March 16: Religion, the Revolution, and the Founding

hallDWFor today’s post we turn to something that our good friend the Rev. David W. Hall wrote some years ago. As readers of this blog will know, Rev. Hall is currently authoring a series on Election Day Sermons that appears here on TDPH each Saturday. That series will run through the month of October. Today’s post, a small portion of a larger article, explores the role of the Christian faith during the years of the American revolution.

Religion, the Revolution, and the Founding

by Rev. David W. Hall

The 1776 Bill of Rights of Virginia affirmed that all men by nature possess rights to enjoy life and liberty, along with the means of obtaining such. These Virginians also viewed governmental power to be “vested in, and consequently derived from the people.” They affirmed that “magistrates are their [the citizens’] trustees and servants, and at all times amenable to them.” Civil government was limited to serve the ends of the commonweal, not to aggrandize individuals or segments of the populace. A majority of citizens had the “indubitable, inalienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter, or abolish” a government if it did not serve the “public weal.”

This Old Dominion Bill of Rights asserted a separation of powers, limitation of terms (in order that “the members . . . may be restrained from oppression, by feeling and participating in the burdens of the people, they should at fixed periods, be reduced to a private station . . . and the vacancies filled” by others), free elections, representative federalism, and freedom of the press. It affirmed that “the freedom of the press is one of the great bulwarks of liberty . . . [it] can never be restrained but by despotic governments.”

This Virginia catalogue also confirmed the propriety of armed militias and the danger of standing armies in peacetime. This governmental platform depended on “firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue.” It also supported freedom of religion (“the duty which we owe to our Creator”) and mutual toleration.These views were shared by American Puritans and Calvinists in 1776.

Approximately three out of four Americans attended church services at the time, near an all-time high for America. Recent studies have noted that the Revolutionary period saw Christianity flourishing in America with an almost revivalistic fervor, as many of the sermons of the day indicate. Religion played a leading role in the American Revolution. The first order of the Continental Congress in September 1774 was to locate a minister to lead in prayer. Jacob Duche, a Philadelphia minister, served informally as a spiritual mentor until after the Declaration was adopted. Five days after the Declaration’s adoption, he was formally elected as a chaplain to the Congress. This same Congress called for a day of public prayer and fasting in July 1775, similar to the British parliamentarians four generations earlier. When this Congress commissioned a seal, the committee consisting of Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams came back with symbolism from the Book of Exodus, with George III caricatured as Pharoh, sporting the motto equating rebellion against tyrants with religious duty.

Congress on several occasions called for public fasts and days of humiliation and prayers. One such notable day, approved on March 16, 1776 (and signed by John Hancock), urged united hearts to make “sincere repentance and amendments of life” and to appease the righteous displeasure of “the Lords of Hosts, the God of armies” and “through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ” to “obtain his pardon and forgiveness.”

Two months later, another fast day was called by Congress, and this time they requested that ministers read the proclamation, similar to the distribution method for the Magna Carta and other ancient documents which had been circulated to churches. Another fast day, a fortnight after the Declaration (July 20), featured sermons by prominent Philadelphia clergy—Chaplain Jacob Duche (whose church featured a stained glass window with the motto, “The Church and Magna Carta”) and Presbyterian patriarch Francis Alison. Of this occasion, John Adams observed, “Millions will be on their Knees at once before their great Creator, imploring His forgiveness and Blessing, his Smiles on American Councils and Arms.” Several scholars have noted that the language of this July 20, 1776, (and other) proclamations is riddled with the covenant theology of the Swiss Reformation. “As old as the Reformation itself,” notes historian James Hutson, “this doctrine was embraced by all of the major Protestant groups who settled America, although it has become known as one of the signature statements of the New England Puritans.”

Words to Live By:
Our thanks to Rev. Hall for permission to use this portion of his article. It is right and proper that magistrates should call upon the Church to pray and even to fast. Indeed, Scripture commands us to pray for those in authority over us. (I Timothy 2:1-3). But to digress a bit and address something I’ve been thinking of recently, it is quite common to hear the words of II Chronicles 7:14 applied to the United States by well-meaning Christians. [Is this error unique to American evangelicalism, or does it appear elsewhere around the world and applied to other nations?]  “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” How shall that text be applied? As any good Reformed pastor or theologian will tell you, that verse originally applied to national Israel and by extension, the verse, as indicated by the words “My people,” must and can only today mean the Church. It is only Christians who are His people and who are called by His name. When the Church has fallen from where it should be, humble repentance and an earnest seeking after the Lord is the only due course of action. And the land that will be healed must then be the Church itself. For some very edifying reading, I would encourage you to take up and read a small book by John Preston, titled The Golden Sceptre Held forth to the Humble. The book consists of six sermons on the text of II Chronicles 7:14, and I think you will find it to be some of the best reading you’ve come across in quite some time, outside of Scripture.

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