Monday, December 13

Readers Theater

This year I have had the opportunity to enjoy two things I have always wanted to be a part of: a chamber concert and an out-of-town marathon. Now, I get to enjoy a third: a readers theater. This Thursday evening, December 16, at Christ Community Church in Franklin, Bannockburn grad Amy Shore will be producing Christmas Spirit: An Evening of Stories, Songs, and Poems as a benefit for Joanna Grant's mission to Peru. It should be loads of fun. The actors are all wonderful, the scripts are great, the poems are delightful, and rumor has it that the elusive poet Tristan Gylberd will also be there to read some of his work! I can hardly wait! Y'all come, now. Y'hear?


Being new to this whole grandparenting thing, I somehow failed to grasp the supreme importance of figuring out what I ought to be called by my new grandson. Never mind that we are double-digit months away from actually hearing anything like words come out of his mouth--regardless of how stunningly advanced he might turn out to be. It seems that I must name myself right away. Actually, it is probably a sign of moral turpitude that I have yet to give the subject a good deal of anxious thought.

I tried to put a righteous spin on the whole affair: "I'll be content with whatever he decides to call me." Hmm. Nobody bought that one.

Karen and little David's other grandmother have not been so neglectful. They came up with creative names well-ahead of his blessed arrival. I, on the other hand, remain recalcitrant, much to their dismay!

Apparently though, I am not alone. It seems that most new grandfathers are equally focused on other things--like figuring out when the little tyke is ready for his first football, Titans jersey, and season tickets package. The evidence? Well, Karen googled (yes, it is a verb, and a useful verb at that) "grandmother names" the other day just to make absolutely certain that she had chosen her new moniker well. Dozens of sites showed up. Dozens and dozens. This granny naming business is quite a cottage industry. Practically a specialized hobby. Not so for gramps. When she googled "grandfather names" no sites showed up. None. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Zero.

Pretty much tells you everything you need to know, doesn't it?

Faith and Freedom

By 1774, American colonial leaders determined that the violations of their liberties necessitated severing ties with their mother country, Great Britain. Thus, orators like Patrick Henry began to effectively stir the populace and rally the grassroots to the cause of independence. But, they knew that a good deal more than rhetorical bravado was needed; the colonies would have to find experienced military leaders.

Fortunately, there were such men available. Arthur St. Clair of Pennsylvania, for instance, was one of the many experienced military men transplanted from Scotland. He was responsible for organizing the militias in for his own colony, as well as for the colonies of New Jersey and Delaware. His family was forced out of their ancestral Highland homeland after the defeat of the Jacobite forces of Bonnie Prince Charlie at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. He, however, enrolled in the British army to learn the military arts and strategy of his enemy. Coming to America while serving as a Redcoat in the Seven Years War, he chose to stay after the war and settle in one of the Pennsylvania communities established by Scottish immigrants. Detesting the English, he was delighted to be able to assist the colonial militias in establishing an effective defense against his hated British foes.

We must never underestimate the contribution that men like St. Clair made to the successful war effort. But surprisingly, it was the churches of America that provided the most effective field leaders and the strongest recruitment program for the expanding war effort.

In New England, ministers regularly delivered sermons on various occasions that addressed the political affairs of the day. The most common type was the Election Day sermon, which was preached every year in the presence of the governor and the newly elected members of the legislature reminding them of their duties as civil magistrates and the requirement that they act both virtuously and justly in their public office. These sermons were printed and widely distributed amongst the colonies, and had been delivered in Massachusetts and Connecticut since the founding of the colonies. The sermons preached on Election Day were accompanied by several other types of sermons for other events: the Artillery Sermon, which was preached when new militia officers were selected; Thanksgiving Day Sermons, which were delivered on special occasions marking an occasion of particular demonstration of God’s providence in national or international affairs, such as the repeal of the Stamp Act ; the Fast Day Sermon preached in times of calamity and were accompanied by public calls for repentance; and sermons preached annually to commemorate the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

In the years leading up to the War for Independence, the Election Day sermons were the primary vehicle used by the pastors in New England to articulate their political ideals and justify resistance to British oppression. The most famous of these, A Discourse concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers, was delivered by the Boston pastor, Jonathan Mayhew, on the anniversary of the execution of Charles I by the Puritan Parliament for treason. This address laid out the common themes of the Election Day sermons: rulers were to govern for the benefit of all the people, not to themselves; officials were bound by the same laws as other citizens and the requirement to obey God’s laws in the administration of justice; the rights of subjects to appeal to lower magistrates to retrain unlawful activity by government officers were affirmed; and the undeniable right to take up arms when life and liberty were threatened.

In the tumultuous days of 1775, Samuel Langdon, president of Harvard College, delivered a sermon that chastised the British government for trying to force the colonists to submit to their tyrannical rule. “Our King,” Langdon said, “as if impelled by some strange fatality, is resolved to reason with us only by the roar of his cannon, and the printed arguments of muskets and bayonets. Because we refuse submission to the despotic power of a ministerial Parliament, our own sovereign…has given us up to the rage of his ministers.”

The effect of these sermons did not go unnoticed by the British authorities. In 1774, the Governor of Massachusetts denied a request by the colonial assembly to convene a fast day, because he said it would only afford an opportunity for “sedition to flow from the pulpits.”

