“Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith,…” were the words written in the first political charter (The Mayflower Compact) in the American colonies. William Bradford, the chief architect of the Mayflower Compact wrote a history of the Plymouth Colony and in that history he expressed the reason that they undertook such a dangerous and risky venture of sailing to the New World. He wrote, “They [colonists] cherished a great hope and inward zeal of laying good foundations . . . for the propagations and advance of the Gospel of the kingdom of Christ in the remote parts of the world, even though they should be but stepping stones to others in the performance of so great a work.”
Bradford and his fellow Separatists established the Plymouth colony in 1620 to escape the strict religious persecution taking place in England and other European countries. From 1620 up to the 1770’s, thousands of colonists fled their countries for the promise of religious freedom that was to be found in the American Colonies.
Puritan minister Rev. Thomas Hooker left England in 1633 due to his Christian views. Rev. Hooker settled in Connecticut and soon became aware of the need for a Christian rule to govern the colonists. In 1638, he was instrumental in writing the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut which were adopted in 1639. These Fundamental Orders contained many biblical rights and ideas. This is the first written constitution in history.
In 1641, Rev. Nathaniel Ward wrote the Body of Liberties for the people of the Massachusetts colony. The Body of Liberty was the first Bill of Rights ever written. Its purpose was stated as, “Wee doe therefore this day religiously and unanimously decree and confirme these following Rites, liberties and priveledges concerneing our Churches, and Civill State to be respectively impartiallie and inviolably enjoyed and observed throughout our Jurisdiction for ever.” Article 95 was for, “A Declaration of the Liberties the Lord Jesus hath given to the Churches.”
As the American colonies developed, charters were written to govern them and most of these charters shared the same sentiments found in the Mayflower Compact – to advance and propagate the Gospel and the kingdom of Jesus Christ. A number of these charters actually had provisions for the support of the Christian church. In Massachusetts, taxes were collected for the express purpose of supporting local churches and ministers. The practice continued into statehood and eventually ended in 1833.
Between 1740 and 1760, the colonies experienced a revival known as the Great Awakening. Led by Rev. George Whitefield and Rev. Jonathan Edwards, tens of thousands of colonists were converted to Christianity and many churches more than doubled in size. Among those that were influenced by the Great Awakening were George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams and James Madison along with many of the other Founders responsible for America’s freedom. Christian historians attribute the Great Awakening as the impetus that launched the American Revolution as it helped to form their biblical and Christian worldviews which in turn molded their views on virtue, statesmanship and liberty.
Among those greatly influenced by the Great Awakening was Samuel Adams, often called the “Father of the Revolution”. Samuel Adams was known to be a very ardent Christian and a true prayer warrior. Inspired by his biblical beliefs, Adams realized that the growing conflict with Great Britain was more than just political or economic; it was also a spiritual battle. The British were violating the individual and Christian rights of the colonists. Adams was instrumental in circulating letters throughout the colonies educating the colonists on the reasons to support the idea of revolution against the British based upon biblical principles. Without these circulating letters explaining the biblical reasons to support revolution, many colonists would have resisted the idea of revolution and the colonies would have remained under British control for many more years to come.
Under the influence of Adam’s circular letters and the fervent preaching of the clergy, the colonists became more unified than ever before. On September 5, 1774, the First Continental Congress was convened in Philadelphia. Its first official act was to pass a resolution to have the Congress meet the next day at Carpenter’s Hall where Rev. Jacob Duché would open the session with prayer. Before dispersing on October 26, 1774, the First Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Rights and Grievances which was a response to the British Intolerable Acts, and they agreed to call for a Second Continental Congress to reconvene on May 10, 1775.
Before the Second Continental Congress could convene, the first shots of the American Revolution were fired at Lexington, MA on April 19, 1775. With the American colonies at war with Great Britain, the main task of the Second Continental Congress was to manage the war that had broken out with the British.
It was the clergy who preached for religious and political freedom from British tyranny. In December of 1775, a Virginia minister by the name of Peter Muhlenberg concluded his sermon with the following words, “There is a time for all things—a time to preach and time to pray.” He walked to the rear of his church, taking off his black clerical robe to reveal the dress uniform of a colonel in the Virginia Militia. Then in a booming voice continued, “There is a time to fight, and that time has come.” With drums beating, nearly every one of the 300 men in the congregation followed Rev. Muhlenberg to war. The Rev. Peter Muhlenberg is often most remembered for serving as a Brigadier General under George Washington and playing a very crucial role in the Revolutionary war.
