Faith in Action

Let freedom preach: The role of clergy in shaping America’s fight against injustice

As I recently strolled down Duke of Gloucester Street in Williamsburg, Virginia, I could sense the presence of freedom percolating in the hearts and souls of Virginians of the latter part of the 18th century.

Just imagine what it was like to be listening to speeches from giants who cleared the pathway of freedom for future generations. Such men as Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, George Washington and James Madison all came from Virginia, with three of the four serving as U.S. presidents.

A story of how religion played a critical role, and united the colonies during that dangerous time, deserves our attention.

Boston colonists rebelled against onerous taxes decreed by the British and threw into the harbor 342 chests of tea from the British East India Company. The British put a blockade against all commerce coming into and out of Boston’s harbor until the citizens of Massachusetts paid for the tea.

Needless to say, the economic consequences were dire on the people.

On March 7, 1774, the political responses were swift, with the royal governor of Massachusetts dissolving the legislature.

In solidarity with Massachusetts, Thomas Jefferson drafted a Day of Fasting Humiliation and Prayer Resolution on May 24, 1774, which was unanimously approved by the Virginia House of Burgesses in Williamsburg.

The resolution read in part, “the said first day of June be set apart, by the members of this House, as a Day of Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer, devoutly to implore the Divine interposition, for averting the heavy calamity which threatens destruction to our civil rights ... Ordered therefore that Members of this House do attend ... with the Speaker, and the Mace, to the Church in this City for the purposes aforesaid; and that the Reverend Mr. Price be appointed to read prayers, and the Reverend Mr. Gwatkin, to preach a sermon.”

The Reverend Price actually delivered the sermon and quoted from Genesis 18:23 in reference to Abraham challenging God regarding the destruction of Sodom. “Will you also destroy the righteous with the wicked?”

Edmond Randolph wrote that had the British reviewed their actions, they would one day see that this series of events “might have well been interpreted into the seed of a revolution.”

Could this kind of sermon have been delivered today?

People would have been screaming, “No politics from the pulpit!”

Yet, in retrospect, the Virginia colonial leadership called upon the moral teachings of their faith tradition to express solidarity with their sister colony and their moral outrage at the British for instituting their blockade.

Religion played the role of enabling the leadership of Virginia to take the moral high ground, and religion was the healing balm that gave resolve and enabled the leadership of Virginia, and probably other colonies, to join hands and hearts to support their countrymen in Massachusetts.

Religion was the strength and rock of a new nation.

As we celebrate the Fourth of July, let us not forget that history.

When we see injustice against fellow Americans, we have a right and a duty to call upon our clergy for leadership — not to incite the people to violence, but to call out a clear injustice against our fellow citizens or anyone suffering under the tyranny of injustice or hate inside our borders or around the world.

American history is full of examples of clergy who spoke out against injustice, just like the Reverend Price did in the face of an oppressive act from the British.

We look at historic issues, like slavery, and modern-day controversies, like the inhumane treatment of children at our southern border, as examples of the clergy’s need to preach sermons calling out these actions.

I am sure that many in colonial times would have protested against clergy who intoned these words and the use of scripture to reinforce the call to action against the British. Maybe some parishioners sat in their pews at Bruton Parish Episcopal Church feeling Reverend Price stepped over the line.

Yet clergy have been quoting scriptures since colonial times to address the moral issues of the day.

So when people today espouse the “no politics from the pulpit” mantra, are they aware of American history and the role of the clergy who spoke to the social ills and to the overarching humane rights abuses of their time?

American culture surely has established the tradition of clergy preaching their understanding of scripture to make America into the moral society our Founders had intended.

That freedom to speak and to practice religion remain a reason to celebrate.