By Pastor Glenn Pease
Governments often fear Christians because they have a loyalty to God which they put above their loyalty to government, and this limits their power to control. Jesus started this by His famous response, "Render onto Caesar the things that are Caesars and unto God the things that are God's." That was the beginning of the Christian duel loyalty to God and government, with the duty to God taking first priority. And so when the Apostles were told by the authorities that they could not preach the Gospel Peter and John said to them in Acts 4, "We must obey God rather than men." This has become a basic Christian value system. The freedom to obey God is the number one priority of Christians in relationship to their government.
Whenever a government says that you cannot obey God because it is against our laws, the Christian church has said, "You have just become an idol demanding a loyalty that belongs to God alone, and we must resist." This is the principle behind the history of our nations fight for freedom. It has always been a fight to be free to obey God and be one nation under God. It has been a fight against those who say we are a nation over God, and we demand supreme loyalty. Long before the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War, this was the battle Americans were fighting.
Freedom is the very essence of the Christian life. If you are not free to obey Christ and live in harmony with His teachings, you cannot truly be a Christian. Therefore, the Christian is obligated to resist all attempts to limit that freedom. Paul states it clearly in Gal. 5:1, "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery." Paul was concerned about Christians being limited by the Old Testament law, but the principle applies to any form of limitation to religious liberty.
This is how the early Americans felt about the King of England. They had established a democracy and loved the liberty of self-rule. For them to go back under the bondage of a monarchy would be like the Israelites going back under the bondage to Egypt after being set free. The pastors of the early Americans were preaching freedom, and when Charles II of England heard that he tried to put a stop to it by demanding that only Episcopal clergy be allowed to form churches, and that only those church members be allowed to vote. The King was going to get control of the church so that the state could dominate it and use it for its ends. This is the goal of all governments in lands where the separation of church and state is not guaranteed by the Constitution, as is the case in the U. S. If the state can control the church they can eliminate the risks of religious liberty to their power.
When the Colonists refused to obey the King, he demanded that they give up their charter and submit to the King's authority. The Puritan leader Increase Mather preached that it would be a sin to relinquish their freedom to the King, for it had been won by the sacrifice of faithful men. The people voted not to submit, and the King was determined to force submission by sending troops. He died before he did, but he started a strategy to undermine the colonies fight for freedom. He sent Sir Edmund Andros to work at making the Episcopal Church a dominant force in the colonies, for it was state controlled.
He forced all shipping to be done by British ships, and so all trade had to be with England only. The Americans said that this was an abuse of power, for the King is to serve the people and oppress them. II Sam. 23:3 says, "He that rules over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God." The King of England was not just, but had become a tyrant trying to rob Americans of liberties they had already won. Christians recognized that revolution is a last resort, and so for decades they resisted such action. The King of England got into other wars in Europe and let up the pressure, and so it was sort of a stalemate until George III came to power in 1760.
His ego demanded total submission, and so he took it as his cause to crush the independent spirit of the Colonies. He more than doubled the size of the British army in the Colonies to 7500 men, and then made the Colonies pay for them by increasing taxes. The tax collectors paid themselves such high salaries that there was nothing left for the cost of the troops. All the taxes went to pay for the tax collectors. This was the same problem that made tax collectors a hated breed in the New Testament. New taxes had to be leveled until the people developed a very ugly mood. It was becoming pure robbery.
The clergy preached many sermons on the injustice of it all, but King George, like Pharaoh, had a hardened heart. Americans were being taxed by a government in which they had no voice. They preached that the King had become a tyrant, and they had no more obligation to submit to him than to a pirate or highwayman. He forfeited his right to be obeyed by becoming an enemy of the people. They had the right to resist him as any other invader. It was a matter of self-defense.
A showdown with the King was inevitable. The persistent spirit of liberty had to be rooted out and so King George threatened more, and American preachers found more biblical basis for rejecting his authority. On New Year's Day of 1773 the men of Marlborough made this public declaration: "Death is more eligible than slavery. A free-born people are not required by the religion of Jesus Christ to submit to tyranny, but make use of such power as God has given them to recover and support their laws and liberties. We implore the Ruler above the skies, that He would bare His arm in defense of His church and people..."
Peter Marshall in The Light And Glory, dealing with the history of this period, says that even crown-appointed governors, faithful to the King, wrote back to England saying, "If you ask an American, who is his master? He will tell you he has none, nor any governor but Jesus Christ." The cry was going up and down the link of American, "No King but King Jesus." I never realized it before, but the fight for liberty in America was a fight for religious liberty. It was a fight for the freedom to obey God rather than man. This was the key theme that united the Colonies. You might be thinking that this sounds more like a history lesson than a sermon, but I am trying to communicate that the history of our fight for freedom is a sermon. It is a sermon on the providence of God, and a sermon on the priority of obeying God above all other authority. It is also a sermon on the power of people who are united to win a victory for God established values.
