Independence Day and Declaration of Independence

Independence Day: A Rookie Anglican Guide

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The 4th of July, American Independence Day, is both a celebration of American political liberty and a universal commemoration of God’s priority over government. On this day, we remember that human laws are evaluated by the standard of God’s law, not the other way around.

The Collect

Lord God, by your providence our founders won their liberties of old: Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to exercise these liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

BCP 2019, pg. 636

The collect, composed by Bishop Edward Parsons of California, first appeared in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. While giving thanks for the liberties we enjoy, it also prays for grace that we would use them well, in righteousness and peace. It is reminiscent of Paul’s instruction to the Galatians: “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13).

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The Origin of Independence Day

Independence Day takes its name and date from the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776. Written by Thomas Jefferson and adopted by the Continental Congress, the bulk of the Declaration constitutes a list of the abuses of power of George III, the King of England. But the most important section is the preamble, which lays out a theological argument for political revolution:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Preamble to the Declaration of Independence

We can break down the argument as follows:

  1. All men are equally creatures of the Creator.
  2. This equality consists of certain rights God gives, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
  3. The legitimacy of government depends upon the defense of these rights.
  4. The people have the right to modify or establish a new government if the existing government fails to defend these rights.

Rebellion to Tyrants?

Not all Christians have agreed with Jefferson’s logic; indeed, many of the Anglicans in England did not! They appealed to passages such as Romans 13 or 1 Peter 2 to argue that Christians should accept the established political rule, even when it has become corrupt. Scripture clearly shows that Christians witness to Christ when they accept unjust suffering for the sake of the gospel.

At the same time, the church has consistently held that political leaders have no authority to abuse their subjects or to compel their subjects to sin. Thus, Moses resisted the oppression of Pharaoh, the early church resisted Roman Emperors requiring sacrifice to the gods, and the church today resists the efforts of governments to promote sexual immorality.

Benjamin Franklin summed up the spirit of the Declaration by proposing, for the Great Seal, an image of the Israelites coming through the Red Sea alongside the motto: “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.” Congress did not adopt the proposal, but Jefferson liked the motto so much that he incorporated it in his personal seal.

Readings for Independence Day

Though the Book of Common Prayer lists Independence Day as an “optional commemoration” in the Calendar, it receives its own collect and proper readings, like the principal Holy Days of the church year:

  • Deuteronomy 10:17-21
  • Psalm 145
  • Hebrews 11:8-16
  • Matthew 5:43-48

The readings emphasize two critical truths for Independence Day. The first is that God is our ultimate King and Lord, thereby humbling the claims of any earthly king or lord. The second is that God calls upon his people to love the stranger and enemy, for they, too, were strangers and enemies in Egypt. The Old Testament reading contains both themes:

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the Lord your God. You shall serve him and hold fast to him, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise. He is your God, who has done for you these great and terrifying things that your eyes have seen.

Deuteronomy 10:17-21

Taken together, these two themes help us rightly celebrate America for its heritage of freedom and avoid the pride that would judge the people of other nations. After all, our final home is in heaven, with people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9).

Prayers for the Nation

The Prayer Book contains other prayers for the nation, from pages 654 to 658. These include the long and lovely occasional prayer #39, titled “For our Nation”:

Almighty God, who hast given us this good land for our heritage: We humbly beseech thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of thy favor and glad to do thy will. Bless our land with honorable industry, sound learning, and pure conduct. Save us from violence, discord, and conduction; from pride and arrogance, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom, in thy Name, we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that, through obedience to thy law, we may show forth thy praise among the nations of the earth. In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in thee to fail; all of which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

BCP pp. 657-658

Music for Independence Day

Our hymnals have a long history of incorporating songs of national celebration and prayer for divine blessing, including “O beautiful for spacious skies” and “God of our fathers.” Here I’ll highlight “My Country Tis Of Thee,” #717 in the Hymnal 1982. The first stanza is as follows:

My country ’tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing;
Land where my fathers died,
Land of the pilgrim’s pride,
From every mountain side,
Let freedom ring.

An interesting feature of this hymn is that the tune, titled AMERICA, is actually an adaptation of the British national anthem, “God Save the King.” Thus we sing a hymn of praise and prayer for America with a tune long used for the English King. Our God is the God of both England and America!

The final verse reflects the theme of our liberty’s grounding in God and concludes with a prayer asking for his protection:

Our father’s God, to thee,
Author of liberty,
To thee we sing;
Long may our land be bright,
With freedom’s holy light,
Protect us by thy might,
Great God, our King.


Photo of Declaration on Betsy Ross flag, by smartstock from iStock.

Published on

July 3, 2024

Author

Peter Johnston

The Ven. Dr. Peter Johnston is the Ministry President of Anglican Compass. He is a priest and archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations and the rector of Trinity Lafayette. He lives with his wife, Carla, and their eight children near Lafayette, Louisiana.

View more from Peter Johnston

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