by Gordon Franz
A Provocative Thought Question
On the Sunday morning of the 1976 Bicentennial, my pastor, James Smith of Fair Lawn Bible Church in Fair Lawn, New Jersey spoke on 1 Peter 2:13-17. In the evening service we had a question-and-answer session about the morning message.
At the question-and-answer session, the pastor’s teen-age son, Timmy, asked a very legitimate, yet provocative question: “If the American colonists / patriots were born-again Christians, then why did the colonists not honor the king, but instead revolt against the Crown?!”
That was a very insightful question because Fair Lawn, New Jersey in the Colonial period was called Slooterdam, a Dutch word for a fish trap that was in the Passaic River (Rogers 1960:12). Slooterdam was in Bergen County which was divided between the Tories, who were Loyalists to the Crown, and the Patriots who were loyal to, and fought for, the Continental Congress (Braisted 2007:65-76; Leiby 1980). At this time, there was no sitting on the fence in Bergen County. In actuality, Bergen Country was a mini-civil war with family members that sometimes fought each other. A person could only be on one side of the fence or the other! I do not recall the pastor’s answer to that question, but I have never forgotten that challenging question.
King George III, a Born-Again Christian?
A few years later I came across a very fascinating article that added another perspective to that question and its relation to 1 Peter 2:13-17. Research has shown that King George III was likely a born-again Christian (Brown 1981:1-5)!
Contrary to the portrayal by colonial politician and the propaganda of the American press that King George III was a tyrant, he was, demonstratively, a kind and humble man (Knox 1976:101). He encouraged his family and subjects to read the Bible. He supported the non-conformist churches (evangelicals) as opposed to the Church of England. He told his dying daughter, Princess Amelia, “it is not of yourself alone that you can be saved, your acceptance with God must depend on your faith and trust in the merits of the Redeemer [the Lord Jesus Christ]” (Brown 1981:2).
He once asked one of his subjects as to the grounds of his hope of salvation. The person replied, “The sacrifice and work of the Lord Jesus Christ.” The king responded, “That too is the ground of my dependence” (Brown 1981:5). In other words, King George III professed to be a born-again Christian! The colonists did not honor the king as Peter admonished believers in the Lord Jesus to do; nor did they “love the brotherhood” which included King George III who was part of the family of God (1 Peter 2:17)! Why not?
The Founding Fathers: Deists, Christians, or Theistic Rationalists?
Recently I came across a very interesting, thought-provoking, book that added another dimension to this question. It is entitled, The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders (2012), by Gregg Frazer, a history professor at the Master’s College in California. In the book, Frazer interacted with the two extremes in American political theology. On the one extreme was the “Christian America” camp that believed that the United States was “a Christian nation built upon Christian and, specifically, biblical principles” (2012:2), and wants America to return to that position.
On the other extreme, are the secularists who championed the so-called “wall of separation” between church and state and said that many of the Founders were deists. Frazer points out that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin were not deists, but rather, theistic rationalists (2012:125-163, 197-213). Each camp emphasized their favorite part of the First Amendment of the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The secularist camp emphasized the first part, while the Christian American camp the latter. Thus both parts of the Establishment Clause are in the Constitution.
In the book, Frazer shows that the “political theology of the American Founding era was neither Christianity nor deism. The prevailing political theology of the American Founding era was theistic rationalism” (2012:2; italics in original). Theistic rationalism, a phrase coined by Frazer, “was a hybrid belief system mixing elements of natural religion, Christianity, and rationalism, with rationalism as the predominant element … Adherents were willing to define God in whatever way their reason indicated and to jettison Christian beliefs that did not conform to reason” (2012:14). Frazer concluded by saying:
“By making their own reason the final determinant of what counted as legitimate revelation and the final determinant of the meaning of revelation, the theistic rationalists essentially defined away any independent divine influence on their own religion and politics. God effectively lost the ability to define Himself or make demands on them with which they were not comfortable. In other words, they effectively became the voice of God to themselves. In a practical sense, God became whoever they preferred Him to be and made only those demands they wished Him to make. They had truly created a god in their own image” (2012:236; italics in original).
The Founders did, however, “not erect a wall of separation between church and state; [but] they promoted religion and considered it a necessary support for a free society” (2012:234). With this understanding, perhaps the theological foundation of the American Revolution was not as Biblical as one might want to believe!
The “Conclusion” of the Matter
If I had lived in Slooterdam during the American Revolution, which side of the fence would I have come down on? I have debated this question in my own mind many times. Would I have joined the Outwater Militia and fought with the Continental Army? Or, would I have been a British sympathizer and plundered food from my neighbors and sell that food to the British in New York City? A third option, a difficult if not impossible one at best, would have been to remain neutral.
With 20/20 hindsight I am glad the American Colonies won the War of Independence and we have the Constitutional Republic that came out of it. I am grateful for the Bill of Rights with both parts of the First amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
But what would I have done during the war? Biblically, I would have had to honor the king. The consequence of this action would mean I would have had to go to Canada with my fellow loyalists after the war. This is a chilling thought (Braisted 2007:75-76)! Yet I would have honored the king and loved the brotherhood, eh!
2007 Bergen’s Loyalists. Pp. 65-76 in The Revolutionary War in Bergen County. Edited by C. Karels. Charleston, SC: History Press.
Brown, Roger Lee
1981 The Christian Life of King George III. The Banner of Truth 215-216: 1-5.
2012 The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders. Reason, Revelation, and Revolution. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.
Knox, R. Buick
1976 Howel Harris and John Elias. Journal of the Historical Society of the Presbyterian Church of Wales 60/4: 95-103.
1980 The Revolutionary War in the Hackensack Valley. Camden, NJ: Rutgers University.
1960 From Slooterdam to Fair Lawn. A History of the Fair Lawn Area, Bergen County, New Jersey. Fair Lawn, NJ: Thomas Jefferson Junior High School.