On June 11, 1776, the Convention appointed a committee of five men to work on a draft of a document for independence. That committee consisted of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston and Roger Sherman. As the Committee of Five worked on the draft, the rest of the Convention continued to argue over whether or not the colonies should declare their independence or continue to use diplomatic means to reach an agreeable peace with Great Britain.
By early July, the declaration was almost complete, yet the debate about whether to sign such an important document or not still persisted. One of the delegates, the Rev. John Witherspoon, addressed the Convention with the following words:
“There is a tide in the affairs of men, and we can perceive it now before us. To hesitate is to consent to our own slavery. That noble instrument upon your table, which insures immortality to its author, should be subscribed this morning by every pen in this House. He that will not respond to its accents and strain every nerve to carry into effect its provisions is unworthy the name of freeman! For my own part, of property I have some, of reputation more. That reputation is staked, that property is pledged on the issue of this contest; and although these gray hairs must soon descend into the sepulchre, I would infinitely rather that they descend thither by the hand of the executioner than desert at this crisis the sacred cause of my country!“
The Rev. John Witherspoon was not only a well-known minister of the Gospel, he was also a very popular educator and college president.
Shortly after hearing the words of Rev. Witherspoon, the delegates signed the document that was titled, The United States Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Witherspoon’s educational legacy included 9 of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, 1 U.S. President (James Madison), 1 U.S. Vice-President, 28 U.S. Senators, 49 U.S. Congressmen, 3 U.S. Supreme Court Justices, 34 other judges, 10 federal Cabinet officers, 12 state governors and numerous state congressmen.
Every one of these signers of the Declaration of Independence knew that their signatures on this document meant that they were to be declared as sworn enemies of the British crown and that they stood to lose all of their wealth, possessions and lives. They were willing sacrifice everything for the cause of political and religious freedom.
News of the Declaration of Independence was spread throughout the colonies mostly through the churches. In Massachusetts, it was:
“Ordered, that the Declaration of Independence be printed; and a Copy sent to the Ministers of each Parish, of every Denomination, within this State; and that they severally be required to read the same to their respective Congregations, as soon as divine Service is ended in the Afternoon, on the first Lord’s Day after they shall have received it:…And after such Publication thereof, to deliver the said Declaration to the Clerks of their several Towns or Districts; who are hereby required to record the same in their respective Town or District Books, there to remain as a perpetual Memorial thereof.”
During that time, the Second Continental Congress knew that they needed to create some form of rule to govern the 13 colonies.
During that time, the Second Continental Congress debated an overarching governing system for the 13 colonies. Although each colony insisted on self-rule, many of their leaders recognized the need to form a centralized government to help unify the states and better coordinate their efforts against Great Britain.
Benjamin Franklin had drafted a plan called the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, and made sure that the Continental Congress understood it was only a draft proposal. Despite the support of Thomas Jefferson and several other delegates, Franklin’s draft was tabled.
One of the main sources of contention was deciding how much power would be given to a central government and what power and authority would be maintained by the states. The arguments continued for over a year after delegates signed the Declaration of Independence.
When the British captured Philadelphia in 1777, the need for a central governing document became more apparent and the delegates sat down and drafted the first governing document for the United States, known as the Articles of Confederation.
The issue of state sovereignty was addressed at the beginning of the Articles of Confederation in Article II:
“To all to whom these Presents shall come, we the undersigned Delegates of the States affixed to our Names send greeting.
Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union between the states of New Hampshire, Massachusetts-bay Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.
The Stile of this Confederacy shall be
‘The United States of America’.
Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.”
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
On this day, November 15, 1777, after months of debate, the Continental Congress voted to adopt the Articles of Confederation as the governing document for the time being. Once the vote was taken, copies of the Articles of Confederation were sent to the 13 colonies for ratification.
On March 1, 1781, Maryland became last of the 13 colonies to ratify the Articles of Confederation.
On March 2, 1781, the Articles of Confederation became the official governing document of the United Colonies of America. However, by the time the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, the Second Continental Congress began to realize that the Articles of Confederation were insufficient to rule the newly won nation. Among the problems with the ruling document was that Congress had no power to raise money or to enforce any of its decisions, it did not provide for any type of executive leadership and did not sufficiently provide for solutions of the many interstate conflicts that were arising.
Sources for the above includes: Articles of Confederation; Today, 1781: Congress Ratifies Articles of Confederation, Led by Pastor; Today, June 21, 1788: U.S. Constitution Ratified; Articles of Confederation Adopted; Articles of Confederation, 1777–1781; The Articles of Confederation, 1777; United States (U.S.) Articles of Confederation