By Karen Wingate
Join any July 4 celebration in the United States and you’ll soon hear the words freedom and liberty. Yet in our current culture it’s easy to wonder what kind of freedom the men who drafted the Declaration of Independence had in mind. Freedom to do what? Freedom from what?
The Pilgrims, the U.S. founding fathers, and the leaders of the Restoration Movement all sought one specific type of freedom. For centuries an ecclesiastical church corrupted by greed and power had imposed manmade rules and unbiblical forms of worship on believers. The early settlers of the American frontier wanted to make their own choices of how to worship God and conduct their lives according to biblical teaching. These three groups tried to orchestrate change from within, challenging the existing church to return to a faith more in line with biblical authority. All three had to take the courageous stand to separate from the establishment in order to obtain religious liberty for all.
A Religious Quest
For centuries, church and state were inseparable. The state ruler was the head of the church or deferred to the Catholic Pope. Church rules and rituals carried the same weight as laws handed down by the government. Church directives were equal to or greater than scriptural authority.
Luther’s Reformation and the Pietist Movement of the late sixteenth century opened the door for believers to embrace a personal religion saved through faith rather than by birth in a particular country or by works and empty rituals prescribed by the church. The Puritans, a British group evolving from the Pietist Movement, pushed for reform in the Anglican Church of Great Britain but encountered a backlash of suspicion, oppression, and persecution. They fled to Holland, a country known for greater tolerance of minority religious groups. Unfortunately Holland provided poor economic conditions and, of greater concern, a licentious lifestyle that parents feared would undermine their children’s faith. They set out to the New World in 1620, determined to flee the rule of the state church, provide a safe spiritual environment for their children, and establish the gospel message in the new land.
Their decision was not without sacrifice. Nearly half died in the first year. Yet their daring move set the stage for other immigrants seeking to worship God as they chose.
Freedom in the New World
Groups fleeing persecution in Europe had to find new ways to organize both church and government. They discovered the idea of an ecclesiastical church wasn’t practical in the vast lands of the New World. The 13 colonies became a patchwork of religious groups all seeking refuge from tyrannical governments. Congregationalists dominated the Northeast while Anglicans settled in the South. Maryland was the first to establish true religious liberty, allowing any church to exist within their boundaries. William Penn, leader of the Quakers, believed that various Christian groups could live together in harmony if they were religiously free, so he invited a number of splinter groups from Germany to immigrate to Pennsylvania.
The quest for freedom went beyond the conflict of church and state. Distressed over the corruption in the government and the church, American patriots sought to create a constitution complete with a checks and balances system that guaranteed citizens the freedom to make their own choices. According to James North in his church history classic, From Pentecost to Present, they believed in “man’s basic ability to understand his own situation and make his own decisions.”
American founders considered it essential to base the new government on a moral code, specifically the principles found in the Bible. In a letter to Hezekiah Niles, John Adams wrote: “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 obligation. . . . This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.”
Imagine a government telling you how to worship God and how to practice your faith in Christ. How might you feel if you knew those demands were implicitly contrary to what you read in the Bible? That is what the designers of the Constitution wanted to guard against. They wanted to give citizens freedom to worship God according to God’s laws, not according to an institution bloated with power and greed.
A Simple Faith
The search for religious liberty was not finished. The Constitution allowed all groups to worship God as they chose apart from government rule. Yet the structure of church government and creeds still restricted believers from following God as they saw outlined in the Bible. Bishops governed their denominations like political hierarchies. Human rules determined who was saved, who was a church member, who was eligible to take Holy Communion, and where a minister could preach.
A church governed from a handful at the top simply didn’t work in a country as large as the U.S. Settlers in outlying areas could only be married, baptized, or buried by a minister from their denomination, meaning they might have to wait a mighty long time before the next circuit riding preacher of their particular denomination came through. Godly men and women could go years without taking the Lord’s Supper because they didn’t belong to the church of whoever was currently in town. The independent mindset of the Western Frontier was eager to embrace the practices of congregational rule and individual faith.
People in separate parts of the country became convicted of the need to return the church to the framework of the New Testament, emphasizing congregational rule and salvation based on an adult decision to believe and be baptized. Barton Stone, Thomas Campbell, Alexander Campbell, and William Guirey tried to influence their respective denominational leaders to follow the New Testament pattern. When they met with opposition, they established their own congregations, calling themselves Christians only and determining to “speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent.”
Search for Freedom
Twenty-first century Christians face a similar challenge in the quest for religious liberty. Charles Colson, in God and Government, stated, “In God’s provision, the state is not to seize authority over ecclesiastical or spiritual matters, nor is the church to seek authority over political matters. Yet the constant temptation of each is to encroach upon the other. Governments, with rare exceptions, seek to expand their power beyond the mandate to restrain evil, preserve order, and promote justice.”
We see this happening in America today. The civil government has made decisions that are at times hostile to religious choices made by people who seek to put God first in faith and practice.
How do we retain our religious liberty? I suggest in the same way the Pilgrims, founding fathers, and Restoration Movement leaders did. First, we need to articulate the issues. Have we allowed others to dictate how we worship, structure church leadership, or practice our faith?
We then need to choose our battles, graciously working for change from within. If opposing forces give us an ultimatum of adhering to immoral laws or suffering the consequences, we need to have the courage to put God first. As patriots of early American history discovered, restricting how others worship and obey God is the greatest form of tyranny. God has created us to decide for ourselves how to worship him, not to make that decision for others, especially when it is based on convenience, greed, or lust for power.
The Pilgrims, founding fathers, and leaders of the Restoration Movement saw the need to pursue God as individuals, each person responsible for their own relationship with God. They set an example of courage, stepping away from systems that forced them to live contrary to God’s principles. We can do the same.
Karen Wingate is a writer, blogger, and Bible study leader in Roseville, Illinois (graceonparade.com).