Politics aside, one thing the Shirley Sherrod incident demonstrated was how words and sentences lifted out of their context can be so easily infused with meaning they do not have within their context. And this leads to a very serious question. How guilty are we in the body of Christ—especially preachers—of lifting Bible verses out of their context and infusing them with meaning that Jesus, Paul, Peter and others never intended? If it is such a serious matter to take a government employee out of context, how much more the Living God!
“The Declaration of 1776 was a direct result of the preaching of the evangelists of the Great Awakening,” declared Perry Miller, late Professor of Church History at Harvard University. Perry’s statement is based on the fact that the Great Awakening was the first national event that brought the scattered colonies together as a single people. The preaching of the revivalists helped democratize the inhabitants of the colonies by putting everyone on the same level (guilty sinners before God) with only one solution for the sin problem, faith in Jesus Christ. It was in this sense that the Great Awakening brought together the scattered colonists and helped prepare them to become a single nation under God.
Denominational Barriers Broken Down
The Awakening also broke down denominational barriers and helped the colonists see themselves as a single people with one Divine destiny. In one of his sermons preached to several thousand gathered in the open air, George Whitefield mimicked a conversation with Father Abraham who was looking over the banister of heaven at the gathered multitude. Whitefield, who was an ordained Anglican minister and a part of the Methodist movement in England, cried out, “Father Abraham, are there any Anglicans in heaven?” The answer came back, “No, there are no Anglicans in heaven.” “Father Abraham, are there any Baptists in heavens?” “No, there are no Baptists in heaven.” “Are there any Methodists in heaven?” "No, there are no Methodists.” “Father Abraham,” cried Whitefield, what people are in heaven?” The answer came back, “There are only Christians in heaven.”
In the Great Awakening, which I date from 1726-1750, it seemed that entire communities repented and turned to God. It was a sovereign work of God in response to the fervent prayers of His people. This Awakening led to the birth of the United States of America. The question I want to pose today is, “Can a nation be born again?
The Faith of the Founders
George Washington, the first president, took the oath of office with his hand placed on a Bible, signifying his recognition of the Bible as the source of guidance and inspiration for his administration. This has continued as a tradition down to the present time. Washington declared that, “It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible.” He once prayed, “Bless O Lord the whole race of mankind, and let the world be filled with the knowledge of Thee and Thy Son, Jesus Christ.”
Did Washington want to exclude Christian influence from the political or public arena? Hardly!
John Adams, one of the founding fathers and the 2nd president of the United States, gave an account of the 1st continental Congress that was convened in September of 1774. The congress was opened with prayer and the reading of Psalm 35:9, 23 which says, "My soul shall be joyful in the Lord; it shall rejoice in His salvation. . . . Awake and rise to my defense! Contend for me, my God and Lord!" There is no question that God’s presence was powerfully manifest in their midst. Adams wrote, “Who can realize the emotions with which they turned imploringly to heaven for divine interposition and aid. It was enough to melt a heart of stone. It seems as if heaven had ordained that Psalm to be read that day.”
Did Adams want to exclude the influence of Christians and the Bible from the congress? The answer is that he obviously did not.
Benjamin Franklin is often pointed to as one of the non-Christian founders of this nation. There is evidence, however, that Franklin came to know the Savior in his latter years. But even in his earlier deistic years he carried a Christian world-view. He was a good friend with the famous revivalist of the Great Awakening, George Whitfield, and when Whitfield was in Philadelphia, he stayed in Franklin’s home and they discussed eternal matters. Years later, on June 28, 1787, the Constitutional Convention was about to be suspended because of unresolved dissension. It was at this time that Franklin, now an old man, rose to his feet. He addressed the Convention president, George Washington, with these words.
"How has it happened, sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly appealing to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings? In the beginning of the contest with Great Britain, when we were sensible to danger, we had daily prayers in this room for Divine protection. Our prayers, sir, were heard and they were graciously answered. I have lived, sir, a long time and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth—that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid? We have been assured, sir, in the sacred writings that except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it. I firmly believe this."
Franklin’s words were heeded and the delegates went to prayer—many on their knees. The much-needed breakthrough came and the Convention went on to complete its task.
Did Franklin want to exclude Christianity from the public arena? Absolutely not!
Thomas Jefferson is also often pointed to as one of the non-Christian founders, and the champion of the separation of church and state. It is true that Jefferson had leanings toward deism and entertained questions about the deity of Christ and the miracles in the Bible. Yet, he was thoroughly Christian in his thinking and held to a Christian world-view. He believed in the God of the Bible as the creator and the governor of His creation. He believed in moral absolutes based in the Bible and the exercise of common sense, i.e., human reason. In spite of questions about Christ’s deity, he had no doubts that Jesus was the greatest teacher of truth and morality who had ever lived. He once said,
"God who gave us life, gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a gift from God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just and that His justice cannot sleep forever."
The Truth About the Wall of Separation
It was in a letter, dated Jan. 1, 1802, to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut that Jefferson referred to “a wall of separation between the church and state.” The Baptists were concerned about their status in the new nation and how they would be treated. They had reason for concern for throughout Europe the Baptists were an outlawed religious sect, severely persecuted by the state and the state sanctioned churches, both Catholic and Lutheran. Jefferson quoted the 1st amendment, enacted Dec. 15, 1792, that congress “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," and assured this Baptist association that this meant that in this new nation there would be “a wall of separation” that would protect them and any other religious group from the intrusion of the state.
So, was Jefferson attempting to exclude Christian influence from the public and political arenas? Absolutely not! Like Washington, Adams, Franklin and others, he did not want an official state church (like in Europe) monitoring the beliefs and activities of its citizenry. The "wall of separation" he refers to is unidirectional, erected to keep the state from meddling with the church and the free expression of faith.
It is thus obvious that those who formulated the 1st amendment were not seeking to inhibit religious expression, but were, instead, throwing the door wide open to religious expression without government interference. This was understood for the first 150 years of this nation’ existence. In History of the United States published in 1816, David Ramsey declared that the founders of this nation, “Wisely judged learning and religion to be the firmest pillars of the church and commonwealth.”
Let’s Pray for Another Great Awakening
Many are concerned today about the direction of this nation and its loss of morality and respect for God and His word. Many are entertaining hopes of a political solution through certain politicians or a certain political party. But I want to suggest that the only real answer is a rebirth of this nation through a national spiritual awakening characteristic of the one that brought it forth 234 years ago. This July 4--and in the coming year--let's pray for another Great Awakening that will lead to a rebirthing of this nation.