John Adams, our second president, was perhaps the most overtly religious of our earliest American politicians.
Regarding the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, approved by the Continental Congress largely through his efforts, Adams had strong feelings, often expressed.
It was actually on July 2, 1776 that the Continental Congress ended debate and approved the resolution originally proposed by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia on June 7 and seconded by Adams:
“Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and by right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved of all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is , and must be, totally dissolved.
In terms of parliamentary procedure, that’s the motion before us. It was approved by the body, and the president asked a five-member committee to draft a more formal statement explaining this dramatic and drastic action. This is how we get the Declaration of Independence, written largely by Thomas Jefferson, with editorial assistance from Adams and Benjamin Franklin. Except that the delegates as a whole debated the draft, removed passages critical of the English people and slavery, and then approved the revised statement on . . . 4th July. Most did not finally sign the official document until a month or more later.
It was the enabling action, however, the motion that created the authority to declare the United States an independent nation, which Adams said was the real cause for celebration, and indeed, action. of thanks. And when the motion passed, later that day, he wrote to his wife Abigail and said:
“The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable time in American history. — I’m led to believe that it will be celebrated, by the following generations, as the great anniversary celebration. It should be commemorated, like the Day of Deliverance, by solemn Acts of Devotion to Almighty God. It should be celebrated with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time on forever.
John Adams, like his cousin Samuel, believed that God was in the movement toward independence. Baptist preachers like David Jones, a key figure in the pioneer colony of Licking County, had been short of pulpits and threatened by loyalist mobs for saying God was engaged and interested in the American experiment toward self-government and respect for (ahem) human rights. (To say “all men” had inalienable rights was a big step for 1776…)
In my own religious tradition, the Irish immigrant Alexander Campbell quickly acquired a certain reverence for the Holy Spirit movement as he saw it around the events of the 1770s on this continent, and in the preaching of the 1810s. and 1820, he always marked the Fourth of July, and when he founded Bethany College, his practice until his death in 1866 was to hold the opening ceremonies until . . . July 4 each year.
Joseph Smith, Jr., who at the same time was to establish The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, made much of the Fourth of July and pointed to the events and records of the founding of that nation as having divine value. the inspiration at work in them. We recently heard a witness in a congressional hearing speak about this belief as a fundamental tenet of his faith, that the Constitution is in its own sense divinely inspired, going back to Smith’s prophetic statements.
Today, congregations and clergy still wrestle with the proper relationship between church and state. For any church to simply celebrate nationalism casually is a step into deep, murky waters. Yet there are events, long after the biblical record, that seem to speak to us today of God’s intentions, of how divine purpose is at work in the world.
When John Adams says “solemn” in his letter to Abigail, he doesn’t mean solemn. It speaks of the legal and civic act of firmly establishing and passing on traditions and understandings, just as we speak today of “celebrating a marriage” in ceremony. John wants us to have fireworks and “shows” and a good time to mark our deliverance in 1776 for every year to come.
At the same time, I think we would all benefit from a few “Devotions to Almighty God” to reflect on how it all worked, from the days of John to ours.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller and preacher in central Ohio; he likes a good show or an illumination as much as the neighbor. Tell him about your bells and bonfires at [email protected], or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.