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The Great Awakening spawned a generation of bold and zealous preachers who preached the whole counsel of God.  These revivalist preachers and their disciples filled the pulpits and continued the spiritual rebirth for years. In those days, before the government’s restriction against political speech in non-profit organizations, clergy often addressed current events, elections, and political issues in their sermons.  They believed that faith should influence and shape all aspects of life whether as an individual, family, community, or nation.  Just like their Puritan ancestors, they wed politics and religion together, but unlike their Puritan ancestors, they didn’t mandate conformity to their political beliefs, they used the pulpits to persuade their people toward policies built on scripture.  Pulpits rang with sermons promoting liberty, and opposing unjust treatment of the colonists by the Crown.

“The Black Robed Regiment” was the name the British placed on the courageous and patriotic American clergy during the founding era (a back-handed reference to the robes they wore).  Significantly, the British blamed the Black Robed Regiment for American independence, and rightfully so, for modern historians have noted that “there is not a right asserted in the Declaration of Independence which had not been discussed by the New England clergy before 1763.”[1]

Even before the Great Awakening, great thinkers like Rev. John Wise was preaching in 1687 concepts so clearly enunciated in the Declaration of Independence some 80 years later that you’d think he was reading from it.

John Wise

Wise was also tall, muscular and a formidable wrestler. The story is told that later in life he was challenged to a wrestling match by Andover’s champion wrestler, Capt. John Chandler. Wise tried to beg off, pleading that he was too old and infirm, but he was finally goaded into it for sport. So in the makeshift ring, Captain Chandler grappled with the elderly Wise. The preacher promptly threw the reigning wrestling champion completely over his front wall. Chandler got up, shook himself off and announced he would be on his way as soon as the preacher threw his horse over after him.

In 1687, he grappled with the royal governor of New England, Sir Edmund Andros, because of a tax Andros had levied at the command of King James II without the consent of the legislative body. In pulpit and town council, Wise sounded the alarm and blasted Andros’ scheme, warning of encroaching British tyranny. Two contemporaries wrote commending Wise’s efforts: “All our Watchmen were not asleep, nor the camp of Christ surprised and taken, before they had Warning.”

Wise stirred up his fellow townspeople in revolt against the tax. As a result, Governor Andros had Wise arrested because Wise refused to submit on biblical grounds to what he considered to be the unjust demands of the government. Governor Andros brought Wise before royalist judges and a crown-friendly jury. Wise so infuriated them with his defense that they threatened to sell him as a slave. The pastor was suspended from his ministry and fined. But that did not stop him from preaching against tyranny and in favor of liberty.

One year later, Governor Andros was deposed and Wise was vindicated. In 1710, Wise wrote “The Churches Quarrel Espoused.” He followed that with his masterwork in 1717, “A Vindication of the Government of New England Churches” in which he dealt with the basis of both religious and civil government.

What Wise said was so forward-thinking and so appropriate to the time leading up to the Revolution that when his books were reprinted in 1772, they quickly sold out and were reprinted again. In these works, Wise demonstrated from the Bible that:

— God created all men equal and every man must be acknowledged by the state as equal to every man.

— The end of all good government is to promote the happiness of all and the good of every man in all his rights: his life, liberty, estate, honor, etc.

— The consent of the governed is the only legitimate basis for government.

— Taxation without representation is tyranny.

Christian clergy largely defined America’s unique political theory and even defended it in military combat, but they were also leaders in the national legislative councils in order to help implement what they had conceived and birthed.

In addition to the Great Awakening’s preachers’ direct influence on government policy, they also purified the culture of the nation.  Now not everyone was saved nor even professed agreement with a church or denomination, but everyone recognized the wisdom and authority of the Bible, understood Judeo-Christian ethics, knew the stories of the Old Testament, and were acquainted with the teachings of Christ. Even nominal American Christians were biblically literate and expected to attend church.  The Bible was the main textbook in schools. Colleges were founded primarily for the purpose of training men for ministry.

The heroes of the revolutionary generation were raised in this environment.  All of them, simply by coming of age in this time period, were manifestations of it. It shaped their character, beliefs, and ethics.  They, in return, shaped a newly conceived nation.

