By Peter Coker
By the eve of the American Revolution there were about three-thousand religious ministries in the thirteen colonies. These ministries included; congregations, parishes, missions, societies and stations. One of the major roles the Christian religion played in the American Revolution was by providing a moral sanction for opposing Great Britain. Colonial Christianity gave an assurance to the average American that their “Revolution” was justified in the sight of God. As Revolution leader John Adams explained, “the Revolution was effected before the war commenced…the Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people.”
Just Prior to the American Revolution, a religious revival had spread across the thirteen colonies called, the Great Awakening. The beginnings of the awakening started in the 1730’s and its growth continued through the 1740’s, 1750’s, and even lingered into the 1760’s. Tens of thousands were converted and many new churches sprang-up throughout the colonies. Many believed this was a “new reformation.” Some even believed that the Awakening might be a prelude to Christ’s return to earth. The Awakening also had a tremendous affect on colonial independence and the idea of breaking away from Great Britain’s rulership.
The American colonists believed Britain’s misuse of laws was tyrannical. New England preachers had taught for years that no man needs to obey a government when that government violates the will of God as set forth in the Holy Scriptures. They further understood from John Locke’s philosophy that for anyone to claim the power to levy tax by their own authority, without the consent of the people, violated the fundamental law of property (from God’s word) and subverted a proper, just, government.
Prior to the American “Declaration of Independence” colonists had proposed the “Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms.” This declaration advised the British government that colonists would not submit to tyranny and had decided to resist. The people of Massachusetts began gathering up arms and ammunition. They trained themselves to be ready to fight on a minute’s notice and became known as minute-men. When George Washington was appointed Commander-in-Chief, he issued this order: “The general orders this day to be religiously observed…It is therefore strictly enjoined on all officers and soldiers to attend Divine service. And it is expected that all those who go to worship do take their arms, ammunition and accoutrements, and are prepared for immediate action, if called upon.”
Many colonial leaders had provided a variety of organizations that were formed for some sort of community action. Some were local, some were colony-wide and some were inter-colonial. Some of these organizations would eventually provide the basis for independent government. In response to the ongoing acts against colonial liberties by Britain, a “Continental Congress” was called for in 1774. Delegates from all thirteen colonies were called upon and initially delegates from all but Georgia met in Philadelphia to consider declaring an economic war with Great Britain. Mr. Cushing made a motion to open the meeting with prayer and Samuel Adams suggested that Rev. Duche,’ deliver the prayer. As John Adams described the event in writing to his wife; “I never saw a greater effect on an audience. It seemed as if heaven had ordained that Psalm to be read on that morning. After this, Mr. Duche’ unexpectedly to every-body, struck out into extemporary prayer, which filled the bosom of every man present. I must confess, I never heard a better prayer, or one so well pronounced.” Thus, opened the first Continental Congress of the American colonies, the prelude to American independence and the Constitutional convention.
On July 4, 1776 the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence for the United Colonies, absolving them from all allegiance to the British Crown. As many have prior noted, the foundation of the Declaration of Independence is inherently a religious one. The Declaration not only describes how the King of Great Britain acted against their God-given rights, but also pronounces the need for nations to have a religious foundation. The religious, biblical principles outlined in the Declaration are:
- ”Endowed by their Creator;” The belief in a Creator-God who provides for mankind.
- “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God;” God ordained laws over His creation.
- “All men are created equal;” All men are equal before God and His Law.
- “The Supreme Judge of the World;” God is our ultimate judge.
- “Divine Providence;” God is our divine guide and ultimate provider.
Most of the Declaration of Independence was written by Thomas Jefferson, who was 33 years old at that time. Some rewording was made by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin; and some changes were also made by Congress.
The phrase, “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” came from Sir William Blackstone, an English judge and law professor. As Blackstone described it; “Man, considered as a creature, must necessarily be subject to the laws of his Creator, for he is entirely a dependent being…And consequently, as man depends absolutely upon his Maker for everything, it is necessary that he should in all points conform to his Maker’s will. This will of his Maker is called the law of nature, dictated by God himself, is of course superior in obligation to any other; It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all time: no human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid derive all their force, and all their authority, mediately or immediately, from this original…The doctrines thus delivered we call the revealed or divine law and they are to be found only in the holy Scriptures. These precepts, when revealed, are found upon comparison to be really a part of the original law of nature…Upon these two foundations, the law of nature and the law of revelation, depend all human laws; that is to say, no human laws should be suffered to contradict these.”
The founding idea for equality, (“all men are created equal”) came from the English writer, Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661), who wrote the book “Lex, Rex or the Law and the Prince. Rutherford challenged the idea of the “divine right of kings.” Rutherford proposed that all men, even kings were under the law and not above it. Rutherford, citing Romans 13: 1-4, said rulers derive their authority from God, but that God gives his authority through the people. Rutherford supported his idea by also citing; II Sam. 16: 18; Judges 8: 22; Judges 9: 6; II kings 14:21; I Sam. 12: 1; and II Chronicles 23: 3.
Many ministers served in the American cause in various capacities during the American Revolution. Some took up arms in leading Continental troops in battle. Others served as military chaplains; as penmen for committees of correspondence; and as members of state legislators, constitutional conventions, and the national congress.
The religious implications of the American Revolution are undeniable. The British often referred to it as a Puritan Revolution. It is well documented that Christianity was a strong and influential factor in America’s Revolution and founding. But, it is also recognized that its founding was not comprehensively Christian, nor was it without its flaws. As in any age, America’s founders were not perfect men. Nor were they always perfectly consistent in developing and holding to their principles. American independence was however, an historic break from the past and a quantum leap in its potential and its possibilities for the future of the western world. America was uniquely, in this sense, an exceptional nation; an exception to all the previous law-orders of the past.