Monday, February 7, 2011

Day of Prayer Declaration in 1622

There are several examples on this blog of our founders' declarations for days of fasting and prayer, many from around the time of our Declaration of Independence and later years. But it was the continuation of a tradition that started long before that.

Consider Plymouth Plantation, when there was a severe lack of rain in 1622. Governor Bradford had no federal government to look to for assistance. Instead he looked to the leader that he and his people wanted to be in charge. He wrote this declaration:

"I may not here omit how, notwithstand all their great pains and industry, and the great hopes of a large crop, the Lord seemed to blast, and take away the same, and to threaten further and more sore famine unto them. By a great drought which continued from the third week in May, till about the middle of July, without any rain and with great heat for the most part, insomuch as the corn began to wither away though it was set with fish, the moisture whereof helped it much. Yet at length it began to languish sore, and some of the drier grounds were parched like withered hay, part whereof was never recovered. Upon which they set apart a solemn day of humiliation, to seek the Lord by humble and fervent prayer, in this great distress. And He was pleased to give them a gracious and speedy answer, both to their own and the Indians' admiration that lived amongst them. For all the morning, and greatest part of the day, it was clear weather and very hot, and not a cloud or any sign of rain to be seen; yet toward evening it began to overcast, and shortly after to rain with such sweet and gentle showers as gave them cause of rejoicing and blessing God..."

This was before the Constitution was written, so there was no cry of "separation of church and state." Indeed, the framers who wrote the Constitution took care to assure the states that the new federal government would not interfere with such practices and beliefs by the states.

As found in "Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647", by William Bradford, Samuel Eliot Morison.


Bruce Gourley said...

What you fail to note is that the 17th century Plymouth Colony / Massachusetts was a theocracy based on Old Testament law.

Bradford and his successors mandated a certain kind of religion for Massachusetts citizens, and persecuted (even to the point of death) citizens (including Christians!) who refused to embrace / live by the laws of the state religion.

Perhaps you want America to be a "Christian" theocracy in which only the right kind of Christians are allowed full citizenship.

But the truth is that church state separation is central to America's founding principles and faith heritage ... in reaction to theocracy.

In 1644, Baptist Roger Williams (persecuted by Massachusetts' "Christian" colonial theocrats, who considered Baptists heretical) called for a "wall of separation" between church and state. Baptists' "wall of separation" would prevent government from interfering with the free exercise of religion, and prevent government from incorporating religion into governance.

Generations of Baptists were persecuted, and shed blood, in the fight (against colonial theocracies) to separate church and state. Their triumph finally came in the enactment of the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, establishing the Baptist vision of a "wall of separation" between church and state.

Deniers of church state separation often respond that the phrase "wall of separation" is not in the U. S. Constitution. Well, neither is the word "Trinity" in the Bible, but most deniers of church state separation probably believe in the Trinity.

More importantly, Christians of the late 18th and early 19th centuries clearly understood that the First Amendment wording - "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" - separated church from state. Their testimony bears much more weight than the fabricated history loved by many modern conservative Christians and politicians.

Make no mistake: denying church state separation mocks our nation's founding principles and faith heritage. Church state separation was good for America in 1791, and it is good for America now. To see the problems of merging church and state, look to the Middle East, where conservative religious law (Sharia Law, based on the biblical Old Testament) rules.

Church state separation is a liberal, and American, moral value of which we all can be proud.

Bruce Gourley
Baptist History & Heritage Society

History Matters said...


Thank you for your thoughtful (and polite) comment. I suspect on many current, practical issues, we agree more than disagree. I don't want a theocracy. I don't want a government to enforce Christianity on anyone. I don't want any sect to be persecuted unless they are violating our laws (in which case the word "persecution" would not apply, at least in the case of constitutional laws).

If you read more of this blog, I think you will see that my main concern, indeed the motivation for creating the blog in the first place, was the degree to which the First Amendment is misunderstood or deliberately misused today. The amendment was never intended to prevent religious people who serve as elected officials from looking to their religious morality in making decisions, for example, but that has been one application in court cases.

If you look at some of the posts here you will see that "separation" has been used in an absolute sense. But our Founders who ratified the Bill of Rights did not see it that way, and probably could not have imagined some of its uses in today's litigation. Do you think they intended to have a Bill of Rights that would prevent a high school chorus from singing music with religious roots, especially when doing so would remove much of the world's great art from the concerts? Did the Founders wish to prevent school children from reading their Bibles during free time or from saying grace before eating in the cafeteria? Looking at the heading on the top of every page, you can see that I am concerned that the First Amendment is being "turned on its head" by the over-application of the "separation" concept.

May a high school graduation have an opening prayer? I think the answer is "yes" in a constitutional sense. The First Amendment does not prevent that; in fact, it may be said that it protects that action from interference by the Federal government. SHOULD a high school open the ceremony with prayer? That is another question. Certainly our Founders knew that the mind of man was not enough for the great responsibilities they faced. They called on our country to pray at times, and the Congress opened its very first session with prayer. Why would we not want to pray for our graduates? It would be insensitive to always call on a Baptist pastor if your student body were not exclusively Baptist, but it would not be unconstitutional. That is a decent summary of my stance.