A group of individuals from England believed that the Church of England and the Catholic Church had strayed from the truth delivered by Christ. Facing intolerance and persecution from government and church leaders in England because of their beliefs, many fled to Holland where they experienced greater religious freedom. After struggling to earn livings in Holland they sought a new place where they could worship according to the dictates of their conscience. What looked most promising was America, as yet a largely unknown land with only a few permanent settlements. After delays, they started a journey filled with peril and a trans-Atlantic voyage on the ship Mayflower lasting 66 days. The Pilgrims celebrated their arrival with prayer and thanksgiving to God. On the crowded ship off the coast of what is now Massachusetts, the Pilgrims wrote and signed an important document. That document was the Mayflower Compact.
Part of that document stated: “Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the first Colony in the northern Parts of Virginia; Do by these Presents, solemnly and mutually, in the Presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid.”
The Mayflower Compact was signed by the adult males on the ship as a testament that they established a new colony for the glory of God and to spread Christianity. Through the Compact, the Pilgrims recognized the great blessings that God gives to His children. Two of my ancestors, Francis Cooke and Richard Warren, signed the Compact. The weary travelers had a harsh winter full of sickness and starvation ahead. Many died but many survived, spreading out and serving as a lasting foundation for what would eventually become a new nation founded upon God-given rights and freedoms; a nation where the Restoration of the gospel could occur.
When the Puritans came to America they brought with them and further developed their ideas of liberty. They typically viewed liberty in four different ways. The main form of liberty of which they spoke and wrote was a collective or “publick liberty” (p.200; Fischer, D. H. (1989). Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. Oxford University Press, Oxford.). This was a liberty of the community and colony and not necessarily individual liberty. It “was thought to be consistent with close restraints upon individuals” (Fischer, p.200). It was through individual restraints that the entire community had liberty. This may seem counter-intuitive but it is not possible to have liberty for the collective without restraining the individual, which is one reason why anarchy does not work. Without restraint, entropy takes over, leaving only chaos.
The second idea of liberty that the Puritans talked of was liberty for individuals, although they usually referred to these as liberties (i.e., a plurality of liberty). In this case, “these plural liberties were understood as specific exemptions from a condition of prior restraint” (Fischer, p.201), which liberties they found in a new land.
The third Puritan view of liberty was the sense of “soul” or “Christian” liberty – the “freedom to serve God in the world. It was freedom to order one’s own acts in a godly way – but not in any other. It made Christian freedom into a form of obligation” (Fischer, p.202). This type of liberty was also referred to as liberty of conscience. While this idea of liberty was restrictive in practice because they only accepted belief in their Puritan faith, the idea that people should be free to serve God was an important founding philosophy for the future United States.
The fourth view of liberty for the Puritans was an individual liberty, a liberty or freedom from tyranny. This freedom included “freedom from want in the most fundamental sense” and “freedom from fear” (Fischer, p.205). This was similar to how many Americans view liberty today. This Puritan belief was another important belief that would influence many of the future Founding Fathers.
The Puritans believed in the freedom in order and not the freedom from order (i.e., collective liberty was more important than personal liberty). They believed that individual restraints were vital to the welfare of society – an idea that sometimes seems largely lost in our world today. This does not mean that more laws or more restrictions increase freedom but it also does not mean that fewer laws and fewer restrictions necessarily increase liberty.
Liberty and freedom are God’s desires for us. He endowed us with “certain unalienable Rights,” which rights include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Liberty is a gift from God! We should always remember and serve Him, who gives us our freedom. May we be like the great Book of Mormon military leader Moroni who “did joy in the liberty and the freedom of his country, and his brethren from bondage and slavery” (Alma 48:11). Satan seeks “to overthrow the freedom of all lands, nations, and countries” (Ether 8:25), whereas God desires freedom and joy for us.
God told His people: “I, the Lord God, make you free, therefore ye are free indeed; and the law also maketh you free. Nevertheless, when the wicked rule the people mourn. Wherefore, honest men and wise men should be sought for diligently, and good men and wise men ye should observe to uphold; otherwise whatsoever is less than these cometh of evil” (D&C 98:8-10). As we remember and return to that God who gives us life and liberty, we will be blessed individually, as a nation, and as a world.
The early years of America were a struggle for individual and religious liberties. There were extremes in beliefs and actions; there were allowances for diversity of religious beliefs and there were severe constraints on free expression of belief. It took years for a national identity to form. In the end, the identity that formed allowed for the separation of church from state and state from church. Our identity recognized the great value of religion – the necessity of it for a civil society – but also recognized that belief and faith should not be coerced. People should be free to worship according to the dictates of their own conscience.
