As we celebrate Independence Day, I thought it only proper to recount just a few of the lesser known events that led to our decision to become a nation. What struck me in my research was the depth of spiritual reasoning that our forefathers used as the basis for their separation from England. Many of my thoughts below are my own condensing of a more complete explanation that can be found in a book entitled “The Light and the Glory” by Peter Marshall and David Manuel. Enjoy and Happy Independence Day!
It is impossible for us (nearly 230 years later) to fully appreciate just how radical the words of the Declaration of Independence must have sounded to the generation that formed them. “All men are created equal!” Never before in history had the world actually believed in the equality of man. Certainly not as it pertained to governing nations. All men were mere subjects of the King – a privileged position for a man who sat at the top of an extensive class system that trickled down through society to the lowliest of servants. All things considered, it is truly remarkable how far freedom has come. The freedoms we enjoy today are a direct result of both difficult choices by God fearing men, and the beauty of the gospel granted to us as a gift from God. It was God at work directing the affairs of man to allow for such a land as ours to even exist. God was raising up a nation devoted to freedom. The time and place was right – it would be America.
“One nation under God!” This statement itself is a testament to the equality of man under God. It is a sentiment that is due in great part the working of the Holy Spirit in the Great Awakening of the 1730’s-1740’s. In using men like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield to ignite revival among his people, all of America had now in some measure experienced the Scriptural truths that, IN CHRIST all men were brothers and created equal. Heaven in all its glory was open to all who accepted Jesus, and it didn’t matter what their lot in life was or how rich they were or the impressiveness of their linage. Equality of believers was passionately preached from America’s pulpits and as a result it naturally flowed into civil government as well. The seeds of democracy were being planted in the hearts of men through the preaching of the Word.
Granted, the Pilgrims who came to America knew from the very beginning that they had been called out for a special purpose by God and this mindset was passed down from generation to generation. They treasured the privilege of self-governing autonomy, and took advantage of every right of self regulation that was granted to them by the Crown. (Read the Mayflower Compact) So even though they still paid lip-service to the King, the reality was quite different. They were on their own out here and they knew it – in fact, it was why they had come. The Pilgrims were dependent on God alone to survive and colonize the New World. Never before had God taken a body of Christians and planted them in a land where there was no immediate civil authority. By the guidance of the Holy Spirit alone, they were granted the right to establish their own civil authority and religious practices.
And so, the tradition and spirit of independence was born long before it was fully understood politically. God had put these early Americans into a unique set of circumstances that gave them temporary freedoms nearly a century before England would try to put an end to it. By then a new breed of Americans were in leadership – those who were born in America had never known anything but republican democracy, in its purest town-meeting form. Even then – they lived under the watchful eye of the Crown of England. They did their best not to provoke the Crown into any action which might diminish their precarious autonomy.
It wasn’t until Charles II was warned by his advisers in 1680 that “the ministers were preaching freedom” that things took an ugly turn. The King was drawn to the conclusion that in order to maintain control, he must either regulate the preaching or replace the preachers with Episcopal priests. In 1682 Charles II demanded that the colonists either swear allegiance to the Crown, administer justice in the King’s name, and allow Episcopal clergy to form churches or relinquish its charter. They could not obey, citing that “to surrender their charter would be to give up the ark of the Lord!” In response to their statement, Charles II demanded the return of the charter decreeing in 1683 that they “make a full submission and entire resignation of their charter to his pleasure.”
Things were really heating up.
There was no way the Colony could stand against the greatest military in the world. They were faced with the grim reality that they would either have to give up all that their fathers and grandfathers had lived and died for in founding the Colony or suffer greatly for their resistance. Their conclusion is best summed up by a Puritan by the name of Increase Mather – a man of great faith and leadership.
“To submit and resign their charter would be inconsistent with the main end of our father’s coming to New England…[Although resistance would provoke] great sufferings, [it was] better to suffer than sin. (Hebrews 11:26,27) Let them put their trust in the God of their fathers, which is better than to put confidence in princes. And if they suffer, because they dare not comply with the wills of men against the will of God, they suffer in a good cause and will be accounted martyrs in the next generation, and at the great day.”
He continued by outlining the Scriptural references supporting resistance, recalling the story of Jephthah and Naboth, who refused to give away the inheritance of their fathers, and of David, who wisely chose to fall “into the hands of God, rather than into the hands of men.” If we refuse to submit, argued Mather, we keep ourselves in God’s hands, and who knows what He may do for us? Giving up the Charter would be a sin against God, and who “would dare to be guilty of so great a sin”? They believed wholeheartedly that “Resistance to Tyranny was Obedience to God!” And likened the surrendering of the charter to the Israelites (after all God had done for them to bring them out of Egypt) turning around and inviting Pharaoh to bring his troops into Canaan and put them back under servitude.
The Bible teaches in Galatians 5:1 – “For freedom, Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
The assembly was in tears. The vote not to submit was unanimous and strongly influenced the other towns in the colony to do likewise. The beginnings of revolution were already at hand, and God was moving in the hearts of his people in the midst of it.
Naturally, Charles II was in a rage when he heard the news. He planned to send 5,000 troops to bring the wayward Colony to heel once and for all, and his choice of “Bloody Kirk” the colonel to lead these troops sent shudders through even his own advisers. When Increase Mather heard the reports of the impending army, and notoriously brutal colonel Kirk, he shut himself in his study and spent the day on his knees, in fasting an prayer about the colony’s burdens. He recounts that his heaviness of heart was lifted and replaced with joy. Without any proof, except the inner conviction of his spirit, he knew that God was assuring him of their deliverance. Two months later, word arrived that Charles II had died of apoplexy. His brother James II had succeeded him and the dreaded Kirk would not be coming after all!
James II did send another man to do the job in place of “Bloody Kirk” (Sir Edmund Andros), his orders were to “strike at the heart of the resistance” which had become ingrained in the New England colonists. The Crown recognized that the resistance had begun with their religion and THAT was where it had to be broken. Andros first official act was to order Episcopal services be held.
It was now clear to even the most undiscerning Puritan that passive, docile submission to English rule would mean the re-imposition of the oppressive authority of the Church of England from which God had delivered their forefathers. The struggle wasn’t political, it was spiritual.
So, when does tyranny become tyranny?
By Scripture, it happens when a ruler breaks the commandment of 2 Samuel 23:3 – “He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God.”
By Puritan interpretation, constructed before the first Pilgrim’s and Puritans embarked for America, it is when a ruler knowingly and deliberately contravenes the will of God, thus making it impossible for his subjects to follow that divine will.
By the Magna Carta, which established English common law, it is when a ruler ceases to act under that law and denies his subjects their rights, as guaranteed by that law.
By pronouncement of James I: “A king ceases to be a king, an degenerates to a tyrant as soon as he leaves off to rule according to his laws.”
By Parliamentary interpretation, it is when Englishmen have measures imposed upon them, such as taxation, without their consent or even representation.
By every one of theses definitions, James II’s attitude toward the Colonies was tyrannical. As the Puritans saw it, he was the rebel, for he was using the power of his office, not to serve the people but to oppress them.
God’s hand continued to work in the favor of the Puritans actions. Within a few short years, in 1689, James II was overthrown by William and Mary in the “Glorious Revolution”. Andros was apprehended as he tried to escape capture disguised in women’s clothes. And five weeks later, William and Mary’s “Declaration of Indulgence” arrived returning the colonies rights as freeborn Englishmen. It wasn’t the same freedom they had before, but a valuable lesson had been learned. God was showing favor to America’s cause to stand for spiritual freedom.