Declaration of Christian Freedom at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church     

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster Presbyterian Church

On the day before the national celebration of the freedom obtained by American Independence, Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church instead celebrated Christian freedom.[1]

This was the message delivered by Rev. Dr. Sarah Henrich, Minister of Adult Education and Visitation, in her sermon, ‘What Kind of Freedom Does Faith Proclaim?” Its Biblical foundation was Galatians 5:1, 13-16, 22-25 (NRSV):

  • “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
  • “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”
  • “Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.”
  • “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.”

Rev. Henrich opened her sermon by remembering that archaeologists had just “let the world know that they found the tunnel dug in 1944 outside of Vilnius Lithuania by Jewish prisoners in order to escape the evil in which they were trapped. 100 feet dug with bare hands and spoons. Such a desperate drive for freedom.” She also recalled that in July of 1776 the American Declaration of Independence was immediately printed and posted up and down the east coast of the colonies.

“I wonder if St. Paul wished for a printing press right around the corner in Galatia millennia earlier. His short letter to a little group of Jesus followers would have fallen harshly on many local ears. Let freedom ring, he says. How warmly welcomed is that claim to freedom when sung out by some minority group? Yet Paul insists, “For freedom Christ has set you free.” And that conviction, that powerful conviction has also come down through the ages to us.”

“Two strong claims to freedom shape us. The overlap of the word freedom in our foundational scripture as Christians and in the America’s founding document has often led us to think that both freedoms are the same. Freedom from the unjust practices of imperial England and freedom from the legalism of ancient Jewish life. But not exactly.”

“What kind of freedom do Christians proclaim? Paul writes about a different kind of freedom. True, he wants to assert that being part of God’s covenant people does not require taking on practices of a pre-Christ age. More important to his little church, though, is the belief they are all free, free to live the good life. No matter their status…slave or free, male or female…empowered to live a good life.”

“That sounds a little like our constitutional right to the pursuit of happiness, but again Paul had something quite different in mind. These new believers, he declared, were freed by the Spirit’s power to live a life of goodness, of depth, of peace. The good life was to be a life of goodness with God’s love as plumb line, to borrow a phrase. Freedom is for something bigger than my pursuits . . . it is for life lived in love of God and neighbor.”

“Paul defines the good life for new believers by what folks do. They bear one another’s burdens and they take responsibility for their own lives. This is where’s Christian freedom is not simply American freedom.” (Emphasis in original.)

“Has there ever been a time in the world when we were more aware of our interconnectedness? Despite a deep international desire to build walls around ourselves right now as protection from dangers that crop up around us, despite our yearning for a safe place to live the good live, we know with every fiber of our being that we can’t. We can’t live a good life by disconnecting. Our freedom is not freedom to live in safe and splendid isolation from all that causes us grief or fear. We are only free to be the village that raises the children, respects older citizens and attends to everyone in between. To live the good/godly life. We experience and we are to be that village as we gather around the table. Come, just come. As you are to receive in this company the blessing of God’s presence.” (Emphasis in original.)

“This isn’t the pursuit of happiness as we usually think of it–friends, family, a home, freedom of worship, the ability to pursue our own dreams. Paul is writing to those early believers about freedom to live by standards other than those of the world around them. I think those Jewish prisoners, commandeered to burn or bury their own as they were killed by the Nazis in 1944, they would understand. Freedom to get out, to tell the story of evil, to call the world to hear. Freedom to help each other for God’s sake…freedom to live. They bore the burdens of each other’s lives, a spoonful at a time.” (Emphasis in original.)

“It was Sunday morning at another table just a few weeks back where I learned something about bearing each other’s burdens. At 6:15 am, my brother-in-law drank coffee and talked about a new book he was reading. Now, you have to understand. This man was raised as a Quaker, is a smart, edgy agnostic. And he loves moving fast–from the delivery truck he drove in high school to the motorcycle he zips around on as a grandpa. And he watched his beloved Dad slow down with Parkinson’s disease until he finally stopped. Now watching my sister go through the same thing.”

