By Dr. Bradford Sample
On July 4, 1776 the Second Continental Congress adopted Thomas Jefferson’s draft of “The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America” after about one month of writing, review, and debate. Members of Congress did not argue over the philosophy or basic tenets of the document. Among its most powerful and well-remembered phrases are “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.” This sense of both endowed rights and basic equality is why historian Gordon Wood believes the American Revolution to be a radical one – a significant divergence from contemporary thinking about aristocracy and deference.
Much of the reason for the broad acceptance of equality is due to the First Great Awakening – a religious revival of the early-to-mid-1700s. It popularized not only religious beliefs that we would later call Wesleyan, but also political beliefs of natural equality that sprang from the concept that all people are equal under God. Theologians and pastors like William Tennent, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, and George Whitfield spread these concepts throughout the Colonies between the 1720s and 1760s, just in time for ordinary Americans to support a break from Great Britain based on these ideas. While some founders such as Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were Deists, many others were practicing Christians, and their words echoed the sentiments of the common people they inspired.
The Second Great Awakening, which started in the 1790s, deepened these ideals and spread them throughout what is now the Midwest. The public celebrations that heralded Independence Day in the early 19th Century started with prayer, included Sabbath School parades, and featured speakers who touted religious liberty as the cornerstone of American greatness. Daniel Pratt, a prominent Indiana attorney, was one such orator. On July 4, 1836 he noted “God directed our destiny and made us what we are. Let the sons and daughters of America ever cherish the creed of their fathers.” It was the children and grandchildren of Pratt’s generation who fought the Civil War to make the Declaration’s words more meaningful for those in slavery. Christians led the call for abolition and later the Civil Rights movement.
Christian belief in the inherent dignity of every soul because the God of the Universe created them provides the structural support for the Declaration of Independence. Ohio Christian University celebrates the Freedoms that logically flow from such a belief and the Creator God who has provided all of us with a way to be truly free. Happy Independence Day!
Paul Johnson, A History of the American People. NY: Harper-Collins, 1997.
Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.
Folder “1836 – 11/11/1836,” Box 1816-1842, Daniel D. Pratt Papers (1813-1877), L128, Indiana State Library, Indianapolis.
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