The Pulpit’s Power in Declaring Independence
by Jane Hampton Cook
When we think of the Declaration of Independence, we immediately think of the power players behind it: Thomas Jefferson’s prolific pen, Ben Franklin’s wit and wisdom, and John Adams’s zeal.
Someone less well known is the preacher who used his pulpit to guide his parishioners—including John Adams—toward independence. The American Revolution would not have been possible without the voices of the clergy who supported the patriot cause and the influence they had on our founders.
Consider Reverend George Duffield. When John Adams contemplated the momentous idea of independence in the spring of 1776, he found fresh inspiration from a sermon by Duffield. While waiting for additional members of the Continental Congress to arrive for their second official meeting, Adams attended Duffield’s Pine Street Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia.
“I have this morning heard Mr. Duffield upon the signs of the times. He run a parallel between the case of Israel and that of America, and between the conduct of Pharaoh and that of [King] George [III],” Adams wrote to wife Abigail on May 17, 1776.
Adams gushed over Duffield’s style because he was a preacher “whose principles, prayers and sermons more nearly resemble those of our New England clergy than any that I have heard.”
Duffield’s comparison between Pharaoh and King George III tasted sweeter than manna to Adams. The reason? It helped him to make sense of the madness that he and the colonists were facing. After all, the Israelites sought political and governmental, not just spiritual, freedom from Egypt. The king’s decisions to deny jury trials and abolish constitutional charter in the American colonies were Pharaoh-like and tyrannical.
What most struck Adams was Duffield’s heavenly perspective on the big picture and long-term view of America’s future.
“He concluded that the course of events, indicated strongly the design of Providence that we should be separated from Great Britain,” Adams wrote.
Providence meant God’s presence. Duffield knew that Adams and other Continental Congress delegates were searching for their purpose amidst the chaos. They were looking for meaning from their own burning bushes that had been ignited by musket fire at Lexington and Concord a year earlier. What tiny role did the Almighty have in mind for each of them in this giant revolution?
“Is it not a saying of Moses, ‘who am I, that I should go in and out before this great people?’” Adams wrote. “When I consider the great events which are passed, and those greater which are rapidly advancing and that I may have been instrumental of touching some springs, and turning some small wheels . . . I feel an awe upon my mind, which is not easily described.”
Whatever role Adams would play in this separation operation—whether speaking with Aaron’s eloquence or mustering Moses’ mettle—he knew one thing was certain: independence was indispensable to a prosperous future.
“[Great Britain] has at last driven America, to the last step, a complete separation from her, a total absolute independence,” he recalled in agreement with Duffield’s conclusion.
Adams was one of the loudest voices supporting the Declaration of Independence, which the Continental Congress proclaimed on July 4, 1776. Duffield’s sermon wasn’t the genesis for Adams’s zeal, but the message emboldened him to speak out. It encouraged him. Duffield did what ministers often do: guide people to God’s purpose for their lives. The sermon showed that with members of the clergy leaning toward independence, maybe the time for the harvest was ripe. And it was.
The American Revolution would not have been possible without the pulpit. As early as 1750, Jonathan Mayhew of Boston’s West Church preached a groundbreaking sermon against tyranny and to stand firmly for freedom in both a spiritual and governmental sense. Peter Muhlenberg surprised his Virginia congregation one day by ending his sermon with a disrobing, removing his clerical garb to reveal a uniform.
Princeton President John Witherspoon, who was initially reluctant to talk publicly about the crisis from his pulpit, became so frustrated by 1776 that he not only preached about it, but he also signed the Declaration of Independence. Witherspoon was the only member of the clergy to do so.
Duffield became a chaplain for the Continental Congress.
The Declaration of Independence details more than 25 bullet points documenting King George’s tyranny. Patriots behind the pulpit concluded that the king had abdicated his God-given responsibility to protect their God-given rights.
They believed it was their duty under God to respect their government, but they had a Biblical responsibility to defend freedom, the opposite of tyranny. As their sermons reveal, many ministers stood fast on Galatians 5:1, “It is for freedom that Christ came, stand firm then for freedom.”
After patriots traded royalty for representation and won the Revolutionary War, many pastors predicted that the United States would prosper. America would flourish with new inventions, enhance intellect through education, welcome refugees, and spread the gospel through their newfound freedom to worship. The nation we live in today is proof of their political prophesies.
Forty years after hearing Duffield’s independence sermon, John Adams observed that the American Revolution was more than just a war.
“The revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments, of their duties and obligations. This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people was the real American Revolution,” he wrote.
A great way for Christians to celebrate the nation’s birthday this year is to remember that independence is a blessing. Our liberty is a gift from thousands, including patriots with a purpose and those in the pulpit who lived loudly for liberty for you and me.
Presidential historian and national speaker Jane Hampton Cook is the author of six books, including Stories of Faith and Courage from the Revolutionary War, a 365-day devotional. Jane is a frequent guest on the Fox News Channel and host of a documentary on the Revolutionary War for Glenn Beck’s Liberty Tree House on www.gbtv.com. She is also a former White House webmaster to former President George W. Bush. For more information visit janecook.com.