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Under the presidency of John Hancock, the Provincial Continental Congress of Massachusetts, based in Concord, began to make preparations for war. It appointed its own treasurer to collect taxes and a Committee of Public Safety to train militia and store munitions. Informed by spies of the arms and ammunition being collected in Concord, about 18 miles from Boston, General Gage decided that Concord, the seat of New England's revolutionary government, would be an excellent place to administer a sound thrashing to the rebels. The Patriots were planning to adjourn on April 15 in order to send delegates to the Second Continental Congress, scheduled to convene in May 1775. So Gage knew he had to strike quickly.
Gage launched a night raid on April 18 in an attempt to surprise the Patriots while they slept. In all, about 1,800 British regulars would be dispatched along various routes, out of a total Boston garrison of 3,500. This was to be a major attack. But Joseph Warren, the Patriot spy-chief based in Boston, learned the specifics of the operation by 10 o'clock and promptly dispatched Paul Revere to alert the countryside in the most celebrated ride in American history. Two of Revere's fellow spies warned Patriots by hanging a lantern in the tower of Christ Church - the agreed upon signal of an impending British raid. At one point, Revere was spotted by two British officers who gave chase, but were easily outdistanced by the famed Patriot horseman. "The British are coming! The British are coming!" he yelled as he passed every home. Samuel Adams and John Hancock were in Lexington, staying at the home of the Reverend Jonas Clarke. The Provincial Congress had adjourned and they were on their way to Philadelphia. Revere galloped up to Clarke's house. "The British are coming!" he yelled. Adams and Hancock awoke, and Revere disappeared into the night to alert the residents of Concord. By daybreak, Minutemen were on the march as far distant as New Hampshire and Connecticut.
At Lexington, about 100 militia gathered on the Lexington common. The air was chilly and damp. As dawn broke, a farmer arrived to say that the redcoats were two miles away. It wasn't long before faint lines of British soldiers came into view, barely visible in the expanding light. It was an advance guard led by Major John Pitcairn. The church bells sounded the alarm. The redcoats continued their advance. Captain Jonas Parker saw that his band of farmers would be easily overwhelmed, and so ordered them to disband and wait for reinforcements-yet someone fired; no one knows who. But the shooting rapidly became general. "Fire, fire, fire!" screamed one junior redcoat officer. The militia shot back. The British returned the volley, wounding Jonas Parker and killing Isaac Muzzy. Jonathan Harrington was shot in the chest. As the wounded Parker tried to raise his musket to let off a last shot, he was run through with a bayonet. When the smoke cleared 10 Minutemen lay dead and nine more were badly wounded. Jonathan Harrington's wife was seen sobbing over the body of her dead husband. The entire battle of Lexington had lasted less than 15 minutes.
Major Pitcairn waited to be joined by Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith's forces, fully confident that the day ahead would be an easy one. The scene at Concord, however, would be very different. Revere and his riders had alerted the entire region, and every New England town and village had sent militia. The main battle took place on Concord's North Bridge where three British companies encountered about 1,000 Patriot militia, whose ranks were rapidly swelling with every passing minute. Emerson immortalized the confrontation in his famous poem:
. . .the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.
A nervous British commander ordered his men to withdraw. The Americans opened fire on the rear of the British company. Four officers were hit, along with a number of soldiers, and an orderly retreat rapidly degenerated into a panicked, every-man-for-himself sprint. But the Minutemen, who knew the terrain, took a shortcut and blocked the British withdrawal. Moreover, militia seemed to be coming from every direction, taking shots at the redcoats from behind stone walls, barns, hedges, and trees.
The entire British force made a mad dash back to Boston. Some threw their guns away in order to lighten the load. Others dropped from sheer exhaustion. One British soldier described his own experience: "I never broke my fast for 48 hours, for we carried no provisions. I had my hat shot off my head three times. Two balls went through my coat and carried away my bayonet from my side."
The Patriots had soundly thrashed a British force of 1,800 men, who were the best trained and most experienced in the imperial army. In all, the British suffered some 273 casualties. By contrast, 49 Americans were killed, and 41 wounded. The numbers were not especially large. But the British had never suffered a defeat more humiliating. Following the Lexington and Concord episode, Lord Hugh Percy wrote of the Minutemen: "Whoever looks upon them as an irregular mob will find himself much mistaken."
