Quakers and freedom (4th of July)

Good morning, Friends!

The Fourth of July isn’t really a church holiday. The Fourth of July is more about family and fireworks, picnics and patriotism.

I always loved the Fourth of July when I was a kid. The whole town would go down to the ball field. You’d get a hot dog at the food stand, and a cold orange soda. If you were old enough – say, around 7 or 8 years old – you could leave your parents and find a place on the hill at the side of the ball field, and lie down in the grass, and wait for the sunset.

The guys from the volunteer fire department would be out on the far edge of the ball field, setting up the fireworks. It wasn’t a big display, only about 20 minutes, but we loved watching it. It was the official start of summer.

But it wasn’t a church thing. Some churches would hold a chicken barbecue on the 4th, and that was always nice. People put flags out, and there might be a parade to go to, over at the county seat. But we never thought about it in any kind of religious terms.

When our country got started, though, there were a lot of religious overtones. It was about freedom – not just from taxes, but freedom from a lot of restrictions. So, this morning I thought we could look at some of the freedoms that the 4th is all about.

Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

John 8:31-32

Quakers have a lot to do with the freedoms we enjoy today. I say, we enjoy them, but mostly I think we take them for granted. We don’t even stop to think about what people went through, the things people suffered, the price they paid, because of their religious faith and their stubborn convictions about freedom.

Quakers have always been very big about truth. Jesus once said,

My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom was of this world, my followers would fight, to keep me from being handed over. But my kingdom is not of this world. But this is why I was born. This is why I came into the world – to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth, listens to my voice.

John 18:36-37

And Pilate said, “What is truth?” and killed Jesus. Pilate didn’t care anything about Jesus’ message. He just wanted to stay in power.

When Quakers got started, back in the middle of the 1600’s, the government tried to control people’s religion. It was a criminal offense, to hold services or a prayer meeting, that wasn’t under government supervision.

The only prayers which were allowed, were ones which had been approved by the government. Quakers, and anybody else who ran afoul of the law, could go to prison. And more than 7,000 Quakers were imprisoned for our faith. Several hundred Quakers died in the prisons of the time.

When people came to the American colonies, most of them wanted freedom from religious persecution. But in most of the colonies, they wanted freedom for themselves, not freedom for other people. Most of the colonies set up new churches, or restricted them to the ones they liked.

Pennsylvania, the Quaker colony, was different. Right from the get go, Pennsylvania welcomed not just Quakers, but people of many different faiths.

Quakers were the majority of the population of Pennsylvania, and for the first 2 or 3 generations, the Quakers had control of the Pennsylvania legislature. They passed laws which were amazingly tolerant, and freedoms which were denied in many of the neighboring colonies.

That lasted until 1754, when Quakers lost the majority. And rather than fight it, most of the Quaker legislators withdrew from politics. Whether that was a wise decision or not, I can’t say.

But 22 years later, Quakers were still influential. The Declaration of Independence, and later on the U.S. Constitution, were deeply influenced by Quakers and our allies.

And where that shows up most clearly, is in the Bill of Rights – the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The Bill of Rights reflected many of our most important values. And it still does today.

There’s a copy of the Bill of Rights in your bulletin this morning. It’s a reminder of the rights everyone has in this country. Many of those rights were deeply inspired by the Quaker experience. But we want everyone to have them, not just us.

The First Amendment is the one everybody thinks about: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . .”

That means no government-sponsored church. No official church of any kind. There’s no list of churches that are OK, or ones that are not OK. The First Amendment says, “Hands off religion!”

Unlike the church in England and many of the American colonies before the Revolution, no one pays taxes to the government, to support a church they don’t belong to. That’s what “establishment” means. Financial support to the church is 100% voluntary, forever.

The First Amendment also guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

And again, there were plenty of people who were willing to have that freedom for themselves, but not for folks they disagreed with.

It doesn’t matter if you’re in the minority, it doesn’t matter if you’re a fringe group, it doesn’t matter if your religion isn’t Christian. The government may not interfere with it, except in extremely rare circumstances.

The right to assemble peaceably is guaranteed and beyond question. Back in the 1600’s, there was a law in England that no more than 5 people could get together for a prayer meeting that wasn’t government-sponsored. Anything more was automatically considered a criminal assembly.

You couldn’t hold a prayer meeting that wasn’t government-sponsored, closer than 5 miles to any town. If you didn’t belong to the Church of England, you couldn’t stand for office. You couldn’t go to university. You couldn’t legally be married.

Those things all happened to Quakers. The First Amendment is built on that experience.

The Second Amendment is the focus of a lot of controversy today. At the time our country got started, the United States didn’t have a standing army. West Point wasn’t founded until 1802. The Naval Academy was started until 1845.

