Sunday, June 27, 2010

Gary Palmer: Revolution from the Pulpits: Patriot Ministers and the War for Independence

  All across the United States, churches will have special services dedicated to Independence Day which falls on a Sunday this year. These services are entirely appropriate because without the influence of the churches in the preceding years, there might not have been a War for Independence. Moreover, the form and function of the Declaration of Independence would have been entirely different.

  The British historian Paul Johnson called the Great Awakening “the proto-revolutionary event, the formative moment in American history, preceding the political drive for independence and making it possible.” He added, “The Revolution could not have taken place without this religious background.”

  John Adams wrote, “The Revolution was effected before the War commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people: and change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations.” And it started from the pulpits.

  On January 30, 1750, Rev. Jonathan Mayhew, a Boston clergyman, preached a sermon entitled “A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers” which has been called the morning gun of the American Revolution. Rev. Mayhew declared that governing authority is a trust conferred by the people to those in power and to assume any other power “…is mere lawless force and usurpation.” He said that “…those in authority may abuse their trust and power to such a degree, that neither the law of reason, nor of religion, requires, that any obedience or submission should be paid to them: but, on the contrary, that they should be totally discarded.”

  According to John Adams, who said the sermon was read throughout the colonies and in London, the sermon “…argued that God sanctioned revolution against tyranny.”

  The influence of the sermons preached by patriot ministers extended beyond the movement for independence; they also influenced the political thought of the founding period. Historian Clinton Rossiter said, “Had ministers been the only spokesmen of the American Cause, had Jefferson, Adams, and Otis never appeared in print, the political thought of the Revolution would have followed almost exactly the same line—with perhaps a little more mention of God, but certainly no less of John Locke.”

  Rossiter also wrote that patriot ministers were responsible for fully one third of the total output of political thought during the years leading up to American independence.

  In their book In Search of the Republic: Public Virtue and the Roots of American Government, authors Richard Vetterli and Gary Bryner wrote, “The philosophy of the Declaration, the basic concepts and unique features undergirding the revolution—covenant or contract, higher law, unalienable rights, human dignity, virtue—were all primarily the product of the evolution of American Christianity, particularly Puritanism. American Christianity, with its Judaic influence, was not just compatible with the philosophy that energized men to love freedom, that made them see themselves as heirs of human dignity, subject to law higher than the state; it was primarily responsible for the philosophy.

  In his book, The Theme is Freedom, M. Stanton Evans wrote, “The Declaration, after all, says the rights in question come from God, so the matter is not left to inference or ingenious speculation. The scriptural origin is apparent in the very wording: That ‘all men are created equal,’ that they are ‘endowed by their Creator,’ etc., are ideas and phrases that entered the vernacular of the West exclusively through biblical revelation. They are utterly distinctive, in the idea of creation that they express, and in the intrinsic value that they attribute to every human being—both in total contrast to the pantheist/statist systems of the ancients.”

  These ideas predated the Declaration of Independence and were widely known and discussed in the colonies. Evans cites a 1771 sermon by Rev. John Tucker in which he said “all government, consistent with that natural freedom, to which all have a claim, is founded in compact, or agreement between parties, between rulers and their subjects, and can be none otherwise.” It was the sense of the American people that all legitimate government is based on the proposition that power is delegated to it by the people.

  The preachers of the founding era helped create a scriptural basis for the rights of the people. They promoted and defended the principle that all people are first of all, created beings made in the image and likeness of their Creator and endowed by Him with unalienable rights. They articulated a view of the proper role and proper limits of government, especially in the context of human liberty.

  These ministers were among the best educated men of their time, well-educated not only in scripture, but also in politics, science and philosophy. They were well-respected leaders whose sermons lit the fire and stoked the flames of independence while also laying the foundation for establishing a nation founded on Judeo-Christian precepts.

  As Paul Johnson noted, without the great awakening that occurred in the churches, there would have been no American Revolution. If nothing else, this exposes the absurdity of the idea that the founders intended a strict separation that completely silences churches and ministers on political issues. It may also be a strong indication that without another great awakening, there may be no American renewal.

  About the author: Gary Palmer is president of the Alabama Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of free markets, limited government and strong families, which are indispensable to a prosperous society.

No comments:

Post a Comment