An Independence Day sermon on 1 Peter 2: 13-17
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
July 4, 2021
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our
Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. 1 Peter 2:16

“When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the
political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume, among the powers of the
earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them…”
I am sure that you all recognize those words. They are the opening words of the Declaration of
Independence, one of the founding documents of our nation. And as all good Virginians know, it was
authored primarily by Thomas Jefferson, the “Sage of Monticello.” After it was debated for a number of
days at a meeting in Philadelphia, the declaration was eventually ratified by representatives from all the
thirteen of the original colonies on July 4, 1776—the day we mark as “Independence Day.” It is this
event which began the long and perilous journey that our nation has taken from dependence upon a
foreign power to being a land of freedom and self-determination…
Freedom—it is one of the foundation stones upon which our nation is built and sustained. Those
freedoms are laid out for us in the US Constitution. The very first freedom guaranteed to us In the Bill of
Rights is the guarantee of religious liberty. The opening of the Bill of Rights reads, “Congress shall make
no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” It is this
freedom upon which I want to focus our attention this morning. This guarantee of religious freedom is
the most important freedom of all, for all of the rest of our liberties are derived—either directly or
indirectly—from this central freedom…
It is the most important freedom because it asserts that every individual is accountable to God
for himself or herself. Every one of the other freedoms guaranteed in our laws is granted because of this
basic concept: that everyone is competent to stand before God. Therefore, because of that basic right,
every citizen can be trusted with the other freedoms that are given.
The government has no right to dictate to you what you must believe or to compel you to
support a religion to which you do not follow. Every person has the God-given right—and also the Godgiven responsibility—to worship God—or to not worship God—as it is dictated by his or her own

Some of the material in this sermon is inspired by George W. Truett’s famous sermon “Baptists and Religious
Liberty,” given on the steps of the US Capitol on May 16, 1920. (Accessed June 29, 2021)P a g e | 2
conscience. And because each individual is accountable to God in this crucial area, then every other right
outlined in the constitution is granted in light of the inherent worth of each individual that freedom of
religion confers…
The concept of freedom of religion is the one great contribution that America has given to the
world. Before the founding of our nation, there were occasional instances of religious toleration in
history, but not true religious freedom. Toleration is not true freedom. There is a wide difference
between the two…
Toleration implies that somebody falsely claims the right to give permission for someone else’s
religious beliefs. Toleration is a concession by the government, while liberty is a right. Toleration is a
matter of convenience for the government, while liberty is a matter of principle. Toleration is a gift from
the government to its people, while liberty is a gift from God to all people.
And so the right to religious freedom is guaranteed by the constitution. But Jefferson and
Madison and the other Founding Fathers did not come up with this concept all on their own. NO—one
of the things that I want you to come away with is that, if religious liberty is America’s great gift to the
world, then it is also the great gift of Baptist to the world. I think that it would be fair to say that no
religious group has more consistently advocated for religious freedom than Baptists…
It is all a part of who we are as Baptists. It is in our spiritual DNA. Ever since Baptists began as a
group in early 17th Century England, they have pushed for religious liberty and the freedom of
conscience that gives birth to it. At first, Baptists were persecuted as a religious minority in England.
They were fined and sometimes given long prison sentences because of their convictions. But even from
this early date, Baptists held as a fundamental principle that religion must always be forever voluntary
and uncoerced, and that no one –neither the government nor any church council nor any convention—
has any right to compel anyone to conform to any religious creed or form of worship that they do not
embrace. And when Baptists came to what was then colonial America, they brought with them those
beliefs as well.
Like England, most of the colonies in America had state-established churches in those early days.
And Baptists were united in their opposition to them. Many Baptists were persecuted for the stand that
they took for religious freedom. In fact, out of the thirteen original colonies, there were two colonies in
particular in which a Baptist minister would most likely be fined or imprisoned. (Anybody want to guess
which colonies?) Those two colonies were Massachusetts and Virginia. Yes—scores of Baptist were
jailed in the Virginia colony for holding unauthorized meetings, disrupting the peace, and for having
preachers who were unlicensed by the government. And it was, in large part, due to the Baptist witness
in those two colonies that religious freedom became a principle of our nation’s laws.
Secular historians usually credit Thomas Jefferson and James Madison as the architects of the
religious freedoms that are guaranteed by our constitution. And that is true. Surely they were
instrumental in making sure that religious freedom was guaranteed in the new nation. As you may P a g e | 3
recall, Thomas Jefferson was the author of the “Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom” which became
law in Virginia in 1786. James Madison, known as “The Father of the Constitution,” wrote the Bill of
Rights, which was ratified in 1791. Both men were strong proponents for religious liberty. But there is a
third man who was also influential in the adoption of the principle of religious liberty in Virginia and
beyond. He is not as well known as those two—understandable since he never served as President of
the United States as they did. But in the cause of religious freedom, his name and work should be better
known. His name is John Leland…
Leland was a Virginia Baptist minister who served as pastor of the Mount Poney Baptist Church
during the early years of the republic. (That church eventually evolved into the present-day Culpepper
Baptist Church.)Leland was a neighbor and friend of both Jefferson and Madison, and it is known by
historians that he significantly influenced both men in their support of religious freedom. It is known
that Jefferson and Madison occasionally attended the services he conducted and it is known that he was
a dinner guest at their homes at Monticello and at Montpelier. Leland no doubt spoke with both men
about the need for religious freedom in the new nation on numerous occasions. He surely influenced
their thinking on the matter.
There is one quote from John Leland that perfectly sums up the concept of religious liberty and
of the Baptist view of it. In a tract titled “The Rights of Conscience Inalienable” published in 1791, Leland
wrote: “The government has no more to do with the religious opinions of men than it have to do with
the principles of Mathematics. Let every [one] speak freely without fear, maintain the principles that he
believes, worship according to his own faith, whether one god, three gods, twenty gods, or no gods—
and let the government protect him in so doing.” That’s the Baptist position on religious liberty…That is
who we are as Baptist Christians…
But not everyone agrees. In 1990, the US Supreme Court had to decide a case concerning the
use of hallucinogenic peyote among some Native American rituals. In writing the majority opinion,
Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in the majority opinion that religious liberty was “a luxury that we can no
longer afford.” Did you get that? Religious liberty is “a luxury that we can no longer afford.” And he
went on to assert that the government no longer needed a compelling interest to intervene in religious
matters. When I first read that statement, it made my blood run cold…NO, Justice Scalia—religious
liberty is not a “luxury”—it is essential to who we are as Americans…
[Side bar here—Fortunately, the following year, Congress countered that bad decision and set
the record straight by passing the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” reestablishing the principle that
the government need a “compelling interest” to intervene in religious matters.]
They say that “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.” That is just as true in the realm of
religious liberty as it is anywhere else…
One more thing before we leave the topic of religious liberty this morning. In the scripture text
for today, the Apostle Peter writes, “As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom P a g e | 4
as a pretext for evil.” (1 Peter 2:16) It seems to me that sometimes there are people who try to hide
behind their understanding of religious freedom in order to do things that are antithetical to true
Religious freedom is a topic that comes up from time to time in the news nowadays when
someone will try to use it as a justification for a particular action. You all have read and heard the
stories. There’s the case of the bakery that refused to make a wedding cake for a couple when they
discovered that it was a same sex wedding. There is the story the county clerk in Kentucky who refused
to issue wedding licenses to same sex couples, citing her religious beliefs. There’s a man in Utah who has
been trying to use the law in order to escape prosecution for his polygamous marriage by the authorities
and escape punishment. Or people wanting to cram their religion down someone else’s throat in the
workplace in obnoxious ways. And so it goes…
The guarantee of religious liberty was never intended to be used as a smokescreen for bigotry
or prejudice. It was never intended to be used as a justification for unkind actions towards others. And
when people try to use religious liberty as a smokescreen for hate or narrow-mindedness, it is just plain
wrong. Peter writes that we are not to use our freedom in Christ as a cloak to hide our evil. Instead, our
freedom in Christ is to be used to share hope…to share love…and to share the good news of what faith
in Christ can bring to a person’s life. That is how our religious freedom is to be used…

As today’s Independence Day service draw to a close, we will conclude the service by singing
“My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” You can find it at number 571 in your hymn book. I invite you to turn to the
hymn as we take a few moments to briefly consider it…
“My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” was written by Samuel Francis Smith, one of the most important
American Baptist ministers of the 19th Century. He actually wrote the hymn in February 1831 while he
was just a 23 year old seminary student. The song was first performed later that same year at the Park
Street Church in Boston, Massachusetts by a children’s choir as part of a July 4th celebration. It quickly
became popular and for several decades was considered to be the unofficial national anthem by most
people—that is until Congress voted to make “The Star Spangled Banner” our official national anthem in
Oliver Wendell Holmes was a prominent physician and a well-known American poet in his own
right. He was also a Harvard classmate of Samuel Smith and a lifelong friend. In commenting about “My
Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” Oliver Wendell Holmes attributed the genius of the hymn to that very first
word—the word “My.” He wrote, “That little pronoun did it all, and will forever do it. Why couldn’t any
of the rest of us have thought of that? That puts America in the hearts of the people, and because of
that, Sam Smith will live when (Henry Wadsworth) Longfellow and (John Greenleaf) Whittier and all the
rest of us have gone into oblivion.”2

2 Much of the information in this paragraph is taken from a tract titled “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” by David J. Fant.
It is a tract that I picked up while visiting the Park Street Church in Boston several years ago.P a g e | 5
As we sing this hymn this morning, we sing in the knowledge that America’s promise is still not
completely fulfilled. There have been mistakes along the way. There have been missteps and blind
alleyways into which our nation has sometimes stumbled. In spite of everything, there are still some
Americans who have not yet been able to enjoy the sweet fruits of what a harvest of true freedom really
means. So let us dedicate ourselves to do the hard work together to ensure that our land is indeed a
place where there is “liberty and justice for all.” From the hills and the mountains…from the lakes and
the streams…from the rivers to the ravines…from the forests to the cities…from every corner of our
nation…let it be our prayer to let freedom ring!
And to God alone be the glory! Amen

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