When most of us think of the Fourth of July or Independence Day, we think of a celebration — a picnic or cookout, hot dogs and beer, band concerts, baseball, a day at the beach, boating, parades and fireworks, lots of fireworks.
Few, other than perhaps veterans on long lists of those waiting for the government to provide the promised vital care for their terrible wounds from recent wars, have in mind the closing words of the document endorsed by the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence at the heart of this holiday: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
In fact, knowledge of what the Declaration of Independence and the related documents and events are all about is fading, according to Marist and Gallup polls in recent years. Some would say that information is missing, ignored or corrupted in today’s schools and media.
For whatever reason, the polls show that barely half of adult Americans know the Declaration was signed in 1776 — but not on July 4th (that’s the date the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration. It wasn’t signed until Aug. 2). Fewer than one of three adults under the age of 30 knew the year while three of four adults over age 45 knew the year. And one of three adults were unaware that it was from England that this country was declaring its independence.
Much more of that history seems to be missing or altered in today’s remembrances. Among such facts is the religious nature of the people and their government at that time.
Of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, nearly all were committed churchmen. More than half of them were Anglican or Episcopalian (the American version of the British denomination). Most of the others were either Congregationalist (an outgrowth of the early Puritan movement) or Presbyterian. Four trained as ministers.
Since most of the signers were among the delegates to the Continental Congress that approved the Declaration, the percentages of religiously active members of that governmental body was similar. And those numbers were reflective of the country as a whole.
The best known of the famous signers —and perhaps the most misunderstood (if not misrepresented) when it comes to his religious faith — was the principal author, Thomas Jefferson. Some today contend that he, like Benjamin Franklin, was a deist, a charge he vehemently denied when leveled during his lifetime.
In a letter to Margaret Bayard Smith, chronicler of the events of the first 40 years in the city of Washington, he complained that clergymen who opposed his ideas of religious liberty from a state church ascribed to him “anti-religious sentiments of their own fabric” and tried to make people think of him as an “atheist, deist or devil.”
As Jefferson explained in letters to friends such as Charles Thompson, he compiled a collection of the teachings of Jesus Christ from passages of the Gospels as “a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus …”
Further indicators of the religious nature of the people and the government at the time of the adoption of our founding documents can be found in the Mayflower Compact declaring their undertaking was “for the glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith;” the adoption of a bicameral form of government from the Presbyterian Church; the establishing of our earliest colleges — Harvard, Brown, Yale, Princeton, William and Mary — as seminaries to train clergymen; the authorization of the publication of 20,000 Aiken Bibles after the approval by the chaplains appointed by the Second Continental Congress, to name a few.
Maybe this Independence Day would be a good time to review our history and perhaps rediscover some principles at work that made this country the model for those who wanted and still want freedom and a representative government.
During a 48-year career with The Miami Herald, Adon Taft was for 37 years the religion editor. He also taught social studies at Miami Dade Community College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.