Monday, July 4, 2011

Should We Devote Ourselves to God on Independence Day?

According to John Adams, the answer to that question would be "yes." John Adams believed that the day Americans celebrate their independence should, among other things, be marked by "solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty." Here is how Adams said Independence Day should be celebrated...
"The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more."
John Adams of course turned out to be wrong about the date of America's birthday. Given all the hard work Adams put into lining up the 12-0 vote (New York abstaining) on July 2, one can't fault him for his preference for that day. Sadly for Mr. Adams, Americans chose to celebrate July 4, the day Congress approved Thomas Jefferson's eloquent handiwork, the Declaration of Independence.

In the minds of some, though, John Adams was also wrong about predicting and urging Americans to worship God on July 4. After all, isn't Independence Day a purely secular holiday? Not according to Mr. Adams. And, I dare say, not according to most of our Founding Fathers.

Certainly with the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the Constitution of the United States (which forbids religious tests), and the First Amendment (with its establishment and free exercise clauses), the dominant consensus of the Founders was shaped in favor of religious freedom. Based on that legacy, it's certainly appropriate for us today to speak out for the rights of people to practice their own faith (or no faith at all). Nevertheless, the Founders would likely contest any assertion that the United States achieved independence purely on its own efforts. And, with respect, so should we. America had help in its struggle for independence. And, no, I'm not referring to the French!

Most Americans would have agreed wholeheartedly with George Washington, who wrote in 1778: "The Hand of providence has been so conspicuous in all this, that he must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith, and more than wicked, that has not gratitude enough to acknowledge his obligations." Washington shared similar sentiments in his 1789 First Inaugural, when he declared: "No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency."

Washington's sentiments regarding Divine Providence and the debt America owed such Providence were very similar to those held by Mr. Adams, which is why he confidently predicted to Abigail that America's Independence would be celebrated not simply by fireworks, but also with "Acts of Devotion to God Almighty."

While I certainly respect the rights of each person reading this to go his or her own way, I intend to take Mr. Adams up on his advice.

6 comments:

Jason Pappas said...

If parades, sports, guns and bonfires are “solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty” count me in ... especially if his cousin Sam is supplying the libations. Happy 4th to all!

Tom Van Dyke said...

Gordon Wood agrees.

http://www.tnr.com/article/politics/91247/july-fourth-declaration-independence-day

Jason Pappas said...

Washington: “The Hand of providence has been so conspicuous in all this ...”

Personally I like it when American Christians say “God is on our side.” It goes back to the Romans, who would credit a military victory to one of the gods. When Constantine included the Christian God as a deity responsible for one of his victories, the Christians were overjoyed. A new muscular Christianity was born.

This cosmic theistic rhetoric has gone out of fashion. I love the scene in Patton requests a prayer for battle! When General Boykin said “my God is bigger than his God” he got an “amen” from me. That's the kind of muscular Christian that protects our nation. I have no problem with such rhetoric.

Brad Hart said...

Loved it, Brian. I've missed you on this site!

Phil "Pinky" Johnson said...

,
So, here it is:
it's certainly appropriate for us today to speak out for the rights of people to practice their own faith (or no faith at all). (My emphasis. Seems reasonable to me.)

Nevertheless, the Founders would likely contest any assertion that the United States achieved independence purely on its own efforts. And, with respect, so should we. America had help in its struggle for independence. And, no, I'm not referring to the French! But, how many would have contributed their success of the Jehovah Bod of the Christian Bible? It seems obvious to me that Founders--like George Washington--used words like providence--so that the audience could apply his own meaning to it whether Trinitarian, Unitarian, or just plain Theist. It was common political speak of the day.
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So, should we be forced to all act according to some denominational "should"?
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I don't think Brian would want that.
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jimmiraybob said...

"...and urging Americans to worship God on July 4."

Just a small technical quibble. Adams was not urging his fellow Americans to do anything. He was expressing a personal moment of exuberance in a July 3, 1776 private letter to his wife, Abigail. To the best of my knowledge he didn't count on the letter to become public in his lifetime.

And technically, at the time, he would have been expressing his hopes for an outcome not yet decided - his fellow rebellious British colonial citizens still had a war to wage and win.