“Suddenly he needed a response. ‘I’ve read Matthew,’ he said, ‘in the New Testament. So what’s the gospel? What?’ I waited, hoping he’d answer his own question. But no, this one was for me. ‘The gospel—it’s that the reign of God is at hand, right at hand and it’s for all God’s people” [I said.] ‘Right’ he shouted. ‘That’s it. Right now, Living is to love, God and your neighbor, whoever.’ I’ve never come to God’s table with my brother-in-law in church, but God came to that kitchen table where the two of us sat. The energy freely to embrace a life of care – it was there.”

“I don’t know how, but my speed-loving brother-in-law knew that he was free to live the good life/the God and gospel life by slowing down to walk with those he loves. Whatever it took, whatever it takes – he’s free to do it, to give it. What kind of freedom do Christians and all led by God’s spirit proclaim? What kind of freedom do we live? The freedom to love God and others as we learn to love ourselves, recognizing the village God has already created us to be. The freedom to tell THIS story to a world yearning for walled in happiness. Even if we do it slowly, a spoonful at a time.”

Conclusion

Yes, the central Christian message for me is to love God with all your heart, mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself! It is not complicated to say. And we are free to live our lives in joyful fulfillment of this instruction. Yet it is not always easy to do. We all too often fail to satisfy this great commandment. By God’s grace we are forgiven—time and time again—when we fall short.

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[1] The bulletin and the text of the sermon for this service are available online. The Prayer of Confession for this service was set forth in a prior post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Caveats to Celebration of the American Declaration of Independence

United_States_Declaration_of_IndependenceJuly 4, 1776, is a treasured date in American history with the Continental Congress’ adoption of the Declaration of Independence. It stirringly says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The creation and adoption of this document deserves the annual celebration it receives in the United States of America and around the world.

There, however, should be caveats to that celebration.

First, as others have pointed out, the Declaration did not condemn slavery which is not surprising since there were many slaves in the colonies.

Moreover, as Robert G. Parkinson, Assistant Professor of History at Binghamton University, argues, the failure to condemn slavery was no accident.[1]

First, the draft of the Declaration by Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner himself, contained an attack on King George III for imposing slavery on the colonists, but those words were deleted in the final document by the Continental Congress.

Second, the Declaration’s lengthy bill of particulars against the King that justified the colonists’ declaration of independence ended with these words:

  • “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.” (Emphasis added.)

According to Parkinson, “in the context of the 18th century, ‘domestic insurrections’ refers to rebellious slaves.” This provision in the bill of particulars was inserted, says Parkinson, “because in the 15 months between the Battles of Lexington and Concord and independence, reports about the role African-Americans and Indians would play in the coming conflict was the most widely discussed news. And British officials all over North America did seek the aid of slaves and Indians to quell the rebellion.”[2]

Important in this “inciting” of “domestic insurrections” was the November 14, 1775, proclamation by the Royal Governor of the Colony of Virginia offering freedom to slaves who would leave their masters and join the British side. Although only an estimated 800 slaves immediately joined the British in Virginia as a result of this Proclamation, eventually as many as 30,000 slaves throughout the colonies did so and worked as soldiers, laborers, pilots, cooks, and musicians for the British.[3]

After the end of the American Revolutionary War in 1783, the British evacuated all of their personnel from Manhattan plus 3,000 former black slaves or Black Loyalists who were listed in “The Book of Negroes.”[4]

Parkinson’s fascinating article has created another project for me: reading his book, “The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution” (2016); re-reading Pauline Maier’s book, “American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence” (1997); and writing blog posts to summarize the results of this and other additional research.

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[1] Parkinson, Did a Fear of Slave Revolts Drive American Independence?, N.Y. Times (July 4, 2016).

[2] The Fate of Black British Loyalists in the American Revolutionary War, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 19, 2013).

[3] Ibid.

[4] The American Revolutionary War’s End in New York City, 1783, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 14, 2012); The Fate of Black British Loyalists in the American Revolutionary War, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 19, 2013). The historical “Book of Negroes” became an inspiration for a novel with the same name (in Canada (but “Someone Knows My Name” in the U.S.) by Canadian author, Lawrence Hill. (The Black British Loyalists Through the Eyes of Novelist Lawrence Hill, dwkcommentaries.com Feb. 21, 2013): Further Reflections on “The Book of Negroes” Novel, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 23, 2013).)

The American Revolutionary War, 1775-1783

The American Revolutionary War with Great Britain started on April 19, 1775, with fighting in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, which will be summarized in a future post. Hostilities ended six years later with the surrender of British General Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia on October 19, 1781. The formal end of the war was concluded another two years later with the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783.[1]

John Brown, my maternal sixth great-grandfather, had five sons, all of whom fought for the Americans in that war. The four eldest–John, Perley (my maternal fifth great-grandfather), Benjamin and William–fought in the early Siege of Boston and the Battle of Bunker Hill, which will be the subjects of future posts.  Perley, Benjamin and William also fought in the Battle for New York, which will be discussed in another post. (The youngest son, Daniel, joined the war for six months in 1780.)[2]

In the first fifteen months of the war, the colonists’ objective was redressing grievances, not independence.  Indeed, the Second Continental Congress on July 6, 1775, adopted the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms that stated, “we mean not to dissolve that union which has so long and so happily subsisted between us, and which we sincerely wish to see restored.” The document concluded with this statement:

  • “With an humble confidence in the mercies of the supreme and impartial Judge and Ruler of the Universe, we most devoutly implore his divine goodness to protect us happily through this great conflict, to dispose our adversaries to reconciliation on reasonable terms, and thereby to relieve the Empire from the calamities of civil war.”

The Declaration of Causes and Necessity also reiterated many of the points made in the First Continental Congress’ Declaration and Resolves of September 1774. The new Declaration continued, “We are reduced to the alternative of choosing an unconditional submission to the tyranny of irritated Ministers, or resistance by force. The latter is our choice. We have counted the cost of this contest, and find nothing so dreadful as voluntary slavery. Honour [sp], justice, and humanity, forbid us tamely to surrender that freedom which we received from our gallant ancestors, and which our innocent posterity have [sic] a right to receive from us. We cannot endure the infamy and guilt of resigning succeeding generations to that wretchedness which inevitably awaits them, if we basely entail hereditary bondage upon them.”

This American plea for reconciliation fell on deaf ears. The British Parliament instead in late 1775  adopted the American Prohibitory Act that stated that “all manner of (the American colonies’) trade and commerce is and shall be prohibited;” that any ships found trading “shall be forfeited to his Majesty, as if the same were the ships and effects of open enemies;” and that “for the encouragement of the officers and seamen of his Majesty’s ships of war” that “seamen, marines, and soldiers on board shall have the sole interest and property of all ships, vessels, goods and merchandise, which they shall seize and take.” The Prohibitory Act was a de facto declaration of war by Great Britain as the blockade it imposed was an act of war under the law of nations.

A copy of the American Prohibitory Act, however, did not reach the colonies until February 1776 and was a final precipitating cause of the American decision to seek independence from Great Britain.

Accordingly on July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress adopted, 12-0 with one abstention (New York), a short Resolution of Independence that stated that “these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”

Two days later, July 4, 1776, the Congress unanimously adopted the now famous American Declaration of Independence. Before reciting the specific complaints against Great Britain, it starts with these amazing and earth-shaking words:

  • “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
  • “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect [sic]their Safety and Happiness. . . .  when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
Treaty of Paris by John Jay, John Adams,
Benjamin Franklin, Henry Laurens & William Temple Franklkin (Benjamin West, painter)

Seven years later (September 1783) the war for American independence was formally ended with the Treaty of Paris. In its Article 1 the British Monarch “acknowledges the said United States, viz., New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, to be free sovereign and independent states, that he treats with them as such, and for himself, his heirs, and successors, relinquishes all claims to the government, propriety, and territorial rights of the same and every part thereof.” In addition, its Article 7 stated, “There shall be a firm and perpetual peace between his Brittanic Majesty and the said states, and between the subjects of the one and the citizens of the other, wherefore all hostilities both by sea and land shall from henceforth cease.”


[1] E.g., T. Harry Williams, Richard N. Current & Frenk Freidel, A History of the United States [To 1876], Ch. 7 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1959); Henry Steele Commager & Richard B. Morris, The Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants, Chs. Three through Thirty-Three (New York: Harper & Row, 1967).

[2] Carol Willits Brown, William Brown–English Immigrant of Hatfield and Leicester, Massachusetts, and His Descendants c. 1669-1994 at 7-8, 11-12, 17-25, 31-32, 50, 308-10 (Gateway Press; Baltimore, MD 1994).