Brothers and sisters, God has called you to freedom (Galatians 5:13a, The Voice).
Fireworks and flags. Picnics and parades. Hot dogs and homemade ice cream. For us who live in the good ol’ U.S.A., traditions have some pretty deep roots in this Independence Day celebration. And I hope we’ll hear the stirring strains of our national anthem at least a time or two.
It’s valid to rejoice over the political freedoms with which we are blessed. Even in the context of today’s cultural challenges and the rapid erosion of many of our constitutional freedoms, we have much to celebrate and appreciate.
Sometimes, I look back and wonder in awe at the sacrifices and commitment required of our Founding Fathers as they pledged their lives to pursue political and national freedom for their families and the generations who would follow. Yet we know that gaining their political freedom was secondary to securing their religious freedom.
The hymns of our godly fathers
History teaches us that our founders were men and women who took their faith in Christ seriously. We know their daily lives were hard and challenging in many ways. But after each long week of labor, they reserved Sundays for worshiping the God in whom they had found spiritual freedom. What would their worship have been like?
I like to imagine hearing their voices lifted in praise through some of the old hymns that many of us will still recognize. Did they sing lustily of their spiritual freedom in these familiar lines: “He breaks the power of reigning sin, He sets the prisoner free; His blood can make the foulest clean, His blood availed for me.” They may have. Charles Wesley wrote those words in “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” in 1739.
Or perhaps they celebrated God’s grace this way: “Was it for crimes that I had done He groaned upon the tree? Amazing pity! Grace unknown! And love beyond degree!” They could have. In 1707, Isaac Watts penned those lines in “Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed.”*
The hymns of a growing nation
Down through our nation’s history, other songwriters have been inspired to give us songs celebrating America’s freedoms. And they all have a common thread: They acknowledge God’s role not only in spiritual freedom but also in the civil freedoms our nation enjoys. Some have aptly applied the tag “national hymns” to several of these titles.
I’m pretty certain it doesn’t happen in schools today, but I remember singing these grand hymns with schoolmates in weekly chapel at Appalachian School. Surely others did that, too. Think back. Recall the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” (by Julia Ward Howe in 1862) with its bold closing line – “Glory, glory, hallelujah! His truth is marching on.” Of course “His” refers to Christ, who is celebrated in every stanza leading up to that rousing chorus.
Samuel Francis Smith was 24 years old in 1843 when he wrote “My Country, ’Tis of Thee.” Reflect on his words beginning the last stanza: “Our father’s God, to Thee, author of liberty, to Thee we sing.”
And in “America the Beautiful” in 1893, Katherine Lee Bates celebrated God’s grace in every stanza, repeating the line “America! America! God shed His grace on thee” more than once.
There are more, but I’ll end by pointing to our national anthem, which Francis Scott Key wrote in 1812. It’s about the only one on this list of national hymns that still gets sung these days. Fortunately, the patriotic first stanza is still heard often at sports events and other public venues.
At the same time, it merits noting that in a subsequent stanza, Key wrote, “Then conquer we must, if our cause it is just; and this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust!’” As we consider Paul’s declaration in Galatians 5:13 – God has called us to freedom – we can pursue true freedom in Him only as we trust in Him.
Yes, it is altogether fitting to celebrate our constitutional First Amendment freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition. Fireworks are OK. Homemade ice cream is awesome! It’s great to be grateful for our Founding Fathers. And it is appropriate to be loud and joyful as we sing of the freedoms of our nation.
However, it behooves us never to forget that the hymns of our nation are the hymns of a people whose truest freedom was anchored in their faith in God.
*Find more hymns from the era of our founders and other historical periods here.