Freedom in America: The Unifying Idea

The four cultural migrations out of England that established America and left their indelible cultural stamp upon it were as diverse in their ideas about freedom, liberty and social governance as any four groups of Christians could be.[1] In spite of these differences, the descendants or the actual immigrants of the four migrations unified behind Reformed theological ideas to win independence and establish a workable national government that allowed them to preserve their individual ideas about liberty.

The link between the Reformation and America’s independence can be seen in the concepts used in the Declaration of Independence.  The Reformation established seven significant psychological shifts in society that were incorporated in the declaration and ratified by the Continental Congress. Many people today take these psychological shifts for granted and some even deny their Scriptural origins, but had it not been for the shift in understanding of Scripture caused by the Reformation, the United States would not exist as it does today.

These seven psychological shifts are:

  1. Infallibility of the Pope for infallibility of Scripture
  2. Sovereignty of the King for the Sovereignty of God
  3. Flow of power from God -> State -> Individual for God -> Individual -> State
  4. Centralization for self-government under God
  5. Inequality of class hierarchy for equality of all before God’s Law
  6. Government granted privileges for God given rights
  7. Uniformity for Voluntary Association

Holy Scripture, as read and understood by theologically reformed citizens and parishioners during the Reformation became their foundation of law, so no longer was the Pope’s or a monarch’s word law if it contradicted Scripture. The Reformation allowed people to understand how God truly was sovereign over all things and they no longer were willing to tolerate an earthly king if he usurped God’s role.

The idea of divine right of kings was replaced by the sovereignty of God over kings and from this; people understood authority came from God to government through individuals instead of from God to the people through kings and magistrates.

Theologically reformed people became obedient to God and governed their lives according to His Law and in so doing exchanged centralization of authority and control to self-government under God. Obedience to God’s Law opened their eyes to God given rights and they realized parsimonious government granted privileges often infringed upon their unalienable God given rights.

The Reformation enabled people to see how all men are created equal before the Law of God and they cast off class hierarchy for equality among men.

Finally, their obedience to God empowered them in casting off state sponsored religion to worship God as they understood from Scripture and as a result they exchanged uniformity for voluntary association that eventually enabled them to cast off an oppressive government and choose their own.

The embodiment of the Reformation philosophy in America’s founding document led to the freest nation in the history of the World. We can see many of these psychological exchanges incorporated in the words of the Declaration of Independence. For example, in the words“…and assume among the powers of earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle them,” we see the sovereignty of God over the king, the flow of power from God to individuals to government, and the exchange of uniformity for voluntary association.

In the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” we see the exchange of class hierarchy for equality of all before God’s Law.

In the words, “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” we see the exchange of government granted privileges for God given rights.

In the words, “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” we see the sovereignty of God, the flow of power from God to individuals to government, and the exchange of centralization for self-government under God.

Finally, in the words, “We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intention, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States;” we again see the Sovereignty of God over the king and the flow of power from God to individuals to government.

Some may argue the Reformation officially began in 1517 and had run its course long before the Declaration of Independence in 1776, so that its influence was negligible and that only three of the four migrations out of England were reformed in their theology. Arguments that the Reformation’s influence was negligible and only three of the migrations out of England were reformed in their theology would be somewhat accurate if it had not been for the Great Awakening from 1730-1760.

The Great Awakening was the extraordinary spiritual renewal that swept England and the American Colonies in the eighteenth century. Its fires were stoked in America by people like Jonathan Edwards, Charles and John Wesley and George Whitfield. The effects and intensity of the Great Awakening are best described in Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography when Franklin wrote about Whitfield’s preaching in Philadelphia, “It was wonderful to see the Change soon made in the Manners [behavior] of our Inhabitants; from being thoughtless or indifferent about Religion, it seem’d as if all the World were growing Religious; so that one could not walk thro’ the Town in an Evening without Hearing Psalms sung in different Families of every Street.”

Although, the Great Awakening did not unify the Colonists behind one Protestant denomination, it did unify them in a reformed understanding of Christianity such that even the Anglican descendants from the Cavalier migration became reformed in their comprehension of Scripture.

The Great Awakening also taught the colonists they could successfully confront religious authority on matters of faith.  Since the Church, during that time, was a puppet of the English government with the King of England as its head, it was not much of a mental leap for the colonists to turn their resistance against overbearing Church authority into resistance against overbearing government authority.  After approximately thirty years of the Great Awakening’s influence, they transferred these ideas to the political realm and confronted the King of England for political control of their colonies.

America has devolved a long way from where it started, because it takes more than being born in America to be an American. Americanism is an idea not a genetically transferable right or government granted privilege and it can only be preserved through upholding the predominant beliefs that established America as an independent nation.

Many people today attempt to define Americanism by their personal beliefs and experiences, but the measure for being an American is best defined by those who established the system of government under which everyone who lives in America is now the beneficiary.

The idea that makes an American an American is embodied in the original intent of the US Constitution, it is stated in Washington’s Farewell Address, and it is carried in the hearts of millions of people living in America today. It is the idea of a limited national government in which citizens of each State decide how to organize and run their society to best uphold God’s Law without the interference of the national government or citizens of other States. One does not need to be a reformed theologian to be an American, but they should at least respect the origin of our independence and seek to preserve its principles in our government.

[1] See American Founding Principles, Freedom in America: Our Cultural Heritage, May 22, 2013.


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