“The First Friends of Civil Liberty”



Deut. 10: 12-22  Ps. 33:1-12 p.767   Mark 12: 13-17


On this Independence Weekend, we gather as a congregation of Christians to pray for our nation: that it might stand for the ideals of liberty, freedom and justice for all.

Of course, on this Sunday as on every Sunday, our first and primary responsibility is to worship God and to gather around the Word which gives us life. This is why I like to read the charge to us from the book of Deuteronomy. The writer is giving us and the people for whom the text was written, a reminder of that which was of vital importance to the faith:

“Listen to what the Lord your God demands of you:

#1 > Worship God.

#2 > Do that which God commands of you.

#3 > Love God and serve God with all of your heart.


Quoting our Psalm for the day, the writer reminds us of our place in the universe:  “Remember the earth belongs to God and all that is in it.” The writer then tells us that these words are written to a very special people, a chosen nation - a people who seek to follow and give honor to the One True God who is supreme over all the gods of the earth.

This God is a just God. This God is not a thief. This God cannot be manipulated into giving people what they want just because their thirst for things is unquenchable. This is a God who demands justice of those who claim his name. Not only widows and orphans but strangers and aliens and foreigners in the land are to be cared for by God’s people.

So perhaps, the writer implies, the nation of Israel is mistaken in claiming that the Blessings of God belonged only to themselves alone and were not to be shared with others. This seems to be a perennial difficulty among believers: having reverence for God should not lead us to assume that God in on our side and our side alone.


Yet on this holiday it is surely right that we give thanks to God for our nation’s heroic past and pledge ourselves to continue to defend the quest for liberty and freedom. We are citizens of a land which gave birth to the concept of religious liberty, so we ought to give thanks to God for those ancestors in the faith who helped bring that about!

Religious liberty is no minor matter. While some nations experimented with it in Eastern Europe in the 14th century it is our nation who put forth its guarantees into our constitution. While it may sound modern to our ears, the title of my message today: “The First Friends of Civil Liberty” comes from a letter written by George Washington to a group of Christians in colonial Virginia.


He was writing to a man by the name of John Leland and the Virginia Baptists who had written to the President reminding him that their support depended upon his commitment to securing “liberty of conscience” for all people. They expressed their concern that full “religious liberty” was not adequately addressed in the constitution and thus argued for what we now know as the First Amendment.  


The President wrote back:


“I recollect that the religious society of which you are members has been throughout America, uniformly and almost unanimously the first friends of civil liberty and the persevering promoters of our glorious revolution...”              +

I’d like to think that Baptists and Methodists and Presbyterians still promote such freedoms although I sometimes wonder if we have lost our way. There are those in our nation who remember, not the Baptists or the Quakers who gave us freedom of religion, but rather the puritans of Massachusetts Bay who sought that liberty for themselves alone. Our pilgrim forefathers persecuted anyone who did not walk in their own religious tradition.

So it is that I rejoice in the witness of my own Baptist ancestors, like Roger Williams who fled for his life from Salem Massachusetts and established the Rhode Island Colony whose constitution states:

“It is the will and command of God that - in the Rhode Island Colony - a permission of the most paganish, Turkish, Jewish or anti- Christian consciences be granted to all.”

Note that this sentence includes Islam among those who were given freedom of religious thought. Williams, when serving the Church of England, wrote a tract entitled Against the Bloody Tenant of Persecution which read in part:

“Contrary to popular opinion...  the blood of so many hundreds of souls of Protestants or Papists is not required nor accepted by the Prince of Peace!”


Roger Williams believed in the absolute liberty of the religious conscience. And his dream was carried forth by people of faith in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland.


Pastor John Leland was a friend of both James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. In fact at Jefferson’s inauguration he and his congregation in Western Massachusetts sent the President a 300 pound Mammouth Cheese which was transported by sled, boat and horse cart to the newly built white house in the year 1802.

With the cheese came a note:

“This cheese was produced by the personal labor of freeborn farmers with the voluntary and cheerful aid of their wives and daughters, without the assistance of a single slave.”

Leland always let his politics be known!

President Jefferson then invited Leland to address the United States Congress on his favorite subject: the religious liberty of the individual conscience. It was that same President who wrote a note to the Danbury Connecticut Baptist Association, lauding them for their commitment to “the wall separation between church and state”.

Yet many today seem to want that wall to disappear. Like the pilgrims of Massachusetts Bay, there are those who wish to take away these liberties from others and reserve them for themselves alone.


While some seem to claim this is a complicated issue today, it seems that it was in Jesus’ day as well. In our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus is pressed on the question of how religious people are to relate to the state and which demands our supreme loyalty?

“Teacher, we know that you are a good man and teach God’s ways clearly, so tell us: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?”

It was dangerous question in his day.  Some argued that men and women of faith should not support a government that doesn’t always act according to just and moral standards for all people.

Jesus’ answer to his inquirers about the payment of taxes to the government was exasperating to the ones who asked it. As was often his practice, he answered one question by raising another.

“Show me a coin.” he said. “Whose face is on this coin?”

“Well Caesar!” they answered.

“And whose inscription is on it?”

“Well Caesar of course!”

“Well then, you should give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. You should give to God what belongs to God.”


They were amazed and confused. I’m sure they had a dozen questions more and they are perhaps similar to questions we need to face in our time. I believe what Jesus is doing here is pointing out the difficulty we might have in determining what exactly it is which belongs to Caesar and what would belong to God. Jesus seems to say that it is up to us to determine how best to advocate our own priorities in life as they relate to God and the power of the state.


Surely the practice of our faith belongs to God but what about our wealth, our bodies, our planet?  Do they not belong to God? How does our faith influence our politics? Do allow the State supremacy in some things and confine our faith to matters of worship and prayer?


I personally think that Jesus would have plenty to say about the issues of poverty and wealth. He would surely have a word to say about love and commitment, about going to war and seeking the peace. What would he say about giving over the resourses of our planet to those who abuse and misuse them?

I believe that our faith does have relevance for the living of these days. I believe that there are plenty of times when we need to give some serious thought to what it is that belongs to Caesar and what it is that belongs to God.


As John Leland wrote long ago, we should never: “surrender to man that which is to be kept sacred for God... and religious opinions should never be the “objects of civil government”.

I also appreciate the way the late Sen. Sam Ervin put it:

“When religion controls government, political liberty dies. When government controls religion, religious liberty perishes.”


On this 238th birth day of our nation we do give thanks for our nation and its promise of liberty. And as citizens of this republic we must ever be on watch to guard those liberties against the manipulations of corporate powers unregulated by the state. Let us always be in prayer for our nation: that it might live up to its ideals of liberty, freedom and justice for all.

Posted on July 14, 2014 .