Writing from the Birmingham city jail in April of 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed confidence that his fight for racial justice would succeed for two reasons: (1) the sacred heritage of our nation and (2) the eternal will of God embodied in his demands.
In the same letter, Dr. King declared that one day the South would realize that he and others of the Civil Rights movement were, in fact, “Standing up for the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage.”
Dr. King obviously believed that America’s founders had left a “sacred heritage” to succeeding generations, and knowledge of this heritage was a source of hope and confidence that his struggle for civil rights would succeed.
A heritage is an inheritance. It is a cherished legacy that one generation leaves to the next. And a “sacred heritage” is one that is embodied with that which is holy and Divine.
I am convinced that this “sacred heritage,” of which Dr. King spoke, has two components that I will highlight here today. They are: (1) Faith in God and (2) Love of liberty.
Indeed, the earliest immigrants to this land were people of faith who came here to escape the tyranny of an oppressive state and an oppressive state church. They believed that God providentially guided them to this land, which they envisioned as a land of freedom for all oppressed peoples.
This is the “sacred heritage” to which Dr. King referred and that is embodied in the following people, movements, and documents.
The Pilgrims (1620)
Dr. King spoke fondly of the Pilgrims and probably had them in mind when he referred to the nation’s “sacred heritage.” We normally think of religious persecution as the Pilgrims’ reason for fleeing England and carving out a new life in the New World. Fleeing persecution, however, was not their only reason.
In the Mayflower Compact, the Pilgrims gave a proactive two-fold reason for their move to America in 1620. They had come, they said: (1) for the glory of God and (2) for the advancement of the Christian faith.
Although they were not the first to settle in the New World, the Pilgrims’ experience has captured the imagination of the American public more than any of the early immigrants to these shores. This, no doubt, is because of their deep faith in God, their love of liberty, and their willingness to risk it all for their vision of a free and godly society. They, no doubt, were in Dr. King’s mind when he spoke of this nation’s “sacred heritage.”
The United Colonies of New England
By 1643, thousands of new immigrants had arrived in New England and new towns and colonies were springing up. Sensing a need for some sort of central government that would arbitrate boundary disputes and facilitate a mutual defense, they formed they United Colonies of New England.
The United Colonies of New England was a federalist system in which each colony retained its autonomy and the powers of the central government were limited by the constitution, which they formulated. The opening statement of their constitution explains why they had come to the New World. It reads,
Whereas we all came into these parts of America with one and the same end and aim, namely to advance the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ and enjoy the Liberties of the Gospel in purity and peace (Hyatt, 1726: The Year that Defined America, 31).
The faith of these early immigrants in God and their love for Liberty make them also a part of that “sacred heritage” to which Dr. King referred and which me must stand on guard to preserve.
The Great Awakening (1726-70)
After a time of moral and spiritual decline among the descendants of the Pilgrims, Puritans, and other early immigrants, a great, spiritual awakening began in 1726 that morally transformed Colonial America. Dubbed the “Great Awakening” by historians, entire towns repented and put their faith in Jesus Christ.
One of America’s Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, described the transformation that came over his hometown of Philadelphia when the Awakening arrived there in 1739. He wrote,
From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seemed as if all the world were growing religious so that one could not walk through the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street (Hyatt, Abolitionist Founding Fathers, 14).
In fact, so transforming was the Awakening, that a British official in America wrote to his superiors in England and said, “If you ask an American who is his master, he will tell you he has none, nor any governor but Jesus Christ.”
In this revival, racial and cultural barriers were broken down as the Gospel was shared with all people regardless of race or social standing. In addition, blacks and whites worshipped together as the fires of revival burned up and down the eastern seaboard.
Having studied America’s founding, Dr. King knew of the Great Awakening and it was surely in his mind when he spoke of America’s “sacred heritage.”
An Anti-Slavery Movement Emerges from the Awakening
Out of the Great Awakening there arose a powerful anti-slavery movement as Awakening preachers began, not only to offer salvation to individuals, but to attack the institution of slavery itself as sinful and evil in the sight of God.
Samuel Hopkins (1721–1803), for example, who had been tutored by Jonathan Edwards, was outraged by what he saw while pastoring in Newport, Rhode Island, an important hub in the transatlantic slave trade. He declared, “This whole country have their hands full of blood this day.”
Methodist, Baptist, Quaker, and Puritan preachers carried the fight against slavery even into the South and to slaveowners. This is what historian, Benjamin Hart, was referring to when he wrote, “Among the most ardent opponents of slavery were ministers, particularly the Puritan and revivalist preachers” (Hyatt, Abolitionist Founding Fathers, 22).
This abolition movement gained momentum and eventually turned multitudes against slavery, including America’s founding fathers. It is part of this nation’s “sacred heritage” that Dr. King had come to cherish.
