“The practice of true and undefiled religion . . . is the great foundation of public prosperity and national happiness.” — John Witherspoon, Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, 1782
America’s collective ignorance about her religious past is cause for lament. It means that even as we knowingly celebrate our Fourth of July as a day of political freedom we ignorantly omit the religious roots of that freedom.
It is true that many conservatives and Christians wish to bring our nation back to the old paths, for “righteousness exalts a nation”. Yet too many think that path of righteousness as a path of political effort and good-will divorced from serious religious effort. In contrast, the founders contended that America’s freedoms were rooted in virtue. And for the colonial Christian that virtue was defined by the Word of God and promulgated in the churches. But today too many wish to recreate the fruits of our American heritage without its roots.
Such confusion can be remedied by recalling the true culture of American freedoms.
In our collective Christian past, our culture and politics were greatly influenced by Reformational thought: the Congregationalists of New England and the Presbyterians and Anglicans of the Middle and Southern colonies confessed similar creeds about God and man: God was sovereign (not man) and man was depraved (not good). Such fundamental beliefs, embedded in early American society, were the intellectual tools under-girding political involvement. For if only God has all power then dictators could not legitimately claim such. And if man was basically a sinner then any man-made institution could easily become corrupt and untrustworthy. This common Christian thought explains the preponderant usage of the word Providence and the struggle to form a government that would balance the power between the government and the people.
This also meant that these churches—especially the first two denominations—possessed a common theology of politics, what has been dubbed the Five Points of Political Calvinism. The most well-known element being the right to resist tyrants–both political and spiritual. Spiritual tyranny was one main reason for our spiritual forefather’s fleeing to America in the 1600s. And spiritual tyranny reared its ugly head again shortly before the Revolution. John Adams asserted:
The apprehension of Episcopacy contributed fifty years ago , as much as any other cause . . . to close thinking on the constitutional authority of parliament over the colonies . . .
If parliament could institute a spiritual lord (Bishop) then certainly they could institute political lords. One of the most well-known politicals of that time, “An Attempt to Land a Bishop in America,” shows a crowd of colonists harrying a Bishop back to England, throwing books titled “Locke,” “Sydney on Government” and “Calvin’s Works,” shouting “no lords spiritual or temporal.”
John Adams even acknowledged the wide-spread influences of two 16th-century works, the French-Calvinist’s work Vindicus Contra Tyrannus and the English Calvinist work of Ponet (A Shorte Treatise of Politike Power). Both works, with Biblical argumentation, defended the right of the people to rise against tyrants. Such theological roots of political resistance were expanded in the Scottish Presbyterian work, Lex Rex, and eventually transmitted into the works of Locke, the son of Puritans.
More importantly, the colonial culture was predominately religious. Many are aware of the religious language, public prayers and political declarations of Christian fasting and thanksgiving. Few know about the blasphemy and Sabbath laws or the State constitutions supporting or assuming Christianity. And fewer know that such a Christian culture of virtue grew from the power of the Bible through the preachers and the schools. New England boasted of her yearly election day sermons, Presbyterians taught the right to resist tyrants and the schools taught the Reformed catechisms. Ministers, considered the most trained, godly and intelligent element of society, preached twice on Sunday, lectured during the week, taught schools and catechized children. Their advise was liberally solicited. Their sermons nation-wide sellers. Their influence was tremendous. For generations, they faithfully taught the definition of a godly government and a holy electorate. And they uniformly instructed their listeners about the sovereignty of God and the depravity of man, applying those truths to the politics of their day.
While the super-minority upper-crust intellectuals (like Jefferson) abstracted and debated amongst themselves, the pastors in the pews laid the path to freedom by popularizing these truths. Unlike today the vast majority of colonists attended church, while many of their children were taught in Christian schools or by ministerial tutors. And they learned their lessons well.
In fact, on May 20, 1775, the Presbyterian Synod was the first religious body to send a public letter to their churches reminding them to respect the Crown even while they encouraged their readers to obey the Continental Congress and to prepare their lives and souls for war. Most of the Continental army were Presbyterian laymen even as most of the New England minutemen were Congregationalists. These ministers—defending the Revolution or even fighting in it—were dubbed the “Black Regiment.” Horace Walpole told Parliament that “there is no use crying about it. Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson, and that is the end of it.”
Many conservative Christians are becoming increasingly alarmed by the rise of American heathenism. They wish to bring back the good ol’e days but without the virtues that nurtured them, without the churches that sustained it. Yet if the church is the pillar and foundation of the truth, then it must be a necessary institution in any Christian society (1 Tim. 3:15). And if the churches wish to be leaven in such a corrupt society, they must stand firm in the truth without being carried away by every wind of doctrine—they must be instructed by strong and faithful men of God, ministers who are called to help perfect the saints with Reformational truth (Eph. 4:12-14).
The Fourth is a great day to celebrate and an even greater day when the Christian roots are honored.