Each state had its own militia, which organized and paid for it. You might be surprised that 22 states still have state guards or militias. They’re mainly used for disaster, emergency, search and rescue or homeland security.

But the militia was clearly an organized body, under the control of each state. Self-appointed militias, or gangs of domestic terrorists, were outside the law and are not authorized by the Bill of Rights.

The Third Amendment sounds very old-fashioned. “No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.”

During the Revolution, the British government forced owners of homes and businesses to give up their buildings so soldiers could use them. They also had to provide food, firewood, and transportation when it was demanded.

Quartering was bitterly resented. New Garden Friends Meeting, over in Greensboro, was taken over as a hospital following the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. Nathan Hunt, one of the founders of Springfield Friends, had all of his farm animals taken away.

During the Civil War, Allen Tomlinson, the clerk of Springfield Friends, had his house seized and used as the headquarters of the Confederate Army. Many Quaker meetinghouses and schools here North Carolina were taken over by armies on both sides, and often were destroyed when the armies moved out.

The Fourth Amendment – the one about freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, requiring detailed warrants showing probable cause – has Quaker roots, too.

Even though an English judge had ruled back in 1604 that “every man’s house is his castle”, illegal seizures and warrantless searches continued and were common.

Allen Jay had his farm animals and all his farm tools seized and put up for auction, because he refused to pay for a substitute to take his place in the Union army. It took the personal intervention of Abraham Lincoln to keep the auction from happening.
This stuff is all very close to home.

The Fifth Amendment, requiring a Grand Jury, preventing double jeopardy, self-incrimination, or being deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law – these are all things which Quakers experienced.

In a famous English case, William Penn, soon to be the founder of Pennsylvania, and his fellow Quaker William Moore were arrested for preaching out in the street.

The judge told the jury that they were guilty, and instructed them to bring in a guilty verdict.

The jury voted, and brought back a verdict of innocent instead. The judge was furious, and ordered the jury to be sent to prison, until they changed their vote. As the jury were led away, Penn shouted to them “not to give up their rights as Englishmen!”

The jury sued the city, and got released. The appeals court said that “judges “may try to open the eyes of the jurors, but [may] not [try] to lead them by the nose.”

The Sixth Amendment is more of the same: the right to a “speedy public trial” was a reaction to people being locked up for months or years without even being told the charges against them. Secret trials in the Star Chamber were also something we wanted never to happen again.

The Sixth Amendment also guarantees everyone the right to confront prosecution witnesses, to subpoena witnesses for the defense, and to have a defense attorney to help them.

The Seventh Amendment is short, but important; everyone has the right to a trial by jury. And once a jury decides what the facts of the case are, no other court can arbitrarily change what the jury decided. A jury’s finding can only be changed according to law.

The Eighth Amendment says that “excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

Quakers remembered fines which confiscated everything a person owned, simply for being a Quaker. Their entire estates were taken away, because there was no freedom of religion.

Quakers were beaten, jailed, whipped, put in the stocks, hanged and tortured by our fellow citizens, simply for wanting to worship God in our own way.

The Ninth Amendment says that the rights which are listed in the Constitution, aren’t the only rights people have. More rights got spelled out later.

The Bill of Rights wasn’t dictated by Quakers, but we had a lot of influence on it.

Our country has made more amendments to the Constitution. For example, slavery has been illegal now for almost 160 years. Former slaves became citizens, and their rights were also guaranteed. So is their right to vote.

Women have the right to vote – my grandmother was the first generation, in 1920 – not so long ago.

Back when I was in high school, eighteen year olds got the right to vote. Some of this is still very fresh.

The Supreme Court decides whether things are constitutional, or not. They’re not a jury. They’re not an opinion poll.

We may not always like Supreme Court decisions. Some of them have been very unpopular. But their job is to decide whether people’s constitutional rights are being denied. Not the rights of the popular majority. But rights which are guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

Federal elected officials, members of the House and Senate, judges, all federal employees, FBI agents, soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, all take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution. So do immigrants when they become citizens.

If people forget the promise they made, or betray that promise, then that’s on them. If people break their promise, it doesn’t mean that the Constitution is wrong, or invalid. It means they’re oath breakers.

Even if, as ordinary citizens, we don’t take an oath to protect the Constitution, it’s still the law of our land. Even if Quakers don’t take an oath at all, as a matter of religions conviction, our influence on the Constitution is very strong.

These are our rights and our freedoms. We learned about them the hard way, and suffered for many of them. Let’s learn more about them. Let’s never take them lightly. And let’s remember they’re for everyone – and not just us.

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