Published in Mustard Seed Sentinal on August 24, 2019
America is split today—nearly rivaling the separation of our Civil War. In fact, famous journalist Carl Bernstein describes the American state of discord as a “cold civil war.” Figurative battle lines are drawn. America’s conversation with herself has become a shouting match—much like a nasty divorce. Two ideologies vie for hearts and minds. We seem to be a far cry from the days of our founding. But those days were marked with shouting too.
Developing a Constitution unlike anything the world had ever seen before involved shouting, a lot of shouting. It was a battle that Eric Metaxas calls “vicious”. But ultimately, the Constitution came to be because the founders shared the common ground of “faith, virtue, and liberty.”
Before the Constitution, settlers arrived on these shores looking for the liberty to practice faith and virtue. America was where exiles came to escape persecution for rejecting established doctrines. Yet the country was a picture of separation.
Pennsylvania’s founder was a Quaker. Maryland’s congregations were Catholic. Georgia hosted Brethren communities. This nation was founded upon religious freedom, but that meant freedom in specific places for specific denominations. It was freedom for some but not for all.
The first Christian Orthodox convert in Colonial America was Philip Ludwell III, a grandson of the first governor of the Carolinas and a cousin to Martha Washington. Ludwell received permission from the Holy Synod in Russia to worship with Anglicans in Virginia since there was no Orthodox priest on the continent and because at the time “apart from the Province of Pennsylvania, all religions but Protestantism [were] banned.”Christians of various traditions came, seeking refuge, opportunity, and freedom. Some, especially Catholics, found yet more persecution.
Even so, the large continent favored diverse belief within Christendom. And as Benjamin Franklin is reported to have said, “We must hang together; else we shall most assuredly hang separately.” A clear understanding of a greater enemy—the tyranny of Great Britain—unified these men.
Arguments rage on today as to who of the founders were truly Christians and to what degree they affirmed their faith, but, they “were nearly unanimous concerning biblical morality.” Almost all were self-described Christians.
Most were Protestant; Charles Carroll, delegate from Maryland, was the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence.
The signers pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. And signing the document proved very costly for most of them. Carroll, the richest of the signers, had much material wealth to lose, but in a different sense, he had more to gain.
Originally founded as a Catholic refuge, Maryland’s population eventually became predominantly Protestant, and the Protestant majority disenfranchised Maryland Catholics. In an independent and more religiously tolerant America, Maryland Catholics would enjoy equal standing as citizens and be free from a state established Protestant church.
The mix of men who fashioned the moral foundation for the most exceptional nation in history ensured true freedom of religion. Foundational to the city on a hill America would become—the haven that still draws the “huddled masses, yearning to be free”—the Great Awakening produced a flood of social movements such as William Wilberforce’s anti-slavery efforts in England and later endeavors in America.
In the late 1700s, Wilberforce was a young, ambitious member of the British Parliament when he committed his life to Christ. Because of him, “Even though slavery continues to exist here and there, the idea that it is good is dead” (Metaxas, Amazing Grace). We cannot adequately appreciate how much the anti-slavery effort in England altered the mindset of the world.
In Amazing Grace, his biography of Wilberforce, Metaxas reminds us not to romanticize the past and view slavery in that time as some sort of aberration—that the times were “particularly brutal, decadent, violent, and vulgar. Slavery was the worst of a host of societal evils that included epidemic alcoholism, child prostitution, [and] child labor,” among others.
It sounds a bit like our world today.
In Wilberforce’s time, slavery provided jobs and income to port cities. Much of the British economy relied on the trade. Uprooting this ingrained evil would be arduous and take years.
Just as the First Great Awakening produced an America ripe to be free from British control, the second one produced an America where ownership of human beings was no longer the law of the land. But the change the Second Great Awakening produced did not end with the issue of slavery.
Other reforms from that period produced in both England and America included many causes that Wilberforce and his contemporaries in Great Britain and America championed: child labor laws, workplace protections for employees, prison reform, and laws to prohibit abortion.
It was the Second Great Awakening that prompted America to outlaw abortion in the first place.
Efforts to end slavery in England and America were interdenominational. These social revolutions weren’t the result of savvy political strategy. They came from the living Christian faith of these awakened people.
Their love for their neighbors spawned the laws they produced. The laws reflected their culture.
Two hundred and forty years ago, a Congress of men assembled, yelled at each other, and crafted a Constitution unimaginable through history.
America is divided today, but in a different way from the way we were divided when we began.
Our law reflects our culture too. In some places, like Alabama, legislators and governors pull out all stops to protect the unborn. In other states like New York, the unborn (and sometimes the already born) are inconveniences to be disregarded and discarded.
Supreme Court decisions like Roe v. Wade (and Doe v. Bolton, Roe’s companion case) did not take into account any regional disagreements over the sanctity of unborn life. Just as Obergefell v. Hodges disregarded the views of those who hold that marriage by definition must involve one man and one woman.
Western Civilization has rounded the bend toward decline before. Awakening came and the people returned to God. Reprieves come. But faithlessness returns. And we have no guarantees that reprieve will come again. How to pray?
That people would return to God.
That our faithfulness would manifest itself in love for each other, love for our enemies, and love for our perceived enemies–those who disagree with us, those who are different from us. That we would reject presumption, assumption, and pride.
That we would embrace gratitude and reject entitlement.
That believers would dismiss our petty differences and come together in accord and love for Christ, His Church, and those in need.
That we would be people of integrity, seeking peace, justice, and freedom for all.
That we would deserve leaders with integrity who pursue peace, justice, and freedom for all.
That we would seek God and find our purpose in serving Him. That we would reject pleasure for pleasure’s sake. And seek the kind of happiness that comes from showing kindness and generosity.
That family members would each seek good for the other and not just themselves. And that through seeking good for others, they might find a truer good themselves. A better good.
That neighbors would love neighbors. Overlook faults. Meet needs. Encourage each other.
Rejoice with those who rejoice. And mourn with those who mourn.
That communities would remember history. That they would mourn the bad and celebrate the good. Yet remember it all. For in forgetting, the bad comes once again.
And that nations would honor God. That they would care for their weakest members and call the strong to duty and responsibility.
Let’s pray that we shine light. That we honor God in all our dealings. That we do what he asked.
Love Him, love our neighbors, and make disciples.