By Candace Wood
“Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants” (Leviticus 25:10). Can you imagine the mood and celebratory spirit those words must have generated when they were first spoken?
Moses was on Mount Sinai, recording God’s instructions to Israel on how to worship. Much had already been explained about particular feasts and historic occasions to honor. One of them was a Sabbath year to be recognized each seventh year when the land was to rest, paralleling the Sabbath each week that God’s people were to enjoy. But there was more.
After there had been seven rounds of Sabbath years, this would equal forty-nine years; then the next year, the fiftieth, held a special surprise. Great things happened—an extended year of rest for land and people, the return of property to its original owners, and the redemption of those who had been enslaved because of poverty. It was announced by a trumpet blast throughout all Israel. It signaled freedom, liberty (Leviticus 25:8-54). It was the year of Jubilee. What a finishing touch God had arranged!
“You Will Be Free Indeed”
The jubilee words of Leviticus 25:10 are also engraved on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. After all these centuries, their potency is not lost. The emblem of the bell and the message it conveys today have a strong kinship with God’s words to Israel long ago. It is still a present reminder of past events that created freedom in a new nation. But it is also a reminder of the values and beliefs of many visionaries in colonial days who set out to make this nation one that matched with God’s approval.
For New World settlers, the Liberty Bell symbolized freedom of individuality, to become whatever one chose, for “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). Likewise, freedom for one meant freedom for all, for the Bible also stated, “How true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (Acts 10:34, 35). Any nation that could be established on these biblical principles placed itself in favor with God because “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17). These Bible verses were among many that spawned the vision of colonists to start anew with godly foundations.
“By the Providence of Almighty God”
The colonial era is an exciting and positive time to examine some of the ways America’s development was influenced by recognition of God’s supremacy and truths of the Bible. Those two combined facets were the common source for determining how best to establish and advance an orderly society. Official colonial charters are convincing evidence for why settlements were planted, and the role delegated to God is unmistakable.
We may visualize Jamestown’s history with stories of hunger and starvation during lean years because textbooks often focused on economic conditions faced by the colonists. But that is not the full story. The First Charter of Virginia (1606) expressly voiced its intended relationship between God and country, in which the colonists accepted “so noble a work . . . by the providence of Almighty God . . . in propagating of Christian religion
. . . human civility and . . . settled and quiet government.” Despite the troubles they incurred, their charter was a testimony for belief in religious guidance.
Plymouth Colony’s charter (1620) purposed “to advance . . . Christian religion, to the glory of God Almighty.” Reemphasizing their purpose, these pilgrims made a covenant among themselves to build an orderly society—a “civil body politic”—and to abide by the rules they would set for it. This mutual blueprint for planting “the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia” was undertaken “for the glory of God.” We know it better as the Mayflower Compact.
“City on the Hill”
Massachusetts Puritans acted accordingly. Their charter (1629) set its goal to be “religious, peaceable, and civilly governed, while winning the natives to knowledge and obedience to God and the Christian faith.” This, they said, was their “intention . . . and principal end of this plantation.” They also followed other strong motivations. They envisioned their plantation as a “city on the hill.” This application of Matthew 5:15 was the driving force in their desire to model a Christian community—to please God so he would “dwell among them.” A second objective was to have other plantations witness their good example and subsequently choose to say of their own, “the Lord make it like that of New England.” As the Puritans understood this experience, “the eyes of all people” would be upon them.They could not fail for fear of bringing disgrace on themselves or God. As the apostle Paul instructed, “do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble” (1 Corinthians 10:31, 32).
Other charters penned similar godly expectations to “extend and propagate the Christian religion,” and to bring the “natives by gentle and just manners to the Love of Civil Society and Christian religion.” All of the colonial charters could be summed up in a portion of the charter from the Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, 1663:
We submit our persons, lives, and estates unto our Lord Jesus Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords and to all those perfect and most absolute laws of his given us in his Holy Word . . . a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained . . . grounded upon gospel principles.
The original colonies repeatedly acknowledged their trust in God and his favor in blessing their endeavors.
“In God We Hope”
As colonies became states, early constitutions and mottoes continued to recognize divine oversight. Connecticut’s “Fundamental Orders” was saturated with Christian references: pleasing “Almighty God,” recognizing that there should be “orderly and decent government established according to God,” preserving the “liberty and purity of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus,” indicating that “the truth of the said Gospel is now practiced among us.”
Those were just in the preamble. Further statements say more: “that the Scriptures hold forth a perfect rule for the direction and government of all men in all duties which they are to perform to God and men,” and that “all public offices . . . be governed by those rules which the Scripture held forth to them.” The Fundamental Orders would become a model for the U.S. Constitution.
New Hampshire’s constitution preserved the “natural and unalienable right to worship God according to the individual’s own conscience and reason.”
“Old Deluder, Satan”
A second means for establishing and preserving an orderly, free society was through education, and the Bible was the quintessential source for its accomplishment. Children generally were taught to read by parents, tutors, or during apprenticeships, but Massachusetts made it the responsibility of the community to educate the next generation. The “Old Deluder Satan Law” underscored their beliefs about religion, citizenship, and education’s place in it. Schooling was essential because Satan’s deceptions could more easily mislead the ignorant. Educated individuals made good citizens, but illiteracy bred corruption. Biblical instruction and preservation of a godly society went hand in hand.
Colonial schoolbooks (called hornbooks) incorporated biblical teaching in basic instruction of reading, spelling, and arithmetic—it also included the alphabet, syllables, Lord’s Prayer, Apostles’ Creed, Ten Commandments, and names of the books of the Bible. Primers developed for religious worship were combined with ABCs for reading skills and moral teachings.
The most famous, the New England Primer, used rhyme and illustrations that taught both Scripture and wise virtues, such as: “A—In Adam’s fall, we sinned all; B—Heaven to find, the Bible mind.” Alphabetical statements were changed over the years to reflect historical situations contemporary to the generations. Doing this caused the primers to become indispensable school texts even into the nineteenth century.More importantly, they served to perpetuate godly instruction.
“The Lord’s Favor”
So here we stand at a time of remembrance of past accomplishments and historical events that shaped our nation. It is a time of celebration for our national heritage. But do not overlook America’s spiritual heritage.
The Bible tells us that one day Jesus stood in the synagogue and he said, “The Spirit of the Lord . . . has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners . . . to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18, 19). And that is something to celebrate. It is truly a jubilee—God’s finishing touch.
Candace Wood is a freelance writer in Charlottesville, Virginia.
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