to quote. It’s a great prayer. I hope you’ll pray it as your own this Thanksgiving:
Oh thou God of all the nations upon the earth! We thank thee, that thou art no respecter of persons, and that thou hast made of one blood all nations of men. We thank thee, that thou halt appeared, in the fulness of time, in behalf of the nation from which most of the worshipping people, now before thee, are descended. We thank thee, that the sun of righteousness has at last shed his morning beams upon them. Rend thy heavens, O Lord, and come down upon the earth; and grant that the mountains, which now obstruct the perfect day of thy goodness and mercy towards them, may flow down at thy presence. Send thy gospel, we beseech thee, among them. May the nations, which now sit in darkness, behold and rejoice in its light. May Ethiopia soon stretch out her hands unto thee, and lay hold of the gracious promise of thy everlasting covenant. Destroy, we beseech thee, all the false religions which now prevail among them; and grant, that they may soon cast their idols, to the moles and the bats of the wilderness. O, hasten that glorious time, when the knowledge of the gospel of Jesus Christ, shall cover the earth, as the waters cover the sea; when the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them; and, when, instead of the thorn, shall come up the fir tree, and, instead of the brier, shall come up the myrtle tree: and it shall be to the Lord for a name and for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off. We pray, O God, for all our friends and benefactors, in Great Britain, as well as in the United States: reward them, we beseech thee, with blessings upon earth, and prepare them to enjoy the fruits of their kindness to us, in thy everlasting kingdom in heaven: and dispose us, who are assembled in thy presence, to be always thankful for thy mercies, and to act as becomes a people who owe so much to thy goodness. We implore thy blessing, O God, upon the President, and all who are in authority in the United States. Direct them by thy wisdom, in all their deliberations, and O save thy people from the calamities of war. Give peace in our day, we beseech thee, O thou God of peace! and grant, that this highly favoured country may continue to afford a safe and peaceful retreat from the calamities of war and slavery, for ages yet to come. We implore all these blessings and mercies, only in the name of thy beloved Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. And now, O Lord, we desire, with angels and arch-angels, and all the company of heaven, ever more to praise thee, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty: the whole earth is full of thy glory.
7 Then the Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, 8 and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. (ESV)