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Open For Business: Philadelphia Quakers, Thanksgiving, and the Limits of Revolutionary Religious Freedom

  • Tara Thompson Strauch


In 1863, Sarah Josepha Hale rejoiced that after a decades-long campaign, Thanksgiving had become a national holiday. Hale was not alone in her desire to unite patriotism with spiritual devotion. In her personal correspondence with the president, Eliza Gurney also spoke of the blessings God had bestowed on the nation. Gurney, a devoted Quaker, had met with Lincoln in 1861 to give him spiritual comfort and had continued writing with him ever since. After his public proclamation of Thanksgiving, Gurney wrote to him to demonstrate her “cordial approval of thy late excellent proclamation appointing a day of thanksgiving” despite the fact that as a Quaker she did “not set apart especial seasons for returning thanks.” Gurney saw the holiday as an effective means of making less devout Americans conscious of their God-given blessings and thus supported the federal holiday even while she refused to celebrate it.



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1 Eliza Paul Gurney, Memoir and Correspondence of Eliza P. Gurney (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1884), 315.

2 The term “early modern” here includes the British colonies and the United States in the culture of Western Europe. British colonists intentionally used early-modern European rituals such as thanksgivings and fast days to bind fellow colonists to the empire. For the new American government, then, these same rituals could be used to create American nationalism. Sarah Purcell, Sealed with Blood: War, Sacrifice, and Memory in Revolutionary America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2010), 57.

3 Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, June 11–17, 1775, Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive, Massachusetts Historical Society,

4 See also: Matthew Dennis, Red, White, and Blue Letter Days: An American Calendar (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University, 2002); James H Hutson, Forgotten Features of the Founding: The Recovery of Religious Themes in the Early American Republic (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2003); David Waldstreicher and Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture., In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776–1820 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1997); Daniel Dreisbach, The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame, 2009).

5 Benjamin H Irvin, Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and the People Out of Doors (New York: Oxford University, 2011), 111.

6 “To the Printers of the Pennsylvania Journal,” Norfolk Intelligencer, June 9, 1774.

7 The Charming Polly was a ship filled with British goods. Reyenell and Pemberton were merchants who subscribed to the non-importation associations in the wake of the Stamp Act.

8 Christopher Marshall, Extracts from the Diary of Christopher Marshall: Kept in Philadelphia and Lancaster, During the American Revolution, 1774–1781 (Philadelphia: Joel Munsell, 1877), 71.

9 Probably Joseph Reed and Frederick Muhlenberg (Dublin: Robert Jackson, 1782).

10 Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, To the President and Executive Council, the General Assembly of Pennsylvania, and others whom it may concern; the following representation on behalf of the people called Quakers (Philadelphia: Francis Bailey, 1781).

11 Ibid.

12 For example, President Washington called for national days of thanksgiving in 1789 and 1795, Adams called for fast days in 1798 and 1799, and Madison called for thanksgiving days during the War of 1812.

13 Episcopal Church of South Carolina, Records of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina, 1785, Convention of the Diocese, South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston, S.C.

14 Massachusetts Mercury, March 11, 1796.

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Church History
  • ISSN: 0009-6407
  • EISSN: 1755-2613
  • URL: /core/journals/church-history
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