Five religious facts of 1776
by Daniel Ausbun, First Baptist Church, Moreland
Yesterday we celebrated the 238th anniversary of the Continental Congress unanimously declaring the 13 American colonies’ independence from Great Britain.
Congress was, “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions” the Declaration of Independence declares. The “Supreme Judge” is a reference to God in America’s most important document. What caused this important document and what religious events led up to it?
Many of the colonies had organized their government and their trade as best suited for them, and not as best suited the interests of Britain.
In the latter part of the 18th century, the British government began seeking more direct rule of the colonies, and the latter reacted vigorously against this encroachment by royal authorities. Relations between the American colonies and the British Empire had been deteriorating. There were three factors that precipitated the Revolutionary War.
First, the British quartered 17 regiments in the colonies. Since their defense did not require such military strength, the colonists felt justified in seeing the army as an instrument of repression.
Second, taxes were a constant point of friction. Colonists didn’t appreciate having taxes levied against them while having no representation in the Parliament. The monarch decided the colonies should pay the expenses of government—including the cost of keeping the hated regiments on the field—and to that end decreed a series of taxes.
Third, there were conflicts over Indian lands. British authorities decreed that there would be no more white occupation of areas beyond the Appalachians. This was an unpopular law in the colonies, where poor colonists hoped to establish a homestead in lands now forbidden, and wealthy colonists had formed companies for the colonization of forbidden Indian lands.
It wasn’t well received that rulers in London were making laws for people in North Carolina not to cross into Tennessee.
For these reasons, tension grew between the colonies and Great Britain. Stricter laws evoked greater defiance. In 1770, British troops fired on a crowd in Boston – known as the Boston Massacre, and five people were killed. Faced with the threat of these troops now considered foreign, the colonial militia became more active and built up its arsenals, the militia offered resistance, and thus began the War of Independence.
On July 4, 1776, more than a year after the hostilities had begun, delegates of the thirteen colonies gathered in a Continental Congress in Philadelphia to proclaim their independence from Britain.
Here are five religious facts leading up and occurring during the founding of our country.
First, in 1776 only one out of five New Englanders had a religious affiliation. The lack of affiliation does not necessarily mean that most were irreligious – some were, but it does mean that their faith lacked organized influence. For example, being “Christian” was more important than being “Baptist.”
Second, in 1776 Congregationalists had the most churches in the colonies. A Congregational church is one that is self-governing. They autonomously run their own affairs.
Third, South Carolina was the most religious colony while Vermont was the least religious.
Fourth, the First Great Awakening was concluding – leading up to the Declaration of Independence. The Great Awakening was led by Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley and George Whitfield. Wesley and Whitfield introduced the idea of an itinerant evangelist. As people gathered in common places, preachers would preach on elevated platforms.
The sermons from these men were a change from the boring theology lectures being offered in colonial churches. Instead, there were passionate messages calling listeners to repentance.
Fifth, itinerant evangelism launched Baptists and Methodists. Revivals and church planting exploded these two denominations. By 1800, one-third of America was Methodist. The growth of the Methodist church from 1760-1800 is truly amazing. Before 1776 the three main denominations were Congregationalists, Episcopalians and Presbyterians.
By 1800, the two main denominations were Baptists and Methodists.
Our country was birthed during a time of religious and political change. This freedom our veterans have died for. It is one still worth fighting for today.