In the weeks that followed, Patriot militia poured into Cambridge and the towns surrounding Boston. The British General Gage estimated that he was surrounded by some 15,000 New England Minutemen and an untold number of Patriot sympathizers. The Patriots began to build fortifications on Breed's Hill (not Bunker Hill) on the Charlestown Peninsula across the Charles River from Boston. This was a strategic location, because it enabled Patriot forces to monitor British troop move ments and shell British naval vessels.
On the night of June 16, General Gage ordered a massive frontal assault on Breed's Hill. He knew the importance of the battle. New England had gained confidence from the skirmish at Concord, and Patriot volunteers were streaming into Boston's surrounding towns by the thousands. Gage dispatched British General William Howe, with 2,200 men, as his field commander; Gage himself would oversee the shelling of Patriot fortifications from British ships. Howe's first attempted assault up Breed's Hill failed, leaving his entire front rank destroyed. Howe ordered a second charge. It too was repelled. Howe did, however, take the Hill on the third charge, but at enormous expense. Militiaman Amos Farnsworth wrote a moving account of the battle in his journal:
"Having fired away all [our ammunition and having no reinforcements . . . we were overpowered by numbers and obliged to leave . . . I did not leave the entrenchment until the enemy got in. I then retreated ten or fifteen rods. Then I received a wound in my right arm, the ball going through a little below my elbow, breaking the little sheilbone. Another ball struck my back, taking a piece of skin about as big as a penny. But I got to Cambridge that night. .. O, the goodness of God in preserving my life, although they fell on my right hand and on my left! O may this act of deliverance of Thine, O God, lead me never to distrust Thee; but may I ever trust in Thee and put my confidence in no arm of flesh."
The British had taken the Hill, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. As General Henry Clinton remarked, "another such would have ruined us." The British had lost 1,150 men out of 2,500 engaged, while the Americans lost 400, out of 1,500 who fought. General Howe had watched the scene in horror. One British regular described the battle from his perspective: "As we approached, an incessant stream of fire poured from rebel lines. It seemed a continuous sheet of fire for barely 30 minutes." The Battle of Bunker Hill, as it came to be called, was a military and symbolic disaster for the British because it signaled that New England could defend itself; instilled all the North American colonies with a feeling of unity and patriotic pride; and gave the illustrious men deliberating at the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia the courage to take up arms.
As one militiaman wrote a few months later: "The whole series of divine dispensations, from the infant days of our fathers in America are big with importance in her favor, and point to something great and good. If we look ‘round the world, and view the nations with their various connections, interests and dependencies, we shall see innumerable causes at work in favor of this growing country. Nature and Art seem to labor, and as it were, travail in birth to bring forth some glorious events that will astonish mankind and form a bright era in the annals of time."
In other words, more than economics and duties on tea were at stake here. The major reason these men took up the fight against the great British empire was their steadfast belief that they were an intricate part of God's plan. Religious conviction gave them the strength needed to persevere in the seven-year war for American independence.
New England's fierce spirit of independence, derived chiefly from its dissenting Protestant heritage, was responsible for pressing events forward. "It must not be forgotten," writes historian Alice Baldwin in her book The New England Clergy and the American Revolution, " ... that the source of greatest authority and the one most commonly used was the Bible," which to the New Englander, was "a sacred book, infallible, God's will for man." Of necessity, writes Baldwin, "it colored his political thinking. His conception of God, of God's law, and of God's relation to man determined to a large extent his conception of human law and of man's relation to his fellows. If his ideas of government were in part derived from other sources, they were strengthened and sanctioned by Holy Writ." As John Adams noted, "Honor and obedience to good rulers and spirited opposition to bad ones" was a central tenet of the New England Way.
Burke, in his 1775 speech on "reconciliation with the colonies," predicted that America's pervasive dissenting Protestant creed would prove an insurmountable barrier to London asserting its will over the colonies. "Everyone knows," said Burke, "that the Roman Catholic religion is at least co-equal with most of the governments where it prevails, that it has generally gone hand in hand with them, and received great favor and every kind of support from authority. The Church of England, too, was formed from her cradle under the nursing care of regular government. But the dissenting interests have sprung up in direct opposition to the ordinary powers of the world, and could justify that opposition only on a strong claim to natural liberty. Their very existence depended on the powerful and unremitted assertion of that claim. All Protestantism, even the most cold and passive, is a sort of dissent. But the religion most prevalent in our northern colonies is a refinement on the principle of resistance: it is the dissidence of dissent, and the Protestantism of the Protestant religion."
