Sunday, July 04, 2010

Freedom: A Sermon for Independence Day

On July 2, 1776, John Witherspoon was elected to the second Continental Congress. The Battle of Lexington and Concord had already been fought, as had the battle of Bunker Hill. The Olive Branch Petition, an attempt at brokering peace with the British, had failed, and the way forward for the Congress seemed clear: to declare independence from British rule.

Witherspoon was a part of the New Jersey delegation; at the time he was elected he was the president of a small and struggling college in New Jersey called Princeton. He was also a Presbyterian minister. In fact, he was a passionately evangelical preacher, one who had called for a renewal of his church through a return to the essentials of the faith: salvation through Jesus Christ. In a sermon preached on January 2, 1758, he said the following:

“I shall now conclude my discourse by preaching this Savior to all who hear me, and entreating you in the most earnest manner to believe in Jesus Christ, for “there is no salvation in any other...” [1]

One could hardly find a stronger, more absolute statement of traditional Christian teaching than this. Salvation through Christ, period. And yet, the author of this statement, as a signer of the Declaration of Independence just two days after his election, entered wholeheartedly into a union which specifically prohibited the establishment of religion, any religion, including the Christianity he so zealously professed. The Rev. John Witherspoon, fiery preacher of the gospel as he understood it, was also a fiery proponent of freedom of religion.

“For freedom Christ has set us free,” says Paul in his letter to the Galatians. “Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” [Galatians 5:1]. Much has been made of the Christian faith of the Founders of our nation. In most cases, this is at best a distortion. Many of the great philosopher-statesmen of the Revolution, including John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine and others were not, in fact, Christians, but Deists. Deists affirm that there is a Supreme Being, whom they might even call a Divine Architect. They also affirm that the Supreme Being created the universe and all that is in it, and endowed human beings with both reason and the wherewithal to behave morally. Deists reject, however, anything that claims to reveal the mind or will of God—and that includes scripture or prophecy of any kind. To them, Jesus was a wonderful moral philosopher whose followers got a little carried away.

One might wonder: would Witherspoon find himself on the other side of a divide from his Deist colleagues on the role of religion in public life? Would he advocate that our nation be founded on Christian principles and doctrine? Would he find the US form of government to be lacking because it wasn’t based on the eternal truths as he understood them? No, to all these questions. He said,

“Shall we establish nothing good because we know it cannot be eternal? Shall we live without government because every constitution has its old age and its period? Because we know that we shall die, shall we take no pains to preserve or lengthen our life? Far from it, Sir: it only requires the more watchful attention to settle government upon the best principles and in the wisest manner that it may last as long as the nature of things will admit.” [2]

For Witherspoon, the “best principles and wisest manner” included the guarantee that he should be able to exercise his faith with complete freedom and without the fear of government interference, whether that religion was the religion of the vast majority or of a tiny minority. Freedom is not freedom, if it is freedom for some and not for others. Freedom is not freedom, if our freedom comes at another’s expense. Witherspoon knew this, and that is why he was among the founders who also could not abide the institution of slavery. “It is certainly unlawful to make inroads upon others,” he said, “and take away their liberty by no better right than superior force.” [3] Freedom is not freedom, if it is freedom for me but not for you.

“For freedom Christ has set us free,” Paul reminds us. In the context in which he was writing, Paul was declaring the good news that in Christ, there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but we all are one. The freedoms which both Paul and John Witherspoon spoke and stood for (and lived and died for) are freedoms it is all too easy for us to take for granted. Most of us don’t know what it is like to be persecuted for our faith, though there are those who do. Christians and Jews, Muslims and Buddhists, Native Americans and countless others—each of these groups knows what it is like to be the victim of sectarian violence and killing, depending upon accidents of birth and geography and timing. We are blessed—perhaps we are lucky—to be free from such threats.

But it is not enough to be free from something. Paul reminds us that we are called to use our freedom, that we have to be free for something as well.

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” [Galatians 5:13-14].

Witherspoon knew this. After the battles and the war had ended, after the guns had been laid down, and the smoke from the cannons had cleared, and both sides had buried their honored dead, Witherspoon spoke at a service of Thanksgiving After Peace:

“To promote true religion is the best and most effectual way of making a virtuous and regular people. Love to God and love to man is the substance of religion; when these prevail, civil laws will have little to do…” [4]

Love God. Love one another. As we gather around this table today—and later, as we enjoy our barbecued ribs and S’Mores—it might be good for us to give thanks for our freedom. As we recall the faith into which we have been baptized—and later, as we enjoy a run through the sprinklers or a dip in a pool or a lake—it might be good for us to remember, not just that we are free, but those things for which we have been made free. As we lift our hearts heavenward—whether to ponder the Light of the World or to gaze at the sparkling fireworks with the eyes of a child—it might be good for us to rejoice in our freedom to love God and to love one another. For these things we have been made free. Thanks be to God. Amen.

1. John Witherspoon, “The Absolute Necessity of Salvation Through Christ” (January 2, 1758) in The Works of John Witherspoon, Vol. V (Edinburgh: J. Ogle, 1815) p. 276, 278.
2. Ibid., Vol. IX, "Speech in Congress upon the Confederation," 129.
3. Ibid., “Lectures on Moral Philospophy,” 81.
4. Ibid., Vol. IV, “Sermon Delivered at Public Thanksgiving After Peace,” 265.


Mompriest said...

Love this, the history woven in with the day we celebrate in this country woven in with the scripture and all connected to the heart of the Gospel.

Songbird said...

Mags, this is great. I'm excited to know more about John Witherspoon! We are watching 1776 this afternoon.