We Thank God for Freedom of Religion


A Thanksgiving Sermon, prepared by Pastor Jim Kniseley and presented at Resurrection on November 19, 2006, at the annual Thanksgiving Service.


(children’s message)


Boys and Girls, tonight we are here at church to say “thank you” to God for the blessings we’ve received this past year.  A “blessing” is something good that we receive and we don’t have to pay for it.  It comes to us because the giver wants us to have something we need.


God gives us blessings all year long.  Sometimes we remember to say thanks and sometimes we forget.  Thanksgiving time is a good time to really say thanks to God.


Tonight I have a cornucopia and it has inside slips of paper that talk about some blessings God has given us this past year.  I’ll pull out one blessing at a time and read it.  If this is a blessing you have received, raise your hand, and I’ll give it to one of you to hold.  After we have given out all the blessings tonight, I’ll have you thank God by doing something special.  This will be your prayer.  I’ll have you walk up to the altar and place your blessing on the altar as your way of saying thanks to God…


Dear Friends in Christ,


Tonight I want to thank God for the blessing of religious freedom that we enjoy in this nation.  One of the reasons that you and I gather tonight here in this sanctuary is because we live in a nation that respects and upholds the right for us to gather and worship in the way that we choose.  I am very mindful that we are living in Virginia, the birthplace of religious freedom for America.


I am grateful to Tom and Nancy Evans for letting me read their copy of American Gospel by Jon Meacham.  It gave me a lot of good information for tonight’s Thanksgiving Sermon.


Many folks came to America in the 17th and 18th centuries to escape tyranny and forced religion in Europe.  But there was struggle in this land in those early days over the place of religion in private and public life.  In Massachusetts there was a concerted effort to make everyone conform.  Listen to the laws that were enacted in the space of 9 years:


1630      public support for ministers

1631      suffrage and right to hold office only for church members

1635      all non-church members must also attend church

1638    all non-members should also pay for preaching

Here in the Commonwealth of Virginia, laws were enacted in 1659, 1662 and 1693 that made it a crime not to have children baptized in the Anglican Church.  Then this law was made in 1705: To deny the existence of God, the Holy Trinity, to disbelieve the divine authority of scripture, to believe in more than one God or to disbelieve Christianity, meant you cannot hold office or serve in the military.  If you were convicted of a second offense, you lost guardianship of your children and your spent at least 3 years in prison.


Some of our Virginia forefathers saw the injustice of a State Church and forced religion.  Thomas Jefferson wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom while he was staying in Fredericksburg at the Rising Sun Tavern.  James Madison is the one who then proposed the statute before the Legislature and it was approved in the year 1786 in Richmond.


Here are some of the ingredients of that statute that are the basis for the Bill of Rights in the Constitution of the United States:


·        the government will not force anyone to financially support religion, either

through taxes or offerings

·        you may hold public office no matter what your religious persuasion


Here is the key paragraph that is even now a part of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia, dating from 1786:


Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods,  nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinion or belief; but that all men shall be free profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.


Tonight we thank God that we are the inheritors of this gift of religious freedom in the United States.  Our forebears endured lots of struggle to ensure this freedom.  So tonight we gather here in a Lutheran Church by choice.  There are no public laws that say we must be here, that we must contribute our dollars, that we will be denied certain privileges if we do not participate.


Many of us have stood before the grave of Thomas Jefferson and read the inscription that he penned himself.  He listed just five things to say and one of the five is that he authored the Statute for Religious Freedom.


So it is that we tonight freely participate in the sacrament of the altar, hear a sermon that is unrestrained by the government, give our offerings or not in the amount we choose, pray to God in a way that we choose, and teach our children our values and ways.


Yes, tonight we do have lots to be thankful for.  Thanks be to God!