Thus, when the Second Continental Congress gathered on May 10, 1775, the War for Independence was already well under way on the Eastern Seaboard. Many of the delegates had hoped to restore harmony between America and the mother country, but to do so would be to desert the Patriot Army, which had succeeded in blockading General Gage's forces. There was also the amazing news that two small bands of irregular troops, one led by Benedict Arnold and commissioned by Massachusetts, and the other group (83 Green Mountain Boys) led by the frontiersman Ethan Allen, had captured the British Fort Ticonderoga in early May. This victory provided the colonies with strategic control of an important route between Canada and New York. Moreover, John Hancock had arrived from the seat of war in order to preside as President of the Congress. Meanwhile, news came in that the British planned to strengthen the army, rebuild the navy, and devote all of England's attention and power to suppressing the revolt around Boston. No longer could this be a mere conference of delegates. The Second Continental Congress had to transform itself into an actual governing body with executive war powers. It voted to issue paper money and to meet British encroachments with force. What was needed, however, was a leader, someone who could transform a part-time militia of farmers, merchants, and preachers into a disciplined army.
John Adams proposed George Washington as the obvious choice. Washington was still remembered and revered for his exploits 20 years earlier in the French and Indian War. He was also a Southerner, and thus could help cement a union between North and South. Many Southerners, especially Episcopalians, viewed the conflict as essentially regional, involving New England's religious zealots and mother England. Washington's nomination broadened the war and the cause to include all the colonies.
But Washington was the reluctant warrior, and had slipped out of the convention hall, hoping his name would be overlooked. Twenty years earlier, he might have welcomed the opportunity for military glory. But he was happy in private life. When he heard that he might be made Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, he urged his friends at the Congress to block the move. On June 15, he was unanimously selected to lead America into war. He said he would accept the command only on the condition that Congress appoint and fund chaplains for his troops, which Congress promptly did. He then accepted this "momentous duty," but warned his fellow countrymen: "With utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with." He refused financial compensation. The New England Patriots eagerly awaited the arrival of the legend.
Washington was an Anglican, a member of the established English Church, and was, in fact, a vestryman. But he was also revered by the strictest of New England Congregationalists. In many respects, he was the ultimate Protestant hero. He had many of the qualities of Oliver Cromwell, John Winthrop, and WiHiam Bradford, the great Protestant figures of Anglo-American history. Washington epitomized the Protestant virtues of self-discipline, of will triumphing over the passions. Washington, as a youth, had a violent temper. But as an adult, he never lost self-control, fearing that, if he did, he might easily kill someone, so powerful was his frame. Washington had a preference for republican (really Protestant) simplicity. "Modesty marks every line and feature on his face," wrote Abigail Adams of Washington. He was a Protestant, though, who had been shaped by Virginia's culture, and reflected many of the Anglican virtues without its vices. He was definitely a committed and believing Christian, but not a wild-eyed Separatist like Roger Williams. Unlike a George Whitefield or Jonathan Edwards, he preferred a more private religious life. He cared perhaps more about duty than theology, about living the Christian life than speculation. Washington does not seem to have had the kind of emotional, almost violent, conversion experience the Puritans believed so important. It was his composure, his equanimity in the face of setbacks, his selfless commitment to public service - all of which are archetype Protestant virtues -for which Americans admire him most.
Historians have avoided discussing Washington's religious life, in part because of bias and in part because Washington himself did not discuss it much. He believed in the necessity of a public religion, in the general acceptance of basic biblical tenets. "It is impossible to govern rightly without God and the Bible," he said. But he also believed that faith was primarily a matter between the individual and his Maker, which in itself is a very Protestant belief. Jesus tells us: "But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you" (Matt. 6:6).
