Morgan Griffith: Two churches and Thanksgiving

morgan griffithMost Virginians and most Americans are familiar with the words of Patrick Henry, “Give me liberty or give me death!” Fewer are familiar with where he said it.

When he uttered his famous declaration to the Second Virginia Convention on March 23, 1775, Williamsburg was still the capital of Virginia, but it remained under control of the British authorities led by the King’s representative, Lord Dunmore.* So to meet freely, delegates to the convention gathered at St. John’s Church in Richmond.

I thought of this son of our Commonwealth, and his meeting place in particular, while attending a recent Congressional Prayer Breakfast.

A guest at the breakfast was Tunne Kelam, a citizen of Estonia who today represents his country in the European Parliament.

Estonia celebrated its 100th anniversary of independence this year. As a small nation in the Baltic region, Estonia was long a part of the Russian Empire. In the wake of World War I and the collapse of Russia’s tsarist regime, Estonia declared its independence and repelled an attempt by the newly-formed Soviet Union to subdue it.

Unfortunately, Estonia would find itself twenty years later caught between the socialist Nazis and the communist Soviets, two of the worst tyrannies ever to afflict humanity. During World War II, the Nazis and the Soviets would both occupy Estonia, murdering thousands of its people and sending thousands more to the death or labor camps.

Yet these calamities and the ensuing decades of Soviet oppression following World War II did not crush the spirit of the Estonian people. They rejected the attempts of the Soviets to eradicate Estonian culture and sought to restore the independence they had once enjoyed.

Mr. Kelam was one of the Estonians determined to see his country free again. In 1988, he joined with others to form the Estonian National Independence Party. This was a milestone on the road back to independence, and he was at the meeting that formed the party. Just like that meeting in Richmond over two hundred years before, these patriots met in a church.

There are other links between this story and our American one, too. Mr. Kelam told the prayer breakfast that they drew inspiration from the fact that the United States refused to recognize Soviet rule over Estonia. He took comfort that the greatest democracy in the world didn’t accept that they had been extinguished as a nation.

One of the things we celebrate on Thanksgiving is that we became that greatest country ever based on democratic principles. Over the centuries, people have come to our country for the same things the Estonians who rejected Soviet rule wanted: the right to govern ourselves, to speak according to our consciences, and to live in peace with whichever faith we practice, among others.

In our country, we have flourished while securing these rights, so taking a national day to give thanks is entirely appropriate.

While Virginia’s Thanksgiving occurred in 1619 at Berkeley Plantation, many of the famous Thanksgivings in our history have occurred during momentous times for our democracy. The Pilgrims were celebrating the survival of their colony in 1621; George Washington issued his Thanksgiving proclamation in the first year of the Federal Government under the Constitution; Abraham Lincoln instituted the annual custom of Thanksgiving amid the Civil War. Perhaps it is during trying times that we should be most thankful for the blessings we do possess.

Tunne Kelam’s story certainly caused me to reflect on the things we can be grateful for in America. I hope you will reflect on them, too, when we join our family and friends around the table this Thanksgiving. The words of the classic Thanksgiving hymn “We Gather Together” still say it best:

We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing;
He chastens and hastens His will to make known;
the wicked oppressing now cease from distressing;
sing praises to His Name, He forgets not His own.

During the Thanksgiving season, I hope that each and every one of you will have safe travels, find those things for which you can be thankful, and remember that in our nation of broad and diverse beliefs, we can celebrate America by giving thanks for the things which bind us.

If you have questions, concerns, or comments, feel free to contact my office.  You can call my Abingdon office at 276-525-1405 or my Christiansburg office at 540-381-5671. To reach my office via email, please visit my website at Also on my website is the latest material from my office, including information on votes recently taken on the floor of the House of Representatives.

*Lord Dunmore would be chased from Virginia the next year by the Ninth District’s own Andrew Lewis.

augusta free press news