A sermon given January 18, 2015 at the Alafia River Rendezvous Church Service
On December 15, 1791, the First Amendment of our Bill of Rights was ratified stating that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” So why would our founders bother to make this Amendment first?
To understand our forefather’s thinking, we must go back to times long before we were a country, even before our lands were discovered. The roots of personal rights and liberty can found among the early charters granted by English kings at the beginning of their reigns. In 1100, Henry I had issued a 20-clause coronation charter, promising to rule justly. Although Henry only kept a few of his promises, his charter would serve as a basis for the barons’ negotiations later in 1215. Their efforts would produce the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta was unique because it was less an offering by the king to his nobles on how he would treat them. Instead, a demand by the nobles on how they wanted to be treated by their king. We trace the beginning of our own Constitution directly back to Magna Carta. The people have the rights and kings — they are to serve the people.
Even the Holy Word of God, our Bible was not without the influence of kings. At the time of the Revolution, there were two translations of the Bible in use, the Geneva Bible of 1599 and the King James Bible of 1611. So why would a king bother to have a Bible re-translated and printed? Well, if you were a patriot, you would have owned a Geneva Bible. Translated from the original Hebrew and Greek documents by Protestant scholars who fled from England to Geneva, Switzerland, the Scripture placed Christ as the one and only King. However, King James had a problem with placing Christ as the only head of the church leaving out any authoritative role for himself and his bishops. King James made sure that among other nuances, there was room for an earthly king and his formal hierarchy of bishops in the Bible that carried his name.
Kings were interested in power and control, much coming from the wealth and oversight of a State Church. A king could define sin, collect indulgences, and even set punishments such as death. The settlers of colonial America understood the oppressive thumb of a king who could create, use or alter religion to suite any tyrannical goal. What more frightening power could you imagine than not only have a king determine your place in society but even your right to life. Well, it was clear that for any colonist, the idea of a king was of much greater concern than the influence of the Anglican Church in America. As our forefathers began to craft our country they would be taught by Benjamin Franklin that “public religion” is good for society. The concept of public religion includes a spirit of charity to others, a generous moral disposition, and rituals acknowledging a dependence on divine providence. However, each of our founders also had a “private religion,” some being Anglican, Presbyterian, Baptist, Catholics, Congregationalists, and so on. George Washington said simply, “We have abundant reason to rejoice that in this Land, the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition, and that every person may here worship God according to dictates of his conscience.” There is a distinction, however, between professing a conviction and using an established church to coerce not only belief but also conformity with political and cultural mores. Those concerns would become the basis for our separation of church and state as well as the first amendment.
Our fledgling nation was about to become preoccupied with a Revolution. It was a Friday, June 23, 1775 when Reverend William Smith was preaching at Christ Church in Philadelphia. This would be the same day that George Washington left the city to take command of the continental army. Reverend Smith stated, “Religion and liberty must flourish or fall together in America. We pray that both may be perpetual.” One year later, we can see that the Declaration of Independence was written as an indictment of It was during our Revolution that Thomas Jefferson would summarize for us today, what our forefathers were most concerned about. Jefferson would say, “I doubt that whether the people of this country would suffer an execution for heresy, or a three year imprisonment for not comprehending the mysteries of the Trinity. But is the spirit of the people an infallible, a permanent reliance? No,” Jefferson answered, “it was not. The spirit of the times may alter, will alter. Our rulers will become corrupt, our people careless. It can never be too often repeated, that the time for fixing every essential right on a legal basis is when our rulers are honest, and ourselves united.”
Therefore, we would wait as our country was being created, first focusing on our grievances as in the Declaration, then on our individual States rights as in the Articles of Confederation and finally, our form of government as defined in our Constitution. While each of those documents acknowledges a reliance upon a greater power, none establishes our country’s belief in God or Christ. But what would keep a group of diverse people together, serving and defending each other in support of a nation? It would be become known as the “Bill of Rights.” Yes, now it would be time to finish what the Magna Carta started, to establish the rights of the people.
Our founders knew that Americans respected the idea of God, understood the universe to be governed by moral and religious forces and prayed for divine protection against their enemies. They knew from personal experiences that an earthly government tied to a State church served only men. In June of 1787, Benjamin Franklin, in a fierce debate would say this, “I have lived a long time; and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth, that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, sir, in the sacred writings, that except the lord build a house, they labor in vain that build it. I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid, we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel: we shall be divided by our little partial local interests, our projects will be confounded and we ourselves shall become a reproach and a byword down to future ages.” Franklin when on: “And what is worse, mankind may hereafter, from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing government by human wisdom, and leave it to chance, war and conquest.”
Benjamin Franklin would remind us that we are not a democracy where a majority rules. We are a republic where everyone begins with certain rights, rights that no one including our government, the majority or the minority can take away. Our forefathers understood that to have a moral country, to prosper, to live in peace and security, our first set of rights needed a strong foundation: Rights to prohibit our government from establishing their own brand of religion. Rights granting each of us the free exercise of our own individual faith; and to assure our freedoms of speech, the press; or peaceful assembly, and even to guarantee our right to complain to our government about the government. Our freedom is built upon this foundation. Without these rights, we are merely subjects of a worldly king, dependent upon his benevolent nature. Our forefathers understood that for a great nation to grow and prosper, every citizen would also need to have a noble purpose to keep productive, compassion and love for each other to remain united and, above all, a hope in something greater than one’s government.