History is His-story, and so it is full of sermons. History shows us how injustice cuts its own throat. The British tax laws were forcing many American tea companies into bankruptcy, and so you had the famous Boston Tea Party with Americans tossing tea into the bay. The King demanded that the culprits be prosecuted, but none could be found. So he punished all of Boston by closing her ports to all commerce in 1774. This was to be a warning to all of the colonies that said, "Don't mess with us!" This act of tyranny had the opposite effect. It united the Colonies as nothing before. This act ruined Boston financially, for it was the most prosperous port in America. Out rage swept across the Colonies and every city began to send provisions to Boston. George Washington himself sent 50 pounds, which would be near 5000 dollars in value today.
William Prescott sent a message to Boston along with supplies and he used our text in his message. He wrote, "We heartily sympathize with you, and are always ready to do all in our power for your support, comfort and relief, knowing that Providence has placed you where you must stand the first shock. We consider that we are all embarked in the same boat and must sink or swim together.....Let us all be of one heart, and stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free."
This was the sentiment that King George had provoked in the Colonies. Jesus said that a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand, and this was the major problem in the Colonies. They were not united states, but they were divided by endless varieties of opinions. But the Boston Tea Party and its consequences united them and made them realize they had to swim together or sink. Patrick Henry at the dawn of 1775 said in the Virginia House, "There is no longer room for hope. If we wish to be free, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of Hosts is all that is left us.....We shall fight alone. God presides over the destinies of nations, and will raise up friends for us. The battle is not for the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave.....Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, almighty God! I know not what course others might take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!"
The love of God-given liberty united the people, and that alone made them adequate for the battle ahead. If they had lack this unity, they never would have had a chance, for all the odds were against them. King George had a well- trained army of 50 thousand men, and the best navy in the world. The Americans had no navy at all, and they could only muster a little over 10 thousand for the army, and they were poorly trained. It was a David and Goliath conflict, but with a David who was nowhere near as good with a sling as the David of the Bible. The British were disciplined and well organized. The Americans were not, for they often just walked away from the battle and went home when they felt like it.
The war would have been over by lunchtime had the Americans fought by the British rules of war. Had they lined up across from the line of red coats they would have been demolished in no time. But the Americans had learned from the Indians the way to fight a superior force. They would hide behind trees and rocks and fire as individuals at any enemy fool enough to be out in the open, which was just where the British were. Americans owe a lot to the Indians who taught them many lessons in survival.
The British won 17 major battles, and the Americans won 22. But it cost many thousands of lives, and a great deal of money. Freedom is costly and that is why we need to celebrate the 4th of July. It is a parallel to our celebration to communion. We celebrate communion to remember the price paid for our freedom from the bondage to sin and its consequences. We celebrate the 4th of July to remember the cost of our freedom from bondage to tyranny and unjust rule. Freedom is the foundation for most all of our great holidays and celebrations. Christmas is our celebration of freedom from isolation from God. God came into history and made it clear that we are not alone. God is with us in Christ our Emmanuel. Easter is our celebration of freedom from the power of death. Jesus liberated us from this bondage and gave us eternal life.
We do not think of the 4th of July as a Christian holiday and celebration. It is more secular in nature. That is why it is a blessing that is sometimes falls on Sunday, for then we have the opportunity to point out the Christian impact on the whole history of our fight for freedom. There is danger in patriotism becoming a form of idolatry, but it is also possible to go the other way and fail to see the Christian duty to be patriotic. Christians have played a major role in the patriotism of America, and we need to see it and be grateful for it, and then carry on that balance of love for God and love of country.
My Country Tis Of Thee was written by the Baptist pastor Samuel Francis
Smith in 1832. The Pledge of Alliance was written by another Baptist pastor, Francis Bellamy in 1892. John Witherspoon, the Presbyterian pastor, was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. His Colony of New Jersey had elected him to the Continental Congress just a few days before they voted on the Declaration. Witherspoon represented the churches perspective on this momentous decision. He had been the President of Princeton where many of the leaders of the Colonies were educated, such as James Madison, who joined Thomas Jefferson in making religious freedom a reality in Virginia, and who went on to become the 4th President of the United States.