Popular scholarship seeks to downplay the Christian faith of the founders, calling them “deists.”  The evidence paints a far different picture of devout, godly men, seeking God’s help and thanking Him for victories and wisdom during the revolutionary years.

Before we examine the great works of the Founding Fathers in the formation of our country, let’s look at some of the unsung heroes who filled them with the ideas that led them to their great works.

Back to John Wise, who, in his 1717 treatise, A Vindication of the Government of New-England Churches, said, “A democracy is a form of government which the light of nature does highly value, and often directs [people] toward, as most agreeable to the just and natural prerogative of human beings …”  In other words, man’s natural state is that of freedom, not bondage, citizen, not subject, partner in government, not child to be governed, and pointed out that democracy is most consistent with the way we’re built by God.

In 1759 Samuel Langdon in a sermon said that a government which had a constitution agreeable to the laws of nature, serving the ends of society, securing the life, liberty, and property of the people was … “conformable to the perfect pattern of (God’s) dominion.” Again, the government practice should be consistent with the “laws of nature.”

In 1713, John Buckley in an Election Sermon said that rulers must not be arbitrary, but rather, “labour to imitate the Divine Government; which is manag’d by fixed and steady Rules … Its not in the Power of Rulers to make what Laws they please, Suspend, Abrogate or Disanul them at pleasure … as for mens Civil Rights, as Life, Liberty, Estate, etc… God has not Subjected these to the Will & Pleasure of Rulers, They may not Enact any Laws to the Prejudice of them, nor Disanul such Laws of the State as tend to Secure these Interests … Tis already Determin’d in the Divine Law that the Enjoyment of them be free & undistrub’d and Rulers may not make any Determinations repugnant here to: Or, if they do they are of no force. No Law of the civil Magistrate can bind in Opposition to the Divine.”

John Davenport:  Preached an Election Day sermon in 1699 and said, “the law of Nature is God’s law” both sacred and legally binding.  He, like others in his day, believed there was a divine covenant between man and God that was fixed, sacred and unbreakable; from that covenant flowed the general principles of justice and equity and from the general principles flowed man’s “natural rights.” They believed that these rights had been planted deep in men’s hearts by God and “written as with a pen of iron and the point of a diamond.”

Rev. Jonathan Mayhew: Born at Martha’s Vineyard in 1720, Mayhew bitterly opposed the Stamp Act, and urged the necessity of colonial union (or communion) to secure colonial liberties. He was famous, in part, for his 1750 and 1754 election sermons espousing American rights — the cause of liberty and the right and duty to resist tyranny.

The climax of his influence came from his “Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission,” a sermon delivered on the 100th anniversary of the execution of Charles I in 1750. Taking vigorous issue with recent efforts to portray Charles as a martyred monarch, Mayhew told a different story.  He demonstrated that English liberties (freedom) was the norm stretching back to antiquity. The English constitution, he asserted, “is originally and essentially free.” Roman sources, such as the reliable Tacitus, made it clear that “the ancient Britons … were extremely jealous of their liberties.” England’s monarchs originally held their throne “solely by grant of parliament,” so the ancient English kings ruled “by the voluntary consent of the people.” After forty pages of such historical discourse, Mayhew reached his major point: the essential rightness of the execution of an English king when he too greatly infringed upon British liberties.  Mayhew also wrote, in this same sermon, “When once magistrates act contrary to their office and … cease to be the ordinance and ministers of God… (it is obligatory) to disobey … in cases of very great and general oppression, when humble remonstrances (pleas for overturning) fail of having any effect; and when the public welfare cannot be otherwise provided for and secured, to rise unanimously even against the sovereign himself, in order to redress their grievances; to vindicate their natural and legal rights; … to free themselves and posterity from inglorious servitude and ruin.”

The vigor of Mayhew’s sermon established his reputation. It was published not only in Boston, but also in London in 1752 and again in 1767. In Boston, John Adams remembered long afterward that Mayhew’s sermon, “was read by everybody.” Some would say later that this sermon was the first volley of the American Revolution, setting forth the intellectual and scriptural justification for rebellion against the Crown.