That Washington was a devout Christian can be seen by looking at his private prayer book, 24 pages in length and writ-ten in his own handwriting. He titled the little book Daily Sacrifice. He called his first entry, very simply, "Sunday Morning," which reads as follows:
Almighty God, and most merciful Father, who didst command the children of Israel to offer a daily sacrifice to Thee, that thereby they might glorify and praise Thee for Thy protection both night and day . . . I beseech Thee, my sins, remove them from Thy presence, as far as the east is from the west, and accept of me for the merits of Thy Son Jesus Christ . . . Let my heart, therefore, gracious God, be so affected with the glory and majesty of (Thine honor) that I may not do mine own works, but wait on Thee . . . As Thou wouldst hear me calling upon Thee in my prayers, so give me grace to hear Thee calling on me in Thy word, that it may be wisdom, righteousness, reconciliation and peace to the saving of my soul in the day of the Lord Jesus.
In his Sunday evening entry, he wrote the following:
O most glorious God, in Jesus Christ . I acknowledge and confess my faults, in the weak and imperfect performance of the duties of this day. I have called on Thee for pardon and forgiveness of sins, but so coldly and carelessly that my prayers are become my sin and stand in need of pardon. I have heard Thy holy word, but with such deadness of spirit that I have been an unprofitable and forgetful hearer . . . Let me live according to those holy rules which Thou hast this day prescribed in Thy holy word . . . Direct me to the true object, Jesus Christ the way, the truth and the life. Bless, O Lord, all the people of this land.
His other morning and evening prayers, each assigned a specific day, contained such invocations as: "Direct my thoughts, words and work, wash away my sins in the immaculate Blood of the Lamb"; "daily frame me more and more in the likeness of Thy Son Jesus Christ"; "look down from Heaven in pity and compassion upon me Thy servant, who humbly prostrate myself before Thee, sensible of Thy mercy"; and "be merciful to all those afflicted with Thy cross or calamity, bless all my friends, forgive my enemies and accept my thanksgiving this evening for all the mercies and favors afforded me." To Washington, God was not merely some distant celestial clock-maker indifferently watching His creation wind down. He was a personal God, who died on the Cross for sinners (such as Washington). Washington's God cared about people, watched over the faithful, and played an active role in world events. America's greatest hero and first President was no deist, but a devout, Bible-believing Christian. "I am but dust," Washington wrote, "and remit my transgressions, negligences and ignorances, and cover them all with the absolute obedience of Thy dear Son... Thou gavest Thy Son to die for me; and Thou hast given me assurance of salvation, upon my repentance and sincerely endeavoring to conform my life to His holy precepts and example."
When Washington took command of the Continental Army at Cambridge on July 2, he immediately sent out an order forbidding "profane swearing, cursing and drunkenness. And in like manner," the order stated, "he [Washington] requires and expects of all officers and soldiers, not engaged in actual duty, a punctual attendance of Divine services, to implore the blessing of Heaven upon the means used for our safety and defense."
Washington was pleased that the 15,000 men encamped around Boston were eager to fight, but was appalled by their utter lack of discipline. Washington stayed at the home of the Reverend William Emerson, from where he issued the day's orders following mandatory morning prayers. One of those orders reiterated the requirement that all officers and soldiers attend divine service and added that a national fast day of July 20 would be "religiously observed by the forces under his command, exactly in the manner directed by the Continental Congress." Moreover, said Washington's order, "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." Governor Jonathan Trumbull of Connecticut, a defector to the Patriot cause, welcomed Washington's arrival in a letter: "Now, therefore, be strong and very courageous," wrote Trumbull. "May the God of the armies of Israel shower down the blessings of his Divine Providence on you; give you wisdom and fortitude; cover your head in the day of battle and danger; add success; convince your enemies of their mistaken measures . . . " On December 3, 1775, George Washington raised the new American flag on a hill near Boston. It contained 13 stripes, signifying the union of the 13 colonies. The British Union Jack was displayed in the upper left hand corner, but would be replaced with stars in June 1777.
In February 1776, Washington spoke publicly, for the first time, of possibly severing all political ties with Britain. "If nothing. .. could satisfy a tyrant and his diabolical ministry, we are determined to shake off all connections with a state so unjust and unnatural," he told the Continental Congress. Around this time Washington saw an opportunity to deliver a major military defeat to the British by taking Dorchester Heights, a bluff overlooking British-held Boston, much like Breed's Hill. From Dorchester Heights, the Patriots could shell the British. The problem was, Washington had no cannons or sufficient powder with which to bombard Boston once the Patriots occupied the hill.
