Updated: Dec 3, 2022
There are many myths in our culture regarding the beliefs of early America and Christianity. I highly recommend the EpochTV series entitled “The American Story” to learn the inspiring and true story of America’s early years, often in contrast to the narratives we hear today. In episode five, “The Development of the American Mind,” host Timothy Barton, president of WallBuilders, and Jonathan Richie, former assistant director of the American Journey Experience, use historical documents and artifacts to tell the story of how biblical teaching shaped ideas on government and liberty which were eventually expressed in the American Revolution.
The Great Awakening
John Adams, one of the most notable of America’s Founding Fathers and eventually the second president of the United States, wrote tfhat the American Revolution was not simply the war that liberated the colonies from England, but rather, it happened before the war ever took place. “The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people. A change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations.”
Barton and Richie explain how the Great Awakening impacted the hearts and minds of Americans. Through the preaching of influential pastors such as George Whitefield, the seeds of the American Revolution were planted through the shaping of the American mind on topics of liberty and social issues.
Benjamin Franklin, one of the least religious Founding Fathers but very close friends with Whitefield, said the religious fervor was incredible to see among the people during the Great Awakening. Franklin wrote that there was a fundamental change in the thoughts and habits of the people due to Whitefield’s ministry. “From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seemed as if all the world were growing religious.” Franklin wrote that one could not walk through town in the evening without hearing families singing Psalms in their homes.
Whitefield had many influential thoughts that challenged the colonists. One of his most influential sermons was what has since been labeled the “Father Abraham Sermon.” In this sermon, he told of his dream of arriving in heaven to find that there were no Methodists or Wesleyans, or other groups there, simply those that love and obey God. The application of this sermon was the idea that titles and groups should not divide people, but instead, all should be united together as humans. Without this notion of standing united, the 13 colonies would not have been able to unite against and defeat Great Britain years later in the American Revolution.
Thomas Jefferson's design for the Great Seal of the United States of America. One side depicts a biblical scene: the drowning of the Egyptian Pharaoh in the Red Sea with the motto "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God." On the other side, Liberty and Justice support a coat of arms surrounded by the initials of the 13 colonies. (MPI/Getty Images)
But it was not just big-name pastors such as George Whitefield who shaped the minds and hearts of the people. Local pastors from the colonies rose in their communities to teach biblical principles and apply them to relevant social issues of the day.
One such pastor was John Wise. Wise was a pastor in the Massachusetts area in the late 1600s and early 1700s. His sermons contributed significantly to laying the foundations for the Declaration of Independence. In addition to being an impressive athlete and strong spiritual leader, Wise was a very politically engaged pastor. When a British governor of the area began enacting tyrannical policies, Wise led the opposition and ended up in prison. He wrote a book of printed sermons, where many concepts of the American Revolution were first put to words. These concepts included “taxation without representation is tyranny” or “God’s preferred form of government is the consent of the governed” and that all are equal under God. Wise’s words were to reappear later in the Declaration of Independence.
Although Wise’s ministry was decades before the American Revolution, his sermons no doubt shaped and influenced the Founding Fathers. A collection of his sermons were reprinted by a group called “The Sons of Liberty” in 1776, influencing the minds of the Founding Fathers and other colonists on the eve of the American Revolution.
Barton notes that there are thousands of historically printed sermons from this period. Since it was not an easy thing to print back then, if material went to print, it was because there was a demand for it. This indicates the level of influence these sermons had at that time.
Pastors Preaching About Relevant Social Issues
The EpochTV episode highlights one of the significant attributes of the Church during this time in history, which is that pastors were not afraid to speak from the pulpit about relevant cultural issues. They preached about what was happening in society, what the king was saying or doing, and what the Bible had to say about it. These sermons formed the understanding of political oppression and how Christians should respond. They talked about tyranny, slavery, equality of rights, and how religious freedom was the foundation of civil liberty. Many of these concepts oversaw the abolition movement as well.
Simply because these sermons were well known does not mean everyone agreed with them at the time. There were significant disparities in thought on a range of topics. Still, pastors were addressing relevant cultural issues and teaching basic applications from the word of God. Had these pastors not spoken about political and social issues, the mindset on these issues may not have changed, and the American Revolution, the abolition of slavery, and so many other world events may never have happened.
It Started in the Pulpit
Barton and Richie say that nearly every idea expressed in the American Revolution was first preached from the pulpit. Most were taught over a decade before the American Revolution, when families were taking their children to church, learning biblical application to political issues, and shaping the thinking of the next generation.
The EpochTV episode also shows how biblical principles did not just shape religion but also political philosophy, law, and culture. An example is when political philosopher John Locke wrote a rebuttal to an English leader’s defense of the divine right of kings. The leader tried to use the Bible to prove that people had to obey everything the king said because he was God’s king. Locke’s response quoted the Bible thousands of times as he argued for a government formed of the people and by the people. Barton says when it comes to influencing the American mind and thought, the original historical documents show the Bible played that role unquestionably over anything else.
Christians and pastors in America today would do well to follow the example of the early colonies by approaching the issues in our nation through a biblical lens. Over time, perhaps we would see the same positive effects and build up our institutions, families, and society.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Watch the trailer:
Watch the full video:
with EPOCHTV subscription. ($1 for 2 months trial available )