Today is the first Sunday of the Fortnight for Freedom, a two-week celebration of religious liberty in America. Church leaders, and preachers especially, have played an important role in our nation’s struggle for and preservation of this “first freedom.”
In 1833, the American Quarterly Register articulated the important role that ministers played in the American Revolution: “As a body of men, the clergy were pre-eminent in their attachment to liberty. The pulpits of the land rang with the notes of freedom.”
One minister whose pulpit rang loud with such notes was Isaac Backus. A preacher in the tradition of George Whitefield, Backus served as pastor of the Middleborough Baptist Church (Massachusetts) beginning in 1751.
In one of his most famous sermons, Backus asked of colonial America: “How can such a union be expected so long as that dearest of all rights, equal liberty of conscience is not allowed?” He went on to explain that “religious matters are to be separated from the jurisdiction of the state, not because they are beneath the interests of the state but, quite to the contrary, because they are too high and holy and thus are beyond the competence of the state.”
Another pulpit that rang notes of freedom was that of Samuel Cooper. He was a pastor in Boston during the Revolution, and among his parishioners were John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and John Adams.
In his “Sermon on the Day of the Commencement of the Constitution,” Cooper praised the Constitution as a “happy foundation for many generations…a constitution of government founded in justice, and friendly to liberty.”
“[W]hat a broad foundation for the exercise of the rights of conscience is laid in this constitution!” he proclaimed, “which declares, that ‘no subject shall be hurt, molested, or restrained in his person, liberty or estate, for worshipping God in the manner and season most agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience, or for his religious profession or sentiments.’”
Cooper emphatically urged his fellow congregants and citizens to appreciate the liberties protected in the Constitution and to defend the Constitution from any threat: “It is with you also my fellow-citizens…to give life and vigour to all its limbs[,] freshness and beauty to its whole complexion; to guard it from dangers; to preserve it ‘from the corruption that is in the world’; and to produce it upon the great theatre of nations with advantage and glory.”
One of the most articulate defenders of freedom was an itinerant Baptist preacher in Virginia, John Leland. He advocated to James Madison the need to secure the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution. “Be always jealous of your liberty, your rights,” he insisted. “Nip the first bud of intrusion on your Constitution.”
Leland especially championed the protection of religious liberty. In his sermon “The Rights of Conscience Inalienable,” he declared, “Every man must give an account of himself to God, and therefore every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in that way that he can best reconcile to his conscience.… It would be sinful for a man to surrender that to man which is to be kept sacred for God.”
Today, religious liberty, guaranteed in the First Amendment, is under threat. In particular, the Obamacare anti-conscience mandate undermines this freedom in an unprecedented way.
Church leaders and other voices of moral authority can help articulate and defend the importance of religious freedom in the American constitutional order. During the Fortnight for Freedom, and especially on July 4, may the pulpits of our land once again ring out strong notes of freedom.