When Did Churches Start Celebrating the Fourth of July?

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As we approach the Fourth of July, many pastors in America struggle with whether and how to acknowledge America’s independence, without blending Christian worship and civil religion together. Especially during times of war, churches have historically embraced patriotism in America. But sometimes that combination has given the impression that our commitment to nation is the same as our commitment to Christ. Too many churches have sung “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” alongside songs of worship, without realizing the confusion that can result.

Fourth of July services began shortly after the American Revolution, following on the older tradition of commemorating important moments in the history of Britain with special days of prayer and thanksgiving. Consider the typical case of Newport, Rhode Island, in 1788, in the midst of the debates over ratifying the new Constitution. A “respectable meeting” of Newport citizens voted to hold a series of assemblies to celebrate the Fourth of July, and the “auspicious event of the adoption of the Federal Constitution.”

The center of the festivities was a service in which the Rev. Enos Hitchcock would “deliver an oration suitable to the occasion” at Newport’s Baptist Church. Hitchcock was a former Revolutionary War chaplain and the pastor at Newport’s First Congregationalist Church. The townspeople encouraged all the town’s pastors to attend the service, for a display of interdenominational patriotic unity.

One major difference between Newport’s celebration and many that happen today is that the 1788 service happened on the Fourth of July itself, which happened to fall on a Friday. Everyone would have understood that this was a special occasion and an interdenominational meeting, not a Sabbath worship service.

A bit of searching in historical newspapers suggests that these services were fairly common in early national history, although references to them were rare to nonexistent on years when the Fourth of July fell on a Sunday. I would be interested to know if this meant that they did not hold them in those years, or whether pastors mentioned the Fourth of July during those Sunday services. I would also be interested to know when churches transitioned to having patriotic “God and country” services on the Sunday before the Fourth, instead of special meetings on the Fourth of July.

In any case, Christians in early national America understood that while they might mark the Fourth of July, it was better to do so in a separate service on the day of the Fourth itself.

I understand that some pastors would face a big fight if they did not commemorate the Fourth of July on the Sunday prior to it (this year, this means Sunday, July 3). And some fights are not worth having. But here are some suggestions if you are concerned about the undue blurring of worship of God and devotion to nation. What might work will depend a lot on the location and makeup of your congregation.

First, could you encourage the church to participate in a civil ceremony (such as a Fourth of July parade) instead of commemorating the Fourth during a Sunday service? If it is a change from a Sunday “God and Country” service, this would probably require a lot of communication that the pastor and church really do consider this civil commemoration to be important. The pastor can show this by attending and participating himself.

Second, if you can’t get away without observing the Fourth of July in a Sunday service, could you strictly separate that aspect of the service from the formal “worship” time? For me, the patriotic aspects are the most jarring when they are placed alongside the worship of the Lord. Humble prayers for our nation and leaders in a Fourth of July service are perfectly appropriate, however.

Finally, if you have believers from other nations in your church, be mindful of how integrating American patriotism with worship will appear to them. They