Witherspoon had an impact on the lives of many of the early leaders of America, and one of them was John Adams the second President of the United States. He was chosen by Congress to draft the proclamation for days of thanksgiving and other special occasions, for he would include in them the belief that divine providence was guiding this nation, and that the preservation of our religious heritage was crucial to success. John Witherspoon wrote the Proclamation that George Washington gave after his great victory at Yorktown. It went like this: "Whereas, it hath pleased Almighty God, Father of mercies, remarkably to assist and support the United States of America in their important struggle for liberty, against the long continued efforts of a powerful nation: It is the duty of all ranks to observe and thankfully acknowledge the interpositions of his Providence in their behalf."
Witherspoon had a great impact on Washington, for they spent a lot of time together, and Washington became a firm believer that our nation could never remain strong and moral without the religious influence of the churches. Witherspoon led other pastors into politics, but he was very strong in his conviction that politics had no place in the pulpit. He never used his sermons to promote political convictions. He felt this would an abuse of his position. Only once did he break his own rule and bring politics into his message, and that was in 1776 when he defended the war for independence.
He preached, "At this season it is not only lawful but necessary, and I willingly embrace the opportunity of declaring my opinion without any hesitation, that the cause in which America is now in arms, is the cause of justice, of liberty and of human nature. So far as we have hitherto proceeded, I am satisfied that the confederacy of the Colonies has not been the effect of pride, resentment or sedition, but of a deep and general conviction that our civil and religious liberties, and consequently in a great measure the temporal and eternal happiness of us and our posterity, depended on the issue."
It was deep religious conviction that united the Americans in their fight. Without this unity there would not have been much chance of their succeeding. Christianity and liberty go hand and hand, and they are an unbeatable pair. The practical lesson for us is to recognize that unity in Christ and in Christian freedom is still the winning combination that will lead to victory in any battle we face. Get Christians united and you will have a force that the gates of hell cannot hold back. Unity is also the key to the good life when the battles are over. Psa. 133:1 says, "How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity." After the war was over this was a major struggle to achieve. A common enemy had united them, but when that enemy was gone they began to experience division. They were like the church of Corinth where they were saying, "I am of Paul; I am of Apollos; I am of Cephus, or I am of Christ." The Americans were saying, "I am of Virginia; I am of New Jersey, or I am of Rhode Island, etc." Every colony wanted to be independent and not united.
North Carolina and Tennessee declared themselves a separate state and called themselves Frankland, and then Franklin in honor of Benjamin Franklin. The government of North Carolina sent troops to force them to cease this rebellion. Then Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys settled in parts of three states: Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, and they set themselves up as a separate country, and they did not join the U.S. until 1792.
Virginia and Maryland took steps to divide the whole country into 3 or 4 different countries. But fortunately men like James Madison got that plan derailed, and a national convention was called to deal with forming the United States. James Madison was a scrawny little bookworm and not a leader type, and so he backed Washington to be the President of the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. Washington was one of the biggest men of that time. The average American man was short and fat. He was about 5 feet tall, but Washington was a towering 6-foot. He would not have been impressive today, but then he was a giant of a man. He did not know much about government, but Madison knew almost everything, and so this potent pair of brains and brawn led the fight for unity.
The divisions of states were unbelievable. Everybody thought the best idea was different from everybody else's. Two were even convinced that the best hope for America was to have a king. Five delegates thought the rich people should run the country. It seemed like a hopeless chaotic mess that could not be unraveled. Some delegates just walked out, and others threatened to do so if they did not get their way. To make a long story short, the only way to satisfy everyone enough to get a national government started was to make it extremely complicated. The United States has one of the most complicated governments in the world. The reason it had to be formed with so many checks and balances was so that it could never rob people of the freedom that had been so dearly won.
It had to have a Senate where every state got equal representation to satisfy the little states. It had to have a House of Representatives where every state got represented according to population in order to satisfy the larger states. It had to have a system of electors of equal number to the Senators and Representatives to elect the President. Benjamin Franklin came up with this crazy idea, and because it was terribly complicated the Convention accepted it. We can't look at all the complex issues that had to be solved to form a national government. Even when it was all done most did not like it. It was just the best they could do and they were united in this.
Unity called for complexity so that no group could dominate other groups. The weak and the minorities had to be protected from the strong and the majorities. Our nation and our Constitution are great because built into them is the basic value that all people are created equal, and all have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This conviction about freedom is the unifying principle that makes an American an American. Any one who feels there are people who do not have an equal right to freedom is un-American. They are also un-Christian in that it was Christian conviction that led to this kind of freedom being guaranteed by our Constitution. Christian leaders made sure the Bill of Rights would forever prevent our government from interference in the religious liberty of its citizens.
Christians can celebrate the 4the of July as a sacred day of thanksgiving, for it was the Declaration of Independence that led to the Constitution and the forming of the United States with all of its freedoms and religious liberty. Every Christian who knows the way God providently led this nation needs to say often, "Thank God for America."