It then occurred to Washington that heavy artillery had been captured by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold at Fort Ticonderoga. Henry Knox, a chubby bookseller from Boston who would become Washington's artillery commander, oversaw the transport of some 50 cannons and heavy guns to Cambridge. The task was extremely difficult. Knox moved them hundreds of miles up and down hills and across rivers on sleds. One cannon fell through the ice, but Knox through enormous effort and ingenuity retrieved the piece. The completion of this almost impossible but vital job, without once complaining, made the 250-pound Knox Washington's favorite officer.
During the night of March 4,1776, Washington moved 3,000 men to the base of Dorchester Heights, a very risky operation because the location was in full view of British forces. But, suddenly, a low mist rolled in, in perfect time to conceal Patriot movements, while at the same time leaving the top of the hill perfectly clear, fully lighted by a bright moon, thus aiding the Patriots who were building fortifications. Boston and the red coats remained shrouded in fog throughout the night, and so could not see what was happening. In addition, a breeze blew noises made by Patriot engineers away from British ears. As the Reverend William Gordon put it, "everyone knew his place and business." At three in the morning, work was completed. The 3,000 builders departed, and 3,000 fresh soldiers moved in. At dawn, the British looked upon the Patriot fortifications with amazement. Captain Charles Stuart wrote that the guns appeared "like magic." Another officer put the blame on "the genie belonging to Aladdin's wonderful lamp." The rebels have "done more in one night than my whole army would have done in months," said British General William Howe.
Howe desperately wanted to attack Dorchester Heights, now teeming with soldiers and cannons. He made hasty preparations, but, according to historian J. T. Flexner, "the sky suddenly blackened with what soldiers on both sides considered the most awesome storm they had ever seen." The winds were of hurricane strength, making a British attack impossible. Americans continued to work through the storm, and, when the sky cleared, Patriot fortifications were such as to convince Howe that an attack on Dorchester would be suicidal. Two weeks later, the Patriots fortified and armed Nobs Hill, making Boston untenable for the British. Completely humiliated, Howe elected to evacuate. The Patriots heard that Howe planned to burn Boston to the ground before he left. Washington informed Howe that he could depart unmolested so long as the city remained unharmed. With help from the weather, Washington was able to retake Boston without shedding any blood. He called the storm "a remark-able interposition of Providence." And Timothy Newell, a Boston selectman, agreed, writing in a journal entry of March 17: "Thus was this unhappy distressed town through a manifest interposition of Divine Providence relieved from a set of men whose unparalleled wickedness, profanity, debauchery and cruelty is inexpressible." When Washington's troops marched into Boston, amid much cheering and fanfare, they saw that the Old South Church had been desecrated, turned into a riding school for British cavalry. This underscored the conviction of many Patriots that they were fighting not only for political freedom; they were also fighting for God.
The signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, was really just an official ratification of what had already occurred. On May 10, town meetings all over Massachusetts had already declared independence. Five days later, Virginia declared independence. Moreover, the British ministry had decided to hire German mercenaries to use against the colonists, in part because the war was so unpopular among the general population in England. Whigs in Parliament-such as Pitt and Burke-were aghast at the use of Prussian mercenaries. Not only had George III and his Tory supporters in Parliament ignored every reasoned plea by the colonists to allow them to govern themselves, but he had hired foreigners, whose values were directly opposed to liberty, to do England's fighting.
While the war continued to escalate, a number of independent governments began to take shape in the various colonies. The royal governors were virtually powerless even by the time of Lexington and Concord. But after hostilities commenced, the Committees of Correspondence had gone a long way toward establishing their own governments, with executive powers, including the authority to tax and recruit soldiers. With the loyalty of the population moving to the Patriots, the authority of the royal government was rapidly fading. Governor Martin of North Carolina fled to a British warship, and others soon followed. Governor Trumbull of Connecticut switched sides, and was given a leadership position in the Revolution. Massachusetts reestablished its government according to the old charter. Soon other states were busy writing their own constitutions.
Long before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the colonies had passed the point of no return. George III would not accept reunification under the terms demanded by the colonists, which included complete autonomy within the empire. "What profit is there in that?" was England's question. The answer was, "plenty," but the King and his ministers were too shortsighted to understand that freedom is beneficial to everyone. Many in the Continental Congress were very apprehensive about total separation and pushed for reconciliation. But events had overtaken such sentiments.
