In a few weeks, our nation will celebrate the birthday of the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” On July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was signed by 56 courageous men who represented 13 colonies.
While researching the North Carolina connection to the Declaration of Independence, I learned some interesting facts about the 56 signers that you will appreciate.
Eight of the signers were immigrants who were born in Ireland (3), Scotland (2), England (2) or Wales (1). All of the signers from the five states of Massachusetts (4), Rhode Island (2), Maryland (4), Virginia (7) and South Carolina (4) were born in the states they represented. None of the signers from the three states of New Hampshire (2), North Carolina (3) and Georgia (3) were born in the states they represented.
N.C. had three signers of the Declaration of Independence. Joseph Hewes was born in New Jersey; William Hooper in Massachusetts and John Penn in Virginia.
Born into a Quaker family, Hewes moved to Edenton, N.C., at the age of 33. He built a profitable shipping business before he was elected to the state legislature in 1766. The state sent Hewes as a delegate to the first meeting of the second Continental Congress. Like most Quakers, Hewes was a peace-loving man who wanted to avoid all forms of violence. Initially, he did not favor a war to gain independence from England. However, at the second Continental Congress, John Adams convinced him to change his mind. Once he signed the Declaration, he never wavered in working untiringly for the American cause.
Hooper, our state’s second signer, was born in Boston, Mass., in 1742. He was the son of a Congregational clergyman. For a short time, he studied for the ministry. Hooper shifted his focus and graduated from Harvard at the age of 18 with a degree in law. He moved to Wilmington, N.C., set up a law practice and was elected to the N.C. colonial legislature in 1773.
Known as a gifted orator, Hooper was despised by the British. They harassed his family, forcing him to hide with friends in Edenton while the rest of the family moved to Hillsboro. He fell ill with malaria, was nursed back to health but died from poor health at the age of 48.
Born in Caroline County, Va., in 1741, John Penn had no formal education. He taught himself the disciplines of law and qualified for the Virginia bar at the age of 21. His family moved to a community near Henderson, N.C., where he practiced law.
The provincial congress soon elected Penn as a delegate to the Continental Congress. He was passionate about independence, serving the state and the new republic sacrificially in spite of great personal financial loss.
Penn was buried at his home near the town of Stovall, but his body was moved to Guilford Courthouse National Military Park about 100 years later in honor of his leadership in battles against the British invasion led by Cornwallis.
“My first wish is that America may be free,” Penn said.
For the gift of religious liberty, we are indebted to many other courageous men and women of the colonial era.
One of Virginia’s seven signers, Patrick Henry, is best remembered for his “Give me liberty, or give me death!” speech. But his influence on the religious liberties we enjoy today is much broader than his famous quote.
With the blessing of the tax-supported Anglicans, Virginia’s civil magistrates regularly persecuted Baptists, Presbyterians and Quakers. These Christian groups found one of their most stalwart defenders in Henry, whose father’s side of the family had a rich heritage with the Anglican Church, and whose mother was a devout Presbyterian.
Stirred by the preaching of Presbyterian evangelist Samuel Davies and the persecution of Baptist evangelist John Weatherford, Henry frequently defended the unhindered public preaching of the Bible, and arranged the release of many Baptist preachers from jail.
The website of Lehigh Valley Baptist Church in Emmaus, Pa., tells this story: In 1768, Henry rode many miles on horseback to a trial in Spotsylvania County, Va. He entered the courtroom where three Baptist ministers were being tried for preaching the gospel without approval of the Anglican church. In the midst of the proceedings Henry interrupted, “May it please your lordships, … . Did I hear an expression that these men, whom [you] are about to try for misdemeanor, are charged with preaching the gospel of the Son of God?” The judge released the preachers.
This was one of many times when Henry stood up for the freedom to preach the gospel unhindered in the colonies and in the newly formed United States of America.
Religious liberty is a treasure that must be guarded with intense passion and unending intentionality. We must not surrender this valuable jewel to the failed thinking of today’s moral relativists. Many courageous leaders of the past stood tall and paid a high price to give us this priceless gift.
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention said, “One thing we need to be very clear about is that religious liberty is not a government ‘benefit,’ but a natural and inalienable right granted by God. … When we say – as Baptists and many other Christians always have – that freedom of religion applies to all people, whether Christian or not, we are not suggesting that there are many paths to God or that truth claims are relative. We are fighting for the opposite. We are saying that religion should be free from state control because we believe that every person must give an account before the Judgment Seat of Christ.”
Let freedom ring! Not for the sake of nationalism but for the sake of eternal, biblical truth, let freedom ring!