Comments for July 4, 2007
Home Moravian Church
Craig Atwood, Comenius Scholar
It is good to see that so many people have come out for Home Church’s annual observation of the birthday of the United States as a free and independent nation. This is a day that is important to all Americans regardless of ethnicity, political persuasion, or religious convictions. This is the day that we celebrate the decisions and actions of our fore-bearers that helped make this nation a beacon of hope to oppressed and harassed people around the globe. The picnics and parades, hot dogs and Sousa marches, flag waving and family reunions are all expressions of our delight that our fathers and mothers secured the blessings of liberty for their posterity. In the midst of fun and patriotism, it is important that we pause and contemplate the meaning of July 4. What our ancestors did in the summer of 1776 was unprecedented, and the struggle for liberty was difficult. We need to remember that the struggle for freedom and justice did not end with the end of the revolution. It has continued throughout American history. Our ancestors left us a legacy that we need to appreciate, endorse, and defend against those who would subvert our rule of law and abuse our trust. On this most patriotic of national holidays, we need to remember as well that the call for liberty sounded in Philadelphia echoes around the world. Americans are never more patriotic than when we defend the rights of people in other lands.
In a moment I will read the Declaration of Independence, as is our custom at this gathering. I can certainly understand why some people are uncomfortable with reading this secular, political document in a service of worship. I want to assure you that we are not attempting to elevate the Declaration of Independence to the status of Scripture. We are acknowledging that we live our lives as Christians in a secular, political world. Our duties to God include our duties as citizens. This morning we are taking a few moments in the midst of a patriotic holiday to pray for our nation’s well-being and to recall the principles that our nation is built upon.
Before reading the Declaration, let me give you a little of the history behind this event here in Old Salem. Why would the Moravians include the reading of a political manifesto in a religious service? As far as we can tell, the first people in America to observe July 4 as a holiday were the Moravians here in North Carolina in 1783. Governor Martin of North Carolina had issued a solemn proclamation that July 4 would be a day thanksgiving for the state, but it appears that the Moravians were the only ones to respond to the governor’s proclamation with a public event. All of the Moravian congregations in Wachovia observed the day. The worship service was based on a Peace Festival that had been held in Germany four years earlier to celebrate the end of the Seven Years War. The celebration of July 4 in Salem began with trombones playing and the singing of the Te Deum Laudamus, which is an ancient Christian litany. Christian Benzien, who could preach in English, gave the sermon, and at 2:00 p.m. there was a lovefeast that included a cantata called the Psalm of Joy prepared for the occasion. That night there was a torchlight procession through the main streets of Salem while two choirs sang antiphonally. Our celebration is today more modest than the original festival, but we still proclaim this day of peace with music from the Moravian band.
As we can see from this history, the Moravian observation of July 4 was primarily a day of thanksgiving for the end of the war. For most of our history, Moravians have rejected war as a means to resolve disputes. As the American Revolution was heating up, the Moravians “declared in writing and by word of mouth the Oath and the bearing of arms was against our conscience” (Records 4, 1878). Not surprisingly, the Revolution was very difficult for the Moravians. It separated the American communities from their brothers and sisters in Germany and England. All of the Moravian communities in North Carolina were also directly affected by the violence of the war, but they remained steadfast in their faith in Christ as their Savior during times of trial and hunger. News that the Americans and British had signed a peace treaty in Paris in 1783 was greeted with joy by Moravians in America and Europe.
Thus it was that the Moravians in North Carolina enthusiastically responded to the governor’s proclamation for a day of thanksgiving. Those who suffer through war value the blessings of peace the most. Naturally, the Moravians shared the anxieties of many as this nation embarked on the great adventure of creating a nation based on the principles of freedom and democracy. What may not have been as clear to participants in that original celebration as it is to us today is that many of the values expressed in the Declaration of Independence are consistent with Moravian convictions through the ages.
The Moravian celebration on July 4, 1783 and our modern observance remind us that there is no clear division between secular and sacred things. The Moravian Church was the first church established on the conviction that there should be a strict separation between secular government and the church, but the Moravians still believed that Christians should be good citizens. Though our Moravian ancestors had not participated in the American Revolution, they had not qualms about having a religious service to celebrate July 4. Moravians at Home Church continue to observe this anniversary with prayers and hymns on this public square without violating the separation of church and state. We freely offer our prayers for the well-being of this nation because we are citizens and patriotic. We celebrate the fact that our constitution grants us the freedom of religion, but both as Moravians and citizens we respect other people’s freedom of religion and try not to impose our prayers and hymns on our neighbors. We offer our prayers for this nation while praying for all nations because we know the difference between God and Country.
As I read the Declaration of Independence, I hope you will pay close attention to the fact that this is not a religious statement, nor was it intended to be so. There are references to divine providence and to nature’s God, but there is nothing specifically Christian or Jewish in these terms. The Declaration is a secular document drawn up by men of widely different religious backgrounds. Thomas Jefferson was a Deist, which is a type of Unitarian. One of the fundamental principles of this Declaration of Independence is that people have the right to establish their own forms of government and rule themselves according to their beliefs and convictions. Most of the Declaration is about specific grievances against the King of England. Pay attention to those grievances and use them as a guide in evaluating our modern nations. But as important as the grievances themselves are, what is more important is Jefferson’s claim that the people have the right to throw off tyranny.
It is easy to get swept up in the militarism that has become associated with the flag and Independence Day. It is easy to allow jingoistic patriotism and chauvinism to overwhelm our convictions and rule of law, especially in these tumultuous days. It has never been more important to pause and meditate upon our Christian faith and the convictions expressed in this document. The Declaration speaks of more than grievances against the king; it presents the core values of this nation. It speaks of our conviction that all humans are created equal and are endowed by God with certain rights. As people of faith, we believe that all people are created in the image of God and should be treated accordingly. Thus, as Americans and as Christians, we are dedicated to the defense of human rights in all parts of the world. Like our Moravian ancestors 224 years ago, we rejoice when peace triumphs over war and we dedicate ourselves to the path of peace. We are here today because we pray each day that liberty and justice will be established for all people in America and in other nations. As I read this historic document, pay attention to what our founders believed about government. As Christians, we judge ourselves and our leaders by the standard set by Jesus. As Americans, we should judge our government and our leaders by the standards set forth in this declaration.