by Rev. Nate Atwood
In the second installment of Rev. Atwood’s sermon on the biblical basis of our nation’s legal history, he focused on the definitive biblical aspects of the Declaration of Independence. Secular authors like Alan Dershowitz argue that its primary author, Thomas Jefferson, was a deist. This is the point at which we begin the third installment of Rev. Atwood’s sermon.
Now some of you are thinking, “But Thomas Jefferson was a deist, not an evangelical Christian. How can we claim such firm Biblical footing for his document?” First of all, it’s important to note that Thomas Jefferson was not the sole author of the Declaration of Independence. In June of 1776 a committee of five people were tasked by the Continental Congress to write a Declaration. John Adams, the devout and deeply Biblical Christian, was the chairman of that committee. He tasked Jefferson with the work of writing as he recognized Jefferson’s literary talent. But it must be said that the work came out of Adams’ committee and under his oversight. It also must be said that while Jefferson was not an evangelical Christian, he was still deeply affected by the Biblical imprint of his time. Thus, in reflecting on the Declaration of Independence, he wrote, “We do not claim these rights under the charters of kings or legislators, but under the King of Kings.”
The truth of the matter is that liberty had been developing as a national idea for many years. Jefferson and Adams, as well as the whole of the Continental Congress, did not live or write in a vacuum. Franklin Cole, in a book entitled, They Preached Liberty, extensively studied the sermons preached from Colonial pulpits during the years leading into the Revolutionary War. His thesis was that all of the ideas found in the Declaration were first found in America’s pulpits. For example, in 1768, Reverend Daniel Shute of Hingham, Massachusetts, declared, “life, liberty and property are the gifts of the Creator.” (Sound familiar?) In 1770, in an election sermon Rev. Charles Turner insisted, “The Scriptures cannot be rightfully expounded without explaining them in a manner friendly to the cause of liberty.” In 1768 Rev. Richard Slater of Mansfield, Connecticut assured his listeners, “God never gives men up to be slaves till they lose their national virtue, and abandon themselves to slavery.”
Given this careful devotion to God in the writing of the Declaration of Independence, it is not surprising that when it was first read publicly on July 4, 1776, a bell was rung to call the people of Philadelphia together. That bell is the “Liberty Bell,” and you can still read on it the inscription placed on it for that day. . . . “Proclaim liberty unto all the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof.” In case you don’t recognize it, that’s a Bible verse Leviticus 25:10. In fact, this might well be called America’s verse. Yes, our forefathers knew it and built their lives upon this truth . . . it was God who gave us liberty. And because liberty came from God they entitled it “the holy cause of liberty.”
Furthermore, because liberty came from God and was therefore sacred, these signers of the Declaration of Independence were more than willing to die for their convictions. Adams and Jefferson survived the war without great loss. Other signers of the Declaration did not fare so well. Of those fifty-six men, five were captured by the British, tortured, and then executed. Twelve had their homes ransacked or burned. Two lost their sons serving in Revolutionary Army.
Another two had sons captured. Nine of the fifty-six fought and died in the war from wounds or the hardships of battle. Indeed, they did pledge their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. Such were the sacrifices of the American Revolution. These were not wild-eyed, rabblerousing ruffians. They were soft-spoken men of means and education. They had security, but they valued liberty more. And they valued liberty, because they knew that liberty came from God and was therefore holy. Remember, these fifty-six men were the ones who added two more clearly Scriptural references to God to Jefferson’s version of the Declaration as it came out of Adam’s committee. The historical record is clear: they were motivated by their belief in God (God as He is defined by Scripture). No wonder they were willing to put their lives on the line. . . . After all, during the war one of the favorite slogans of the Americans was “No King but Jesus!”
In 1831, in Albany, New York the French author Alexis de Tocqueville recorded yet another July 4th celebration. Found in his book Democracy in America, in which this celebrated author repeatedly noted the unbreakable connection between American democracy and American faith in God, de Tocqueville recorded that on this particular July 4th he was awakened by the firing of guns in a federal salute and the ringing of all church bells. He came out to see what was going on
and was invited to join in a great parade, devoid of “any real military splendor” but marked by people from all walks of life, floats representing every conceivable occupation, and “three or four old soldiers, who fought with Washington, whom the city preserves like precious relics, and whom all the citizens honor.” They “carried with great pomp a tattered old American flag, bullet torn, which came down from the war of independence.”
De Tocqueville expected the parade to end in some fine government building but was surprised to see it ended, instead, in a Methodist church where the entire Declaration of Independence was read with “much warmth and dignity.” He recalled that the reading was preceded by “a prayer made by a Protestant minister . . . I recall this fact,” he said, “because it is characteristic of this country, where they never do anything without the assistance of religion.”
Let’s remember the lesson of history . . . religion can survive in the absence of freedom. But freedom without religion is tenuous at best and can even be dangerous. George Washington reminded the country of this truth in his farewell address, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” So how might you celebrate the 4th of July? I think the record of history I just went through should give you some ideas. I just hope you will celebrate it. I also hope that you will, as families worshipping together. And perhaps you’ll experience a moment such as I knew and which I recorded in my prayer journal….