My Country, 'Tis of Thee
by Pastor Dan White
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The first Continental Congress met in Philadelphia on Tuesday, September 6, 1774. Representatives from every colony except Georgia met in response to the “Intolerable Acts” enacted by Great Britain’s Parliament. Plus, they had to deal with troubling news from Boston.
The dilemma began when King George III closed the Boston harbor to punish the town for the Boston Tea Party in December 1773. He demanded that the tea imported from the East India Company be paid for in full. This demand was refused.
Early in 1774, King George III appointed General Thomas Gage to carry out the “intolerable” laws passed by Parliament. On September 1, Gage used the military to seize the gun powder that Bostonians had stored in the event of war. By the time the news reached Philadelphia on September 4, rumors had it that there had been civilian casualties.
Alarmed from this news, Representative Thomas Cushing, a Congregationalist from Boston, moved that Congress begin Wednesday’s session with prayer.
The first debate in Congress immediately ensued to argue for and against Cushing’s motion to pray.
Anglicans John Jay from New York and John Rutledge from South Carolina argued against the motion to pray. John Adams, a Boston Congregationalist, noted the point of their objection. “We were so divided in religious sentiments"—the Congress included Anglicans, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and others—"we could not join in the same act of worship."
Samuel Adams, John’s second cousin asked for the floor. He stood and then spoke. “I am no bigot, and can hear a prayer from a gentleman of piety and virtue, who is at the same time a friend to this country.”
Mr. Adams then moved that Rev. Jacob Duché, a local Anglican pastor in Philadelphia, voice the prayer to open Wednesday’s session of Congress. The motion carried.
At 9 o’clock Wednesday morning, Rev. Duché read Psalm 35 which begins with these verses:
Contend, O LORD, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me. Take up shield and buckler; arise and come to my aid. Brandish spear and javelin against those who pursue me. Say to my soul, "I am your salvation."
Several of the fifty-six representatives then kneeled on the floor, and Rev. Duché, filled with the Spirit of God, broke into this extemporaneous prayer:
Be Thou present, O God of wisdom, and direct the councils of this honorable assembly…[May] truth and justice, religion and piety, prevail and flourish amongst the people…Shower down on them and the millions they represent, such temporal blessings as Thou seest expedient for them in this world and crown them with everlasting glory in the world to come…All this we ask in the name and through the merits of Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Savior. Amen.
The effect of the prayer was profound. John Adams recorded, “[The prayer] filled the bosom of every man present…and in language so elegant and sublime for America and for the Congress...”
The first act of Congress was an act to pray. Our Founding Fathers realized their need to turn to Almighty God through Christ.
Rev. Duché was appointed the first chaplain of the United States Congress and every session from then until now has been opened with prayer.
He preached a sermon on July 7, 1775, in his church titled “The Duty of Standing Fast in Our Spiritual and Temporal Liberties” to the First Battalion of the City and Liberties of Philadelphia, which was later published at their request. His eloquence and power from God were evident. His text was taken from Galatians, Chapter 5, “Stand fast, therefore, in the Liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free.”
He exhorted the First Battalion:
“If spiritual liberty calls upon its pious votaries to extend their views far forward to a glorious hereafter, civil liberty must at least be allowed to secure, in a considerable degree, our well-being here. And I believe it will be no difficult matter to prove, that civil liberty is as much the gift of God in Christ Jesus as the former, and consequently, that we are bound to stand fast in our civil as well as our spiritual freedom...I trust it will be no difficult matter to satisfy your consciences with respect to the righteousness of the cause, in which you are now engaged... [Heaven will not] discourage us from "standing fast” in that liberty, wherewith Christ (as the great providential Governor of the world) hath made us free... Stand Fast by an undaunted courage and magnanimity. Stand Fast by a steady constancy and perseverance...Even so, grant, thou great and glorious God, that to thee only we may look, and from thee experience that deliverance, which we ask, not for any merits of our own, but for the sake and through the merits of the dear Son of thy love CHRIST JESUS, our Lord!
By the summer of 1776, most colonists and their patriotic leaders had had enough. In the Second Continental Congress meeting in five different sessions from May 10, 1775, to March 1, 1781, the delegates declared Independence from Great Britain on July 4, 1776.
The Declaration of Independence is a document of faith as much as it is a political document. In the text of the Declaration are these affirmations of faith. “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,.. 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.
After the Declaration was signed and published, John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail. “July 4th ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty.”
The fifty-six signers pledged their “lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor” in the War for Independence.
One of the signers included Dr. Lyman Hall, an ordained Congregational minister and physician from Georgia. He is typical of the godly men who met in the Second Continental Congress.
He was a leader in the Congregational Church in Midway, Georgia. The cost he bore for his commitment to Independence was severe.
In January 1779, after the fall of Savannah to the British, Dr. Hall's beautiful plantation and his home near Midway were destroyed. He was accused of high treason by the British and forced to flee for his life. He and his family escaped to the north where they stayed in Philadelphia until the end of the War.
Hall returned to Georgia after the War and was a champion for the founding of a state university that would focus on religious education to increase the moral virtue of the state's citizens. This led to the founding of the University of Georgia in 1785 with a Presbyterian minister for President and chapel services held twice daily. Hall is buried under the “Signers Monument” in Augusta, Georgia.
Throughout the conflict and resulting War for Independence, patriots turned to ask our Lord for divine help, provisions, and guidance. Most of the leaders were men of faith.
As the War waxed on, the patriot cause looked bleak. The Continental Army commanded by General George Washington suffered defeat and heavy losses in the Fall of 1777 at the Battles of Brandywine and Germantown, Pennsylvania.
The crushing defeat at Brandywine left Philadelphia undefended and the British army moved in to occupy Philadelphia, the American Capital of the Patriots.
The defeat in Germantown cost the patriots over a thousand lives. Washington retreated to winter in Valley Forge. By December 23rd, nearly 3,000 men of his 12,000 man army were either too sick or too nearly naked for duty. Long marches had destroyed shoes. Blankets were scarce. Tattered garments were seldom replaced. At one point these shortages caused nearly 4,000 men to be listed as unfit for duty.
Defeated, short of rations, facing a severe winter with inadequate clothing, Washington faced even more distress from a letter written by Rev. Duché, a good friend, spiritual mentor, and the chaplain of Congress (he resigned in October 1776). Duché pleaded with Washington to surrender. He wrote, “Your harbors are blocked up, your cities fall. one after another; fortress after fortress, battle after battle is lost. A British army, after having passed unmolested through a vast extent of country, have possessed themselves of the Capital of America (Philadelphia). How unequal the contest! How fruitless the expense of blood!”
Many who supported Independence like Duché and the infamous General Benedict Arnold who left Washington’s army for the British army were now having second thoughts. The effort seemed lost.
So, Washington turned to the Lord to pray as was his custom. To surrender would not only end the hope of Independence but also endanger his own life. He would face a trial for treason against the British Crown and possible execution.
A first hand account of one of many times George Washington spent in pray was recorded by Rev. Nathaniel Randolph Snowden, a Presbyterian minister.
Isaac Potts, a Valley Forge resident and Quaker who was 26 years old at the time, took Rev. Snowden to the exact place where Washington had prayed.
Rev. Snowden recorded that meeting remembering the words of Potts:
Do you see that woods, and that plain? There laid the army of Washington. It was a most distressing time of the War, and all were for giving up the Ship except for that great and good man, George Washington. In that woods right there, I heard a plaintive sound as, of a man at prayer. I tied my horse to a sapling and went quietly into the woods. To my astonishment, I saw the great George Washington on his knees alone, with his sword on one side and his cocked hat on the other. He was at Prayer to the God of the Armies, beseeching to interpose with Divine aid, as it was a crisis, and the cause of the country, of humanity and of the world was at stake.
Later, Isaac Potts wrote a letter saying, “If there is anyone on this earth who the Lord will listen to - it is George Washington, and I feel a presentiment that under such a Commander there can be no doubt of our eventually establishing our independence, and that God in His providence has willed it so.”
But, a victorious outcome was still very much in doubt.
With Washington’s army practically neutered in the North, the British in March 1778 turned their attention to the South declaring that conquering the southern states of Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina was absolutely essential. The Georgia capital of Savannah had already fallen into British control and the Georgia Patriots were forced to move their capital inland to Augusta.
Matters went from bad to worse. On May 12, 1780, patriot General Benjamin Lincoln surrendered his entire 5,500-man army to the British at Charleston, South Carolina, in the greatest American disaster of the war.
After that catastrophe, Washington named General Nathaniel Greene from Rhode Island to command the Southern army.
Greene was the son of a Quaker minister but was expelled from their faith in August 1773 for attending a military gathering. Quakers to this day are conscientious objectors to war.
Greene’s father raised his children in the Quaker tradition of the Christian faith. As a youth, Greene’s “home-schooling” consisted of the Bible and the devotional writings of George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, and other godly Quaker writers. The roots of his deep faith anchored him.
On December 2, 1780, Greene, nicknamed the “Fighting Quaker” (an oxymoron for sure), arrived in Charlotte, North Carolina, to take command of the South. The Southern army was in shambles. Greene had his work cut out for him.
Up to the task, Greene rallied his men and won a stunning victory over crack British troops at Cowpens, South Carolina. This great victory became the turning point of the War eventually pushing General Charles Cornwallis to surrender at Yorktown, Virginia, effectively ending the War and securing American independence. Jesus said that His followers are the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Mathew 13-14). Certainly, our nation’s founding fathers as followers of our Lord salt the earth and give light to the world.
They sacrificed their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor establishing our nation and government on the Christian faith and Christian principles relying upon God’s grace and mercy to establish this country that today is the salt that preserves human dignity and unalienable Rights which are “endowed by their Creator...with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence.
Dr. Ezra Stiles, a Congregationalist minister and president of Yale College, preached a prophetic sermon about the future of the new nation to the Connecticut General Assembly on May 8th, 1783. He said:
Already does the new constellation of the United States begin to realize this glory. It has already risen to an acknowledged sovereignty among the republics and kingdoms of the world. And we have reason to hope, and, I believe, to expect, that God has still greater blessings in store for this vine which His own right hand has planted, to make us high among the nations in praise, and in name, and in honor.
We must continue to pray for this country that the Lord will not forsake us and send us into the dustbin of history. That’s why we must pray for a Christ revival, pray for our leaders, and pray for our pastors and churches.
“I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone--
for [the President and our leaders] and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Timothy 2:1-2 NIV).
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This is a great piece for the 4th of July week. You've done a good job in studing and writing. Truths not told in our schools today but truths none the less. "God's already blessed America" and He's made it my home. Blessings!
Oh..how much we take for granted. Our freedom has been costly and will continue to be costly to keep it, but GOD is with us and will lead and guide as we pray for guidance and direction. I was hit with your title which I have heard my entire life, but never really saw it as I did today. MY COUNTRY,(comma) 'tis of THEE!!! That within itself tells the story. Thank you for sharing this. GOD BLESS YOU
If only the history classes we had in school were this interesting and inspiring! Thank you for your research and for writing this. I hope this receives the wide readership it deserves for such a time as this. Thank you so much. This goes in my 'favorites.'