Near the end of 1776, the American colonies were entrenched in a war against Great Britain. This was part of the war for independence. The war at that time was not going well for the Americans who were seeking freedom. They had lost a number of battles, forts, and cities, including Fort Washington and New York City. While he watched the battle of Fort Washington, General George Washington was dismayed at the loss of life. At the end of the battle he wept openly. It was a hard loss. The entire Revolutionary war was a series of defeats for the Americans. That year of so much adversity might have seemed bleak and hopeless. Indeed it was for a number of people but many Americans found new resolve in their adversity. They strengthened their desires for freedom from what they saw as an oppressive government. In the midst of this adversity Dr. Benjamin Rush said, “Our republics cannot exist long in prosperity. We require adversity and appear to posses most of the republican spirit when most depressed.” (Source: David Hackett Fischer. Washington’s crossing. (2006). Oxford University Press, USA). “It was a time when many Americans resolved to act in a way that made a difference in the world.” (ibid.). The revival in the resolve and hearts of those fighting the war of independence came from their defeats, not their victories. It was in the Americans’ responses to calamity and tragedy that their greatness grew. We don’t show our strength and character in times of ease, we demonstrate it by how we respond when all the world seems to be falling down around us. This struggle for liberty was not easy. In our lives today it might appear that we are losing battles, we might lose battles, but if we remain faithful, God will turn all things to our benefit.
How do you cope with severe opposition? Do you give in to despair? Do you end up shattered upon the jagged rocks of adversity? Or do you fight? Do you face the adversity and move forward? Fighting is not always the solution – there are some fights that are beyond us – but when faced with adversity we should strive to address it as best as we can. Sometimes that might be by running away, like Joseph did from Potiphar’s wife. For Joseph, his running from adversity led him into greater adversity – being cast into prison. How did he deal with this potential tragedy? He remained true to who he was and became the most powerful and respected prisoner. Through his righteousness and faith he faced adversity and overcame it, eventually rising to the second most powerful man in Egypt. We can say that Joseph was successful because of his adversity, not in spite of it. His liberty only came through his adversity.
I’ll share an example from the Revolutionary War that is representative of the challenges faced by the Americans who struggled through severe adversity to establish a new nation of freedom.
On a bitter cold Christmas night the Continental Army, led by George Washington, made a bold maneuver against the superior forces of the British army. General Washington led his troops over the Delaware in what would prove to be a defining moment of the Revolutionary War and American history. The crossing of the Delaware took all night; it was a significant adversity. Severe winter weather blew and froze the troops all during the crossing and the following day. Even so, the poor weather was a mixed blessing – it made the crossing treacherous but it also masked the movements of the Americans. Even after crossing the icy river, surviving the danger of that maneuver, it was so frigid that there are reports of at least two soldiers freezing to death that night. John Greenwood was a member of the army; he served as a fifer but because of the circumstances, John the fifer became John the soldier when he was called to carry a musket during the upcoming assault. As the army marched on its way after crossing the Delaware, John Greenwood was exhausted like many others. During one break he sat down with the intention of going to sleep. The voice of the bitter cold enticed John, lulling him into a false sense of security. He was so fatigued that he didn’t care if he never awoke from his slumber. As he drifted off to sleep, a passing sergeant noticed John, roused him, and got him up and moving. (Fischer, David H. 2004. Washington’s crossing. Oxford University Press, New York, NY, p. 228). This act saved his life. John Greenwood later became a dentist, serving as Pres. Washington’s dentist and significantly contributing to advances in dental treatment.
The American colonists struggled and eventually overcame, giving birth to a new nation founded on principles of individual liberty. The general sentiments of early citizens of the United States regarding the government and the interplay of religion and religious beliefs are echoed in Doctrine and Covenants 134.
“We believe that governments were instituted of God for the benefit of man; and that he holds men accountable for their acts in relation to them, both in making laws and administering them, for the good and safety of society. We believe that no government can exist in peace, except such laws are framed and held inviolate as will secure to each individual the free exercise of conscience, the right and control of property, and the protection of life. We believe that all governments necessarily require civil officers and magistrates to enforce the laws of the same; and that such as will administer the law in equity and justice should be sought for and upheld by the voice of the people if a republic, or the will of the sovereign. We believe that religion is instituted of God; and that men are amenable to him, and to him only, for the exercise of it, unless their religious opinions prompt them to infringe upon the rights and liberties of others; but we do not believe that human law has a right to interfere in prescribing rules of worship to bind the consciences of men, nor dictate forms for public or private devotion; that the civil magistrate should restrain crime, but never control conscience; should punish guilt, but never suppress the freedom of the soul.” (D&C 134:1-4)
“Belief in God is central to the country’s experience, yet…faith is a matter of choice, not coercion” (Meacham, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation, location 73 of 6656 Kindle eBook). This was a novel, revolutionary principle upon which to establish a nation. Tying church and state together as had been done for much of history allowed for the distortion of doctrine and gross abuses of ecclesiastical and political power. Roger Williams, an early advocate of religious liberty, observed that “the gardens of Christ’s churches turned into the wilderness of national religion, and the world (under Constantine’s dominion) to the most un-Christian Christendom.” (Meacham, location 677 of 6656 Kindle eBook). The Great Apostasy held sway over the hearts, religions, and governments of humankind. The Founding Fathers in their wisdom, shattered the bonds between religion and government so that true liberty might exist and true religion flourish as they unknowingly laid the foundation for the restoration of Christ’s church.
Removing the bonds between organized churches and government does not mean religion and politics should remain separate. Pres. Washington stated in his farewell address: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism who should labour to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens…. And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” (Washington, Farewell Address: http://www.pbs.org/georgewashington/milestones/farewell_address_read3.html)
In the early days of the Revolutionary War one of the American generals, Nathanael Greene, wrote of the necessity of religious belief for the nation. He said: “America must raise an empire of permanent duration, supported upon the grand pillars of Truth, Freedom, and Religion, encouraged by the smiles of Justice and defended by her own patriotic sons…. Permit me then to recommend from the sincerity of my heart, ready at all times to bleed in my country’s cause, a Declaration of Independence, and call upon the world and the great God who governs it to witness the necessity, propriety and rectitude thereof.” (as cited by D. McCullough in 1776, Simon & Schuster, 2005; emphasis added).
Those who attack religion attack the foundation of morality and the foundation of liberty. Leaders who seek to oppress and gain tyrannical power seek to constrain religious liberty. Liberty triumphed because the Founding Fathers believed that God granted unto His children inherent rights that governments should have no power to limit. One of these rights was that of freedom of religious worship. By infusing our nation with the idea of God-given rights rather than government-given rights, America became a place of inclusion rather than exclusion; America became a place of freedom and liberties rather than oppression, although oppression and bondage remained for many. Early leaders of the United States and of the restored church rejoiced in this liberty.
Brigham Young stated: “How can a republican [freely elected] government stand? There is only one way for it to stand. It can endure; but how? It can endure, as the government of heaven endures, upon the eternal rock of truth and virtue; and that is the only basis upon which any government can endure” (https://www.lds.org/manual/teachings-brigham-young/chapter-36?lang=eng).
Our government was founded under the inspiration of God. It will only endure, as Brigham Young said, when those who govern and those who are governed enact and support truthful and virtuous laws with truthfulness and virtue in their personal lives. The Book of Mormon prophet and king Mosiah taught that nations only prosper and endure when righteousness prevails:
“Therefore, choose you by the voice of this people, judges, that ye may be judged according to the laws which have been given you by our fathers, which are correct, and which were given them by the hand of the Lord. Now it is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right; but it is common for the lesser part of the people to desire that which is not right; therefore this shall ye observe and make it your law—to do your business by the voice of the people. And if the time comes that the voice of the people doth choose iniquity, then is the time that the judgments of God will come upon you; yea, then is the time he will visit you with great destruction even as he has hitherto visited this land” (Mosiah 29:25-27).
Pres. Young said: “If a nation transgresses wholesome laws and oppresses any of its citizens or another nation, until the cup of iniquity is full, through acts that are perfectly under its own control, God will hurl those who are in authority from their power, and they will be forgotten; and he will take another people, though poor and despised, a hiss and a by-word among the popular nations, and instill into them power and wisdom; and they will increase and prosper, until they in turn become a great nation on the earth.” Brigham Young also said, “No matter how good a government is, unless it is administered by righteous men, an evil government will be made of it.” He taught that the influence of righteous citizens can save a nation: “Government in the hands of a wicked people must terminate in woe to that people, but in the hands of the righteous it is everlasting, while its power reaches to heaven.” Lastly, Brigham Young taught about the type of leaders we should seek: “We want men to rule the nation who care more for and love better the nation’s welfare than gold and silver, fame, or popularity” (https://www.lds.org/manual/teachings-brigham-young/chapter-36?lang=eng).
I am grateful for the great nation The United States of America and for the freedoms we enjoy. I am grateful to live in a land where we can choose to live in righteousness. We must strive to elect good men and women. It is never too late to choose righteousness and to encourage righteousness in others!
This foundation of righteousness was built by the first leaders of the nation who acted in accord with the will of God.
Pres. Wilford Woodruff stated in general conference: “I am going to bear my testimony to this assembly, if I never do it again in my life, that those men who laid the foundation of this American government and signed the Declaration of Independence were the best spirits the God of heaven could find on the face of the earth. They were choice spirits, not wicked men. General Washington and all the men that labored for the purpose were inspired of the Lord.” (April 1898, Conference Report). He further said that they “laid the foundation of the government [we] now enjoy, and…never apostatized from it, but…remained true to it and were faithful to God.” (Read for more: http://www.josephsmithacademy.org/wiki/eminent-spirits-appear-to-wilford-woodruff/)
The Founding Fathers were true to their cause and by and large expressed great faith in God. An example of this faith comes from Thomas Jefferson.
As Thomas Jefferson was dying he began “moving in his mind between past and present, [and] gave his grandson instructions about his funeral arrangements. Struggling to be reassuring, a member of the family said that everyone hoped it would be a long time before those orders would have to be executed. With a smile, Jefferson replied, ‘Do you imagine I fear to die?’ He had long contemplated what he was to face on the other side of the grave, and he found the prospect bright. Once we left ‘our sorrows and suffering bodies,’ Jefferson had once told John Adams, then they would ‘ascend in essence to an ecstatic meeting with the friends we have loved and lost and whom we shall still love and never lose again.’” (Meacham, American Gospel, location 134 of 6656 Kindle eBook).
It was such faith that sustained Jefferson and others through their struggles. It was such faith that they hoped without coercion that all Americans would have. It was for freedom of expression, for freedom of faith and religion, and for individual liberty that the Founding Fathers sacrificed.
George Washington stated in a famous letter to a Jewish congregation: “We have abundant reason to rejoice that in this Land the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition, and that every person may here worship God according to the dictates of his own heart.” (From George Washington to the Members of the New Jerusalem Church of Baltimore, 27 January 1793: http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-12-02-0027).
That reminds of the language found in Doctrine and Covenants 134 that I mentioned previously and the 11th Article of Faith. The 11th Article of Faith reads: “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.”
Thus, one of the core tenets of our religion matches closely to the ideas that inspired the founding of our great nation [the United States]. It was through their faithfulness to the idea of liberty that America became a land where the root of religious liberty could take hold and spread, resulting in the great flowering tree of life of the restored gospel and Church of Jesus Christ. Without the blessing of religious liberty, the Restoration would not have taken place. Even so, the Church barely survived its first 80 years, its members having to flee the United States and go to Mexico in order to survive persecution; but survive and thrive it did and does.
In the 11th Article of Faith we express our conviction that we should be allowed to worship God according to the dictates of our conscience and will allow all people to worship “how, where, or what they may.” The Articles of Faith do not only prescribe belief and doctrine, they also encourage behavior and action. They are more than professions of belief – they describe how we interact individually, with others, and in society. This is clear in the 12th Article of Faith, which goes hand in hand with the 11th: “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” By obedience to laws are we free; true liberty comes from obedience to God’s laws and to the just laws of men.
Pres. Joseph F. Smith stated: “There is no liberty like the liberty of the gospel of Jesus Christ. For I can tell you no man is free when he is under bondage of sin and of transgression, neither is any man free when he is under the bondage of ignorance in relation to the plan of life and salvation.” (Chapter 32: Liberty through Obedience: http://www.lds.org/manual/teachings-joseph-f-smith/chapter-32?lang=eng)
Liberty is inextricably tied with agency. We are well aware of the importance of agency in our lives. Our Father declared it so important that a war was fought in heaven when individuals wanted to limit agency and coerce righteousness. Forcing righteousness, however, cannot result in exaltation. In order for us to become more like our Father we must have agency. This liberty of choice, if you will, is constrained only by unrighteousness. Sinful behavior – acting in opposition to God’s laws – brings constraints on agency. We give up liberty when we sin; we shackle ourselves in chains that can only be broken through the Atonement of Christ. Jesus sets the captives free, He releases us from the bondage of our sins and assuages our pain. We must be mindful of sins and temptations that would bind us, limiting our liberty and happiness.
As we should seek liberty in our personal lives by striving to remain free from sin, we should uphold liberty in our country and encourage liberty in others. God loves us. He wants us to be free and happy, both in this life and in the life to come.