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Plymouth Rock Foundation’s E-News – March, 2012
by Dr. Paul Jehle, Executive Director

Give me Liberty, or give me Death!

image1On March 23, 1775, Patrick Henry’s famous words were uttered at St. John’s Church in Richmond, Virginia.  Though most Americans remember the closing, they are not as familiar with the context of his speech and the ideas that gave it birth.

Patrick Henry, born in Hanover County, Virginia, May 29, 1736, was personally tutored by his father.  No wonder after failing in business twice he became a lawyer in 1760, for his father was a Judge.  Patrick married Sarah (Shelton) in 1754 and they had six children.  Like other colonial leaders of his day, Henry had embraced an understanding of liberty that came from decades of colonial preaching:  external civil liberty in society is the outgrowth of the internal liberty from sin brought by the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The American colonies were British, and as such the Anglican Churches were State established.  Thus, the Anglican pastors, unlike the Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists, were supported through taxation.  There was little freedom of religion since everyone had to pay taxes to support the Anglican Clergy.  In Virginia, this taxation was in the form of tobacco (16,000 pounds per year) which helped to pay the salary of the Anglican clergy.  A poor harvest in tobacco (causing the price to rise from 2 to 6 cents per pound) caused Virginia’s “Parliament” (House of Burgesses) to vote to keep the clergy at their “two penny” amount rather than give them a hefty pay raise.  This was vetoed by King George III who wanted “his” clergy to get a raise.  The jury in the case of Rev. Maury vs. Hanover County would determine what price the clergy would be paid.  The case was known as the Parson’s Cause.

Can you imagine Clergy wanting a hefty pay hike when they are, in effect, working for the government?  Young 27 year old Patrick Henry said “we have heard a great deal about the benevolence and holy zeal of our reverend clergy, but how is this manifested?  Do they manifest their zeal in the cause of religion and humanity by practicing the mild and benevolent precepts of the Gospel of Jesus?  Do they feed the hungry and clothe the naked?  Oh, no, gentlemen!  These rapacious harpies would, were their powers equal to their will, snatch from the hearth of their honest parishioner his last hoe-cake, from the widow and her orphan children their last milch cow!”

Patrick Henry understood that if the rule of law did not work in the church, it would have little chance of working in society at large.  In standing up for liberty and the protection of the rule of law against a State-established clergy, Patrick Henry became famous.  He not only won the case, but the jury awarded payment of only 1 penny as suggested by Henry instead of the previous 2 pennies!  Thus, the clergy that desired a raise at the expense of the people wound up taking a loss!  Following the verdict, the people hoisted Henry up on their shoulders like a quarterback that had just won the Super bowl!

image3Two years later in 1765, a 29 year old Henry would stun the House of Burgesses in Williamsburg with his resolutions against the Stamp Act.  Utilizing the same idea of the rule of law and defending the rights of liberty, he referred to its foundation in Virginia’s original Charter of 1606.  Henry said of King George “Caesar had his Brutus; Charles the First, his Cromwell; and George the Third... Treason!  Treason! (shouted the Speaker of the Hosue), Treason!  Treason! (echoed from the room – and with eyes fixed on the Speaker, he concluded  ...may he profit by their example.  If this be treason, make the most of it.”

Most of Henry’s resolutions against the Stamp Act were passed.  Ten years later, in the Spring of 1775, Patrick Henry found himself in a very difficult situation.  His wife, Sarah, by all accounts, suffered from mental illness and would die only weeks before his March 23 speech.  Henry could be found by the fire, pondering and thinking of the difficulties he had endured.  However, his faith would cause him to rise and speak when his country needed him the most.

image4The boldness by which Henry defended the rights of true civil liberty against the tyranny of the State reached its peak at St. John’s Church in Richmond on March 23, 1775.  Here, recommending that the colony arm itself in preparation to defend their liberties, Henry stated in part: “shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance, by lying supinely on our backs, and hugging the delusive phantom of hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot? ... There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations... The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave…. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! ... Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace, but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! Our brethren are already in the field! ... Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!

The people jumped to their feet once Henry was through, shouting “to arms, to arms!”  Yet, this was no emotional reaction, for it was the result of the seeds of liberty having been sown years before from the pulpit of colonial America.  Patrick Henry wrote in 1796: “I hear it is said by the deists that I am one of their number; and indeed that some good people think I am no Christian.  This thought gives me much more pain than the appellation of Tory, because I think religion of infinitely higher importance than politics… Being a Christian… is a character which I prize above all the world has or can boast.”

In Patrick Henry’s last will and testament he stated: “this is all the inheritance I give to my dear family.  The religion of Christ will give them one which will make them rich indeed.”  This was the source of his view of liberty and why he was willing to pay for it with his life.  If American believers embrace the connection between their internal spiritual inheritance in Christ and the fruit of practicing it, they might once again see the value of civil liberty as the fruit of their Christian faith and actions!