John Winthrop was a wealthy English Puritan lawyer and one of the leading figures in the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Winthrop led the first large wave of migrants from England in 1630, and served as their governor for 12 years. His writings and vision of the colony as a Puritan “city upon a hill” dominated New England, influencing the governments and religions of neighboring colonies. In his book entitled “A Model of Christian Charity” Winthrop would establish the goals for our fledgling nation saying, “For we must consider that we shall be a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world.” If you accept as true that without God, America will lose God’s providence and become nothing more than a byword, a footnote in history, how then would you expect the enemies of America to attack us?
Remember my three points to prosperity and happiness — a noble purpose, unity and hope.
First, our enemies would attempt to weaken American ambition. Unearned entitlements and legalization of drugs might be good starting points. The definition of success would change to rewarding everyone equally, destroying personal initiative. Burdensome taxes and debt works well too. This is no different from what King George the III tried when he controlled the prosperity of colonists by forcing them to deal exclusively with the East India Tea Company, a single source for goods, services and a constant supply of rum and opium. Let us not forget the Sugar Tax, Stamp Act or the Tax on Tea either. All people were to work for the betterment of something greater than themselves, the betterment of England and, of course, and the betterment of the king.
Next, an enemy would divide our citizens. We would become a nation, filled with prejudice and bigotry, clustered together around our special interests like race, nationality or maybe even the environment. Our enemy might consider re-engineering our children’s educational system, exchanging history for issues of social justice. Patriotism would be frowned upon, loyalism and political correctness would prevail. That was just what King George III was trying to do. To retain his power, he divided a nation into patriots and loyalists. Neighbor killing neighbor, brother killing brother, colony against colony. The king knew that if he kept the colonies separated, focused on their self-interests, they could easily be controlled. King George III would grant privileges to some and take them away from others. Remember, the goal was loyalty to England and of course, the king.
Finally, any accomplished enemy of freedom and liberty would define for its citizens what is sinful and what is not. Rules, regulations, their very behavior would be defined and controlled. Special interests would rule morality. The non-compliant would be relentlessly persecuted to destroy all liberty. God would be removed from America. Why take away God? People without liberty place their hope in their government, in their king. Yet, it almost seems comical that humanity spends so much time trying to tell God what is sinful. Doesn’t common sense tell us that only God knows what He detests? Better that we spend the rest of our time understanding what God has told us throughout history! To fail to learn from our past mistakes may very well be the greatest sin of all. In 1776, King George III controlled the Anglican Church. The king appointed the judges, he ruled by decree. King George III picked the winners and the losers.
The news, however, is not all hopeless. We can successfully fight against the dark forces within our universe. To overcome evil, we must:
First, raise every generation to understand that in order to be happy, to have liberty and to be free, it must be earned. Freedom has never been free and it has never been a gift from government. Citizens throughout history have shed their sweat and blood to earn and keep their freedom. Our children must defend what our forefathers fought and died for and not let their freedom be chipped away by the false teachings of a society focused on social justice. We must save our republic for our children’s sake and save our children for our republic’s sake. This can done by protecting the family, showing each generation by example that true satisfaction and happiness can only be achieved when hard work is aligned with Godly values. Please remember that complacency is an enemy of liberty.
Second, ask yourself, why did we win the American Revolution? On July 4, 1776, our forefathers said it all. They entitled it, “The Unanimous Declaration of the thirteen United States of America.” Yes, they were unanimous in their declaration of unity. At the time of the signing, there were 5,000 British troops already in the colonies. Forty five thousand more were waiting in ships off our coasts. With God’s providence and 8 years of sacrifice, a new free nation would be born. Fifty-Six men signed the Declaration; two would become future presidents, three vice presidents and ten, members of the US Congress. However, twenty-seven signers would lose every earthy possession and many their very lives as well. We can honor their sacrifice by never letting anyone divide us. We are blessed with one God whose providence guided this country from its founding days and it is in Him we must always remain united.
Finally, we must never forget that the power of evil can only affect hope in worldly things. Evil has no power over God. It takes only one person and God to be a majority. Each of you can take great comfort in knowing that your God came to us long ago and chose to become human so that you could have an everlasting example of His love, forgiveness and hope. Christ is that example. While we all fall short before God, Christ has already removed any barriers between yourself and God. Be cautioned, however: we are not to just profess our faith–we must also possess it within our very hearts and souls.
So why was the First Amendment first? Because God’s Truth will be triumphant. Our founding fathers knew that the cornerstone of true liberty could only come from God. God loves this World! God will not give up on it! And when God is for us, who can be against us?
Bible Verses for the Service
First Congressional Prayer given on September 7, 1774 at Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia by Reverend Duche’ was Psalm 35:
1 Contend, Lord, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me. 2 Take up shield and armor; arise and come to my aid. 3 Brandish spear and javelin against those who pursue me. Say to me, “I am your salvation.” 4 May those who seek my life be disgraced and put to shame; may those who plot my ruin be turned back in dismay. 5 May they be like chaff before the wind, with the angel of the Lord driving them away; 6 may their path be dark and slippery, with the angel of the Lord pursuing them. 7 Since they hid their net for me without cause and without cause dug a pit for me, 8 may ruin overtake them by surprise—may the net they hid entangle them, may they fall into the pit, to their ruin. 9 Then my soul will rejoice in the Lord and delight in his salvation. 10 My whole being will exclaim, “Who is like you, Lord? You rescue the poor from those too strong for them, the poor and needy from those who rob them.”
~There are 18 more verses to David’s psalm. Powerful because God generously provided His providence and safety for our Revolution.
29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. 30 And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.