The First Continental Congress (1774)
The influence of the Great Awakening and the abolition movement it spawned, was obvious when the First Continental Congress met on September 5, 1774. The delegates opened with an extended time of Bible reading and prayer. They also began their proceedings each day with prayer led by Rev. Jacob Dusche, whom they invited to be their chaplain.
They had met out of great, widespread concern about the Intolerable Acts that had been imposed on the Colonies by the British. Now, British troops had been sent to enforce those Acts and had taken control of the city of Boston and closed its port. The situation was so oppressive that colonists had begun using the word “enslavement” for their situation.
The revivalist preacher, Samuel Hopkins, mentioned above, delivered a pamphlet to each member of the Congress challenging them and asking how they could complain about “enslavement” to Great Britain and ignore the “enslavement” of so many Africans in the Colonies.
Before they departed on October 26, the Congressional delegates passed a resolution saying the slave trade should be abolished and that nations engaged in it should be boycotted. This was at a time when slavery was accepted and practiced in most of the world. Historian, Christian M. McBurney, called this ban on the slave trade “a stunning and radical move” and “the first nationally organized antislavery effort in American history, and one of the first in world history.”
At a time when slavery was accepted and practiced in most of the world, America’s founders were turning against it. This is part of our nation’s “sacred history.”
America’s Founders Turn Against Slavery
Dr. Thomas Sowell, who happens to be black, has written of the stunning turn of America’s founders against slavery at a time it was being practiced in most of the world. Even those Founders who owned slaves admitted that it was sinful and abhorrent in the sight of God. Sowell wrote,
Slavery was just not an issue, not even among intellectuals, much less among political leaders, until the 18th century–and then it was an issue only in Western civilization. Among those who turned against slavery in the 18th century were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and other American leaders. You could research all of 18th century Africa or Asia or the Middle East without finding any comparable rejection of slavery there (Hyatt, Abolitionist Founding Fathers, 9).
It was, of course, the Great Awakening, and the abolition movement that emerged from it, that turned multitudes in Colonial America, including the Founders, against slavery. Here are excerpts from their own testimony.
“There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of slavery.” – George Washington
“Every measure of prudence ought to be assumed for the eventual total extirpation of slavery from the United States . . . I have throughout my whole life held the practice of slavery in abhorrence.” – John Adams
“Slavery is an atrocious debasement of human nature and a source of serious evils.” – Benjamin Franklin
“Slavery is a lamentable evil as repugnant to humanity as it is inconsistent with the Bible and destructive of liberty.” Patrick Henry
“Slavery is a Hydra sin and includes in it every violation of the precepts of the Law and the Gospels.” – Benjamin Rush
“It is our Duty therefore, both as free Citizens and Christians, not only to regard with compassion the injustice done to those among us who are held as slaves, but endeavor, by lawful ways and means, to enable them to share equally with us in that civil and religious Liberty with which an indulgent Providence has blessed these States; and to which these, our Brethren are by nature, as much entitled as ourselves. – Alexander Hamilton
“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” – Thomas Jefferson
America’s founding generation understood the above words by Jefferson, and found in the Declaration of Independence, to be an attack on slavery and they were commonly used by abolitionists in their fight against slavery.
America’s Founders were, in fact, at the forefront of the fight to end slavery at a time it was practiced in most of the world. This is a vital part of our “sacred heritage.”
America’s Colorblind Founding Documents (1787)
Because of the power of the Awakening and the anti-slavery sentiments it produced, America’s founding documents are colorblind. There are no classifications based on race or skin color and no mention of slaves or slavery. There is nothing in the founding documents to indicate that the rights guaranteed therein do not apply to every person.
The famous abolitionist and former slave, Frederick Douglas, understood this about the founding documents, and said, “Anyone of these provisions in the hands of abolition statesmen, and backed by a right moral sentiment, would put an end to slavery in America.”
Dr. King understood this and in his “I Have a Dream” speech, he declared, “I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” He went on to say,
When the architects of our Republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Then quoting from the words of the Declaration of Independence, he proclaimed,
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.
For Dr. King, the problem was not with our founding documents. The problem was that Americans were not living up to the vision and ideals expressed in those founding documents. Americans were not living up to the “sacred heritage” the founding generation had passed along to us.
This is why each generation must be morally and spiritually renewed. A nation birthed out of a Great Awakening can only survive if succeeding generations are periodically renewed by such awakenings.
We Must Guard this Sacred Heritage
Karl Marx said, “People without a heritage are easily persuaded.” His statement explains why there are such vicious attacks today on America’s Founders. If the socialists/Marxists in our midst can destroy America’s “sacred heritage,” their goal of transforming America into a socialist/Marxist society will be made much easier.
This is why we must stand with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and save our nation’s “sacred heritage.” This is why we must ask God to visit this land once again with another great, national spiritual awakening.
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!
This was also a message delivered by Dr. Eddie Hyatt on July 4, 2021 at
Rock Church International in Virginia Beach VA. The message can be found at this link. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sgIB5g6zgi4