Pastor Samuel West was born on March 3, 1729 in Yarmouth, the son of physician Sackfield West, the future reverend worked on the family farm for most of his youth, taking time out to be tutored for college by his father’s friend, local minister Joseph Green. Samuel West graduated from Harvard College in 1754, a classmate of young John Hancock, an ardent patriot, and future governor. West felt a calling to the ministry, and began preaching at the First Congregational Church in Plymouth.  volunteered to serve as chaplain to the local men who had joined the new Continental Army right after the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775.  During the early days of the War, he broke a code used by a colonial spy and the spy was caught, jailed, exiled, and eventually lost at sea.

Rev. West eventually returned home from the siege of Boston to resume his pastoral duties. He returned to the city in May of 1776 to deliver an “election day sermon” to the Massachusetts Council and House of Representatives, affirming the right of Christian men to resist tyrannical rulers, even to the point of armed rebellion to protect their God-given rights.

Later, he would help John Adams and others draft the first state constitution, and serve as a delegate to the federal Constitutional Convention, using his considerable intellectual skills to help shape the future of both our state and the new nation.

James Cogswell, in a 1757 sermon to an artillery company under Captain Israel Putnam, said, “… When our Liberty is invaded and struck at, ‘tis sufficient Reason for our making War for the Defence or Recovery of it. Liberty is one of the most sacred and [inalterable] Privileges Mankind enjoy; … what Comfort can a Man take in Life when at the Disposal of a despotic and arbitrary Tyrant, who has no other but his Will: … To live is to be free: Therefore Violence threaten us with the loss of so dear a Blessing, ‘tis Time to rouze, and defend our undoubted and invaluable Privileges … When our Religion is in danger … it will warrant our Engaging in War … Religion is a treasure never to be parted with … we fight for our Properties, our Liberties, our Religion, our Lives…”

On March 8, 1775, Oliver Noble delivered a sermon commemorating the Boston Massacre in which he assured his listeners that, “the Cause of AMERICA … is the cause of GOD, never did Man struggle in a greater, or more glorious CAUSE.”

Rev. John Peter Muhlenberg is perhaps the most iconic figure associated with the Black Robe Regiment. A Virginia minister, (Woodstock) Muhlenberg accepted a commission to lead a regiment of the Continental army.  While preaching a stirring message from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 to his congregation in his usual clerical robes, he striped them off to reveal his military uniform underneath, a dramatic appeal for men to join the Patriot struggle. Muhlenberg served as an officer in the Continental Army throughout the war and commanded a brigade at the Battle of Yorktown. But Muhlenberg’s literal participation in the war’s fighting was highly unusual for clergymen. Far more common was the rhetorical support for independence ministers offered regularly from their pulpits.

The Minutemen were simply church laymen, led by Rev. Jonas Clark who conducted military drills to prepare for the impending attacks of the British.  On April 19th, 1775, British regulars from Boston marched inland to seize a cache’ of arms and powder from secret patriot storage in Concord. They were also under orders to arrest Patriot leaders Samuel Adams and John Hancock who were staying overnight in Lexington. When Paul Revere set off on his famous ride, it was to the home of the Rev. Jonas Clark in Lexington that he rode. Patriot leaders John Hancock and Samuel Adams were lodging (as they often did) with the Rev. Clark. After learning of the approaching British forces, Hancock and Adams turned to Pastor Clark and inquired of him whether the people were ready to fight. Clark unhesitatingly replied, “I have trained them for this very hour!” The Patriot “Minute Men” formed on Lexington Green with Rev. Clark at their head while Adams and Hancock took refuge in a nearby marsh. At sunrise the two sides opposed each other, a shot rang out, and eight Minute Men laid dead on the green. It was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “shot heard round the world”, the first shot fired for American independence.

These were the men, the ministers, the patriots who infused a generation with the spirit, soul and biblical justification for liberty and independence.  John Adams rejoiced that “the pulpits have thundered” and specifically identified several ministers as being among the “characters the most conspicuous, the most ardent, and influential” in the “awakening and a revival of American principles and feelings” that led to American independence. [2]

[1] Alice M. Baldwin, The New England Clergy and the American Revolution (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1958), p. 170.

[2] John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Charles Francis Adams, editor (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1850), Vol. X, p. 284, to Hezekiah Niles, February 13, 1818. See also John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Charles Francis Adams, editor (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1856), Vol. X, pp. 271-272, letter to William Wirt, January 5, 1818.