Thomas Paine's famous pamphlet Common Sense, published in 1776, made the case for independence even plainer: "Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one." "Everything that is right or reasonable pleads for separation. The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, ‘TIS TIME TO PART. Even the great distance at which the Almighty hath placed England and America is strong and natural proof that the authority of the one over the other was never the design of Heaven."
In its first three months, Paine's pamphlet sold 120,000 copies. Read and reread copies, frayed and tattered, were passed from hand to hand. An estimated 1 miflion Americans had read it by the time the Declaration of Independence had been signed. Paine himself was no model human being. He was drunk much of the time, careless in financial matters, and disrespectful of authority to an extreme. But his tract was a brilliant piece of agitprop: "O Ye that love mankind," Paine rhapsodized. "Ye that dare oppose not only the tyranny but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the Old World is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted ‘round the globe. Asia and Africa have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind!" Paine, the man, had many flaws. But he had written the most successful political pamphlet in history.
On June 7, 1776, Virginia's Richard Henry Lee finally proposed a motion that the United Colonies declare themselves free and independent states. John Adams seconded the motion. And on June 11, Congress appointed a committee of five to prepare the formal declaration: Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, John Adams, Robert Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson. Because Jefferson was the best writer, he wrote the first draft. Alterations, though, were made by Adams, Franklin, and the Congress.
The Declaration of Independence contained nothing new: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men. . . " These ideas had been expounded in thousands of sermons throughout America. For as the Apostle Paul told the Galatians: "The Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother . . . So then, brethren, we are not children of a bondwoman, but of the free woman" (vv. 4:26,31). The power of the Declaration was that it was not novel. It was a political document that sought to build a political consensus by demonstrating that the British government had egregiously threatened the liberty, morality, and religion all Americans cherished. The colonists were supposed to read this document and immediately agree.
Not surprisingly, then, the document was heavily laden with religious references, though not so blatantly as to cause division between the various Christian sects. Government, they believed, was an instrument of God, established for the protection of the individual (His most valued creation) from men with evil aspirations. The Reverend Phillips Payson, in a sermon before the House of Representatives of Massachusetts Bay in May 1778, articulated this point well: "The qualities of a good ruler," he said, "may be estimated from the nature of a free government. Power being a delegation, and all delegated power being in its nature subordinate and limited, hence rulers are but trustees, and government a trust. . . A state and its inhabitants thus circumstanced in respect to government, principle, morals, capacity, union and rulers, make up the most striking portrait, the liveliest emblem of the Jerusalem that is above."
The purpose of government, according to the Reverend Payson, was to duplicate on earth (so much as man's fallen nature would permit) the condition of liberty that exists in Heaven. As the Reverend Jonathan Mayhew put it in his autobiography: "Having learnt from the Holy Scriptures that wise, brave and virtuous men were always friends to liberty - that God gave the Israelites a king in His anger, because they had not the sense and virtue enough to like a free commonwealth1 - and ‘where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty'2 - this made me conclude that freedom was a great blessing." Indeed, this is exactly the view presented in the Declaration of Independence. A careful examination of the Declaration reveak its strong biblical roots. In chapter eight of Deuteronomy, one of the books in the Old Testament most frequently quoted by American colonists, we read the following admonition: "Therefore, you shall keep the commandments of the Lord your God, to walk in His ways and to fear Him. For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing forth in valleys and hills; a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey; a land where you shall eat food without scarcity, in which you shall not lack anything... "(vv. 6-9).
The Americans saw themselves in just such a land. They viewed themselves as the new Israelites and George III as the modern-day pharaoh. In the minds of the colonists, it was their Christian responsibility to separate themselves from the corrupt British government. "Do not be bound together with unbelievers," Paul warned the Christians at Corinth. "For what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness?" (2 Cor. 6:14). In obedience to this command, the Declaration states, in one of the most majestic phrases ever written by a human hand: "When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."
We find, in the Old Testament, God leading His people, the Israelites, out of bondage, just as Bradford, Winthrop, and their Christian followers had fled the Stuart tyranny. Pharaoh's yoke inhibited the Israelites from keeping God's commandments, just as the Puritans believed the English Church was an impediment to the true Christian faith. In a long catalogue of abuses, the Declaration made a case for why the Americans could no longer live under such a corrupt, dissolute, and tyrannical regime:
"The history of the present king of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an abs&ute tyranny over these states. . .He has refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good... He has dissolved representative houses repeatedly . . . He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected . . . He has obstructed the administration of justice. . . He has made judges dependent on his will alone . . . He has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither a swarm of officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance. He has kept among us, in times of peace, standing armies, without the consent of our legislatures. He has affected to render the military independent of' and superior to, the civil power. He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution and unacknowledged by our laws. . . He has abdicated government here, by declaring us out of his protection and waging war against us. He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people. He is at this time transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries to complete the work of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the head of a civilized nation. . .In every stage of these oppressions we have petitioned for redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injuries. A prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant is unfit to be the ruler of a free people. . ."
In the American mind, England's government had be come a tyranny and her church a harlot. Dissolution of all political ties between the two nations was not only justified, it was mandated by the laws of nature and nature's God: "We therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions. . . solemnly publish and declare that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states . . . And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our for-tunes and our sacred honor."
"Supreme Judge of the world," "the protection of Divine Providence," and "sacred honor" were not empty phrases in the minds of the signers. Jefferson and the U.S. Congress were very much concerned that their cause was right with God. "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that His justice cannot sleep forever," said Jefferson. These Americans had read how God, after freeing Israel from bondage in Egypt, punished them for failing to keep His laws. Chapter eight of the Book of Deuteronomy concludes with the following warning, appropriate for free people in all ages:
"When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you. Beware lest you forget the Lord your God, by not keeping His commandments and His ordinances and His statutes which I am commanding you today; lest, when you have eaten and are satisfled, and have built good homes and have lived in them, and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold multiply, and all you have multiplies, then your heart becomes proud, and you forget the Lord your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. He led you through the great and terrible wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water; He brought water for you out of the rock of flint. In the wilderness He fed you manna which your fathers did not know, that He might humble you and that He might test you, to do good for you in the end. Otherwise, you may say in your heart, ‘My power and the strength of my hand made me this wealth.' But you shall remember the Lord your God, for it is He who is giving you power to make wealth, that He may confirm His covenant which He swore to your fathers, as it is this day . . . if you ever forget the Lord your God, and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I testify against you today that you shall surely perish. Like the nations the Lord makes to perish before you, so you shall perish; because you would not listen to the voice of the Lord your God" (vv. 10-20).
The Americans were very familiar with the plight of the Israelites, who failed to keep God's laws even though they were His favored people. The Declaration continuously calls on God, the "Creator," the "Supreme Judge of the World," to approve of their separation. We fled from Pharaoh, the colonists seemed to be saying, but what happens when Pharaoh follows? God answered that question in the Old Testament at the Red Sea, when He destroyed Egypt's army. The Americans responded with revolution. They knew they too would need miracles such as occurred at the Red Sea if they were to have any hope of freeing themselves from George III and his imperial army. The Americans had already seen one such miracle at Dorchester Heights, and there would be others.
It is very useful to lay out the Book of Deuteronomy, particularly chapter eight, alongside a copy of the Declaration of Independence. The parallels and the obvious connection between the two documents are startling. America was very concerned about the righteousness of its cause, not only in the eyes of the rest of the world, but also, and more importantly, in the eyes of God. Abraham Keteltas, a Presbyterian minister, told his Newburyport congregation in 1777 that the War for Independence had become "the cause of truth against error and falsehood the cause of pure and undefiled religion against bigotry, superstition and human inventions . . . In short, it is the cause of Heaven against Hell - of the kind Parent of the Universe against the Prince of Darkness and the destroyer of the human race." Another Presbyterian, Robert Smith, spoke of "the cause of America as the cause of Christ."
The Declaration is also filled with Locke's language, as well as his political ideas. As such, many historians have called it a product of the Enlightenment, because some have tried to claim Locke as a pillar of the Enlightenment. But Locke's ideas, as we have seen, are biblically based. His background and education were dissenting Protestant. He was himself a devout Christian. Locke's notions about government have their foundation in the Scriptures. The Declaration has been called a revolutionary document. But its power came from its affirmation of truths long established. This point was made well in a popular song of the American Revolution:
Let tyrants shake their iron rod,
And slavery clank her galling chains.
We fear them not, we trust in God.
New England's God forever reigns.
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Published by the Christian Defense Fund.
© Copyright 1997 by the Christian Defense Fund. All rights reserved.
© Copyright 1988, Benjamin Hart