But religious motive for taking up arms was not limited to New England. In Pennsylvania, Virginia and the Carolinas, both the Presbyterians and the Baptists were taking up the cause of freedom. Angered by the Quebec Act, which gave the Roman Catholics in Canada the religious freedoms that they were denied in their own colonies, the dissenting clergy had been active since the Great Awakening in developing political principles that were now being used to propel the colonies to prepare for war.

It isn’t hard to understand how these pastors grew as influential as they did. In New England, the Congregationalist clergy were from the most well respected families in the area. The Presbyterian ministers further south were generally the most educated men in their communities. The prominent Lutheran pastor of Pennsylvania, Henry Muhlenburg, wrote in his journal about the reasons for the Presbyterians success: “This progress is due to the fact that they have established seminaries in various places, educate their own ministers, keep strict discipline, and tolerate no ministers except those who have good moral character and the ability to speak, and who are content with small salaries and able to endure hard work. Those denominations here which do not have these characteristics, but just the opposite, are consequently decreasing and making room for the Presbyterians.”

The massive waves of Scotch-Irish immigration up until 1775 flooded all of the colonies with adherents of the Presbyterian faith. Representing one of the largest people groups in America, they had built numerous communities in virtually every colony and developed extensive networks to keep in contact with one another, but their presence was particularly felt in Virginia. Here Presbyterian churches sprung up like wildflowers, with fiery pastors, many of whom fled from their homeland because of religious and political persecution by the English. It was in one of these churches that the young Patrick Henry would listen to the fervent sermons of Samuel Davies to learn and develop his own passionate rhetorical style.

By the time Davies left Virginia there were many younger Presbyterian pastors to take his place. Having graduated from the Log College and the College of New Jersey, these men were instructed not only in religious studies, but in civil matters as well. There they learned about the natural law established by God that governed the universe and the affairs of men, but also the political theories of the leaders of the Reformation. Traveling up and down the backwoods of Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, the Carolinas and Georgia, these itinerants preached against the Parliamentary claims of absolute power and the rights of citizens to punish government officials that violated both the written law and the law of God. Reminded of their Scottish Covenanter ancestors that had paid with their lives in defense of their liberties, Presbyterian ministers, like Alexander Craighead, John and Samuel Blair, Samuel Finley, John Rodgers and Alexander McWhorter, encouraged their congregations to take up arms for the sake of their freedoms that were under attack once again by the British government.

As hostilities increased and preparations were being made for war, the Baptists became important allies for the leaders of the resistance. It was no wonder, for up until 1775 the Baptists were actively persecuted in the colonies. Patrick Henry had to defend many of their ministers against Virginia authorities. Their services were frequently disrupted by angry mobs and their clergy were regularly horsewhipped or had their tongues nailed to posts for preaching without government licenses. They rejected the dancing, drinking and gambling that were commonplace in gentry society, and they believed in the equality of all their members. Their entire lifestyle was a rejection of British culture.

Their growth was explosive: in 1769, there were just seven Baptists churches in Virginia; by 1775, there were 54. As the opening shots of the War for Independence were fired, the Baptist leader, Isaac Backus, would appeal to his congregation to take up arms to defend their freedoms, noting that nothing less than their fundamental freedom to worship as their consciences dictated was at stake.

By April 1775, the clergy of America were not only solidly behind the defensive efforts of the colonial leaders, but they were leading the charge against British oppression. In their sermons, they called for their congregations to take action and encouraging them to “obey God rather than men.” Many pastors would leave their pulpits and take up arms themselves and lead the men of their congregations into battle. In the opening days of the conflict, the motto “disobedience to tyrants is obedience to God” seemed to be uttered by every American speaker and writer without the slightest hint of embarrassment that colonial religion was shaping their politics. Everyone of all religious beliefs knew that faith in the Judge of all Nations was necessary now that the colonies were poised on a dark and deadly threshold with nothing less than their life and liberties on the line.

When the news of the battles at Lexington and Bunker Hill arrived in the surrounding communities, Alice Baldwin writes in her New England Clergy and the American Revolution, that parson after parson left his parish and marched hastily toward Boston. “Before daylight on the morning of April 30, 1775, Stephen Farrar, of New Ipswich, New Hampshire, left with ninety-seven of his parishioners. Joseph Willard, of Beverly, marched with two companies from his own town, raised in no small part through his own exertion. David Avery, of Windsor, Vermont, after hearing the news of Lexington, preached a farewell sermon, then, outside the meeting-house door, called his people to arms, and marched with twenty men. On his way he served as captain, preached, and collected more troops. David Grosvenor, of Grafton, left his pulpit and, musket in hand, joined the minute-men who marched to Cambridge. Phillips Payson, of Chelsea, was given credit for leading a group of his parishioners to attack a band of English soldiers that nineteenth day of April. Benjamin Balch, of Danvers, Lieutenant of the third-alarm list of his town, was present at Lexington and later, as chaplain in army and navy, won the title of ‘fighting parson.’ Jonathan French, of Andover, Massachusetts, left his pulpit on the Sabbath morning, when the news of Bunker Hill arrived, and with surgical case in one hand and musket in the other started for Boston.”

Thus it was that the great experiment in liberty we know as America, was birthed in the churches of our great land.

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