Saturday, June 11, 2016

Freedom of Religion, George Whitfield and Founding Fathers-If You Can Keep It

"The founders...had already experienced this religious freedom as part of life in the American colonies." (If You Can Keep It by Eric Metaxas, 35)


How to wrap our minds around such a deep subject as religious freedom? The details are complex. Metaxas lays them out simply and clearly. I thought I'd detail a few points from various books I've read over the years, and in so doing, I thought I'd share. Some historic firsts for religious freedom...

A 1624 Virginia law allowed that..."Not only were religious laws made by the General Assembly rather than a convocation of bishops, but the day-to-day governance of the churches fell to the leading citizens of the various church congregations." (From Tyndale to Madison: How the Death of an English Martyr Led to the American Bill of Rights by Michael Farris, p244-245)

In 1648 "...Lord Baltimore instructed his Catholic colonists not to give offense to Protestants nor make the exercise of their faith too showy an ordeal." (Farris, p270)

In 1682 William Penn founded Pennsylvania as a "holy experiment" with "ecclesiastical liberty." Penn "declared that the people hold the ultimate responsibility for being good." (Farris, 272-273)

However, England ultimately ruled and the plans of Lord Baltimore and William Penn no longer reigned. Even so, "...the two colonies continued to provide a safer haven to dissenters..." (Farris, 273)

"Religious liberty would eventually arise in Virginia but not until a vital form of Christianity was first awakened." (Farris, 251)

In If You Can Keep It, Metaxas devotes an entire chapter retelling the incredible story of George Whitefield. Metaxas not only has a way with words, but he also has a way of telling a story. He brings biographies to life with passion and zeal, which is fitting for a unique individual such as Whitefield. Within the story of Whitefield, Metaxas shares other peoples' stories who met Whitfield...those who were blown away by his preaching...those who overcame obstacles to meet "The Wonder of the Age." I have read many biographies on Whitefield, but with this one I not only learned more, but I was more personally connected. It's how Metaxas writes. I love that.

Bringing another dimension to my experience learning about Whitefield, I might add that my children and I got to meet George Whitefield during an annual event at Colonial Williamsburg. We too, overcame obstacles to meet him on the anniversary of the very day as when Whitefield actually arrived to preach in Williamsburg (December 16, 1739) in the very same church (Bruton Parish) to hear the very same sermon ("What Think Ye of Christ").    

And why is Whitefield so important? Metaxas writes, "It would take three decades of his tireless preaching, but by the time he died in 1770, the colonies would be united in a way that was unthinkable when he arrived, and their people would have so changed their attitudes towards authority and toward monarchy that they would have become a different people than had ever before existed in the world." (83)

Whitefield wrote these words about church government, "I am persuaded that there is no such form of church government prescribed in the book of God as excludes a toleration of all other forms whatsoever." (Farris, 279)

Metaxas also wrote, "Whitefield's success as he traveled throughout the colonies had spawned a host of imitators who themselves set out to preach in the great homiletic vacuum created by his wake." (Metaxas, 110)

One of those men who picked up the torch from Whitefield was a certain Samuel Davies who powerfully influenced Patrick Henry, the firebrand of the American Revolution.

"Davies spoke with uncommon artistry, and Patrick sat in church transfixed." (A Son of Thunder: Patrick Henry and the American Republic by Henry  Mayer, 37)

"While he lived, Samuel Davies never failed to encourage the dissenters to be politically active in defense of their right to worship freely."  (Farris, 291)

"Davies emphasized that peace with men was one of the principal truths of Christianity but also that when an enemy would enslave the 'free-born Mind' and seek to tear away 'your Religion, the pure Religion of Jesus' steaming uncorrupted from the sacred Fountain of the Scriptures', it was time for arms." (Farris, 289)

"Although Samuel Davies never went so far as to campaign for disestablishment and full-blown religious liberty, he 'paved the way.'" (Farris, 290)

"While he lived, Davies never failed to encourage the dissenters to be politically active in defense of their right to worship freely." (Farris, 291)

In 1769 James Madison attended Princeton University where John "Witherspoon's passion for American liberty-religious (to a degree) as well as civil-was undoubtedly translated to his students." (Farris, 309)

"But at a time when he was still young and wondering what his future held, Madison took notice of the outrageous treatment of Virginia dissenters and saw in them a cause worth fighting for." (Farris, 314)

Interestingly, today it is widely understood that the religious liberty later to become the part and parcel of the American experience came not chiefly from Maryland of Pennsylvania or Rhode Island, but from the Anglican stronghold of Virginia...Yet the steadfast conviction in the minds of a few that God alone possesses authority over the human soul was enough to demand respect and shake the establishment forever. The Supreme Court would state three centuries later in the 1983 case Marsh v. Chambers that Virginia took the lead in defining religious rights,' chiefly through the adoption of its Declaration of Rights in 1776. And as John Adams wrote from Massachusetts to Patrick Henry, "We all look up to Virginia for examples." (Farris, 273-274)

James Madison and Patrick Henry were on the committee of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, along with the key writer, George Mason. It was Madison who expanded "religious tolerance" to "religious freedom."

Then follows an entire chapter in Farris' book on the work of Thomas Jefferson and his work for religious freedom. This post is long enough so I hesitate to discourse longer, even though the story is spell-binding. But surely the Founding Fathers understood the need for religious freedom.

Thus the Founding Fathers understood...

"The faith and virtue of the American people made possible the most free nation in the history of the world." (Metaxas, 37)

"...the government cannot force us to be 'good' or 'moral' or 'selfless.'"(Metaxas, 45)

So it's not the role of the government to solve all of our problems through legislation. Some problems cannot be cured through legislation. But they must be attended to nevertheless. And here's the problem: The less the culture attends to these things, the more the government will attend to them and the less freedom there will be.  The greater the role the government plays, the more it crowds out the culture's role, the role of the people-and the true freedom of the people.

The people must guard this freedom, must use it or lose it, as the saying goes. To the extant that we are not using it, we are indeed losing it-and will lose it forever, as the cultural muscles atrophy and atrophy further. (Metaxas, 46)

Metaxas' book is an easy read of complex concepts for all ages, all levels of society. I so appreciate that because that makes this book highly readable for all in our country! I highly recommend this book, available at Amazon! If You Can Keep It hits the bookshelves June 14! You can read more about it at Metaxas' web site.

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