History Reflection for 4th of July: How Prayer Underpinned American Independence
by Stephen Lynch
Prayer played an important role in the American struggle for independence. The First Continental Congress (Sept. 5-Oct. 26, 1774), comprised of delegates from all the colonies except Georgia, met for the first time, in September 1774. In a letter to his wife, John Adams described the spiritual backdrop as the colonies were about to launch the Revolutionary War for independence.
“When the Congress met, Mr. Cushing made a motion that it should be opened with prayer. It was opposed by Mr. Jay of New York and Mr. Rutledge of South Carolina because we were so divided in religious sentiments — some Episcopalians, some Quakers, some Anabaptists, some Presbyterians, and some Congregationalists — that we could not join in the same act of worship.
“Mr. Samuel Adams arose and said that he was no bigot, and could hear a prayer from any gentleman of piety and virtue who was at the same time a friend to his country. He moved that Mr. Duche, an Episcopal clergyman, might read prayers to Congress the next morning. The motion was seconded and passed in the affirmative.”
Adams continued: “Accordingly, next morning the Rev. Duche appeared with his Episcopal vestments and read the 85th Psalm. I never saw a greater effect produced upon an audience. It seemed as if heaven had ordained that psalm to be read on that morning.
“George Washington was kneeling there, alongside him Patrick Henry, James Madison, and John Hancock. By their side there stood, bowed in reverence, the Puritan patriots of New England, who at that moment had reason to believe that an armed soldiery was wasting their humble households. They prayed fervently for America, for Congress, for the Province of Massachusetts Bay, and especially for the town of Boston [whose port had been closed and in which British troops were being quartered.
“And who can realize the emotions with which they turned imploringly to heaven for divine help. It was enough to melt a heart of stone. I saw the tears gush into the eyes of the old, grave, pacifist Quakers of Philadelphia.”
Continental Congress Gave Spiritual Encouragement
Diverse as it was, the spirituality of the First Continental Congress gave the initial spiritual encouragement that was needed on the road to American independence. The First Continental Congress proved to be an inspiring example of the fraternal unity that can come through devout prayer.
On July 4, 1776, the United States claimed independence from Britain, and our democratic republic was born. The Continental Congress adopts the Declaration of Independence without dissent. The Fourth of July is celebrated to mark the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. The United States is truly a diverse nation. Millions have left their homelands to come to the “land of the free” to begin their American Dream.
The quest for liberty began long before the American Colonists declared their independence. The Magna Carta, written in 1215, is generally considered to be the touchstone of liberty upon which later documents are based. It was written in order to try to convince King John of England to give the people certain rights in terms of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
True freedom must be under the rule of law. Only when citizens act in accordance with proper moral character will democracy create a context of justice and peace. Democracy is based on right-heartedness and the sense of the common good. Underpinning the American concept of democracy stands the religious concept of the dignity and equality of human beings in the sight of God. All human beings have basic God-given rights, which demand fundamental responsibility for actions. Rights and respect for others must go hand in hand.
Three Kinds of Freedom
Philosophers distinguish three kinds of freedom. 1) Freedom to do what you must leads to totalitarianism. 2) Freedom to do what you want leads to anarchy. 3) Freedom to do what you ought is true freedom, because it takes into account the common good, as well as the individual good. True freedom demands integrity, responsibility, accountability and appropriate self-restraint. Any nation crippled by law-breaking, violence and uncivilized conduct is not a nation that is truly free.
When Francis Scott Key saw the American flag flying over Fort McHenry, he was thrilled by the sight, and the knowledge that the fort had not fallen. Key wrote some verses on the back of a letter. Later, after the British had withdrawn, Key completed his poem on the defense of Fort McHenry. Within a few days the poem was put to the music of an old English song. Both the new song and the flag became know as The Star-Spangled Banner. Congress made the phrase In God We Trust “the nation’s official motto in 1956, but it probably originated from verse 4 of The Star-Spangled Banner: “And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.'”
Democracy can be a noble vehicle for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness when checks and balances work properly, and when freedom is used responsibly to enhance the common good. The Fourth of July celebrates the signing of the Declaration of Independence. This is an appropriate time to remind ourselves of the final line of the Declaration of Independence: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
— Fr. Stephen, who served as a missionary in Japan for 20 years, lives and works at St. Francis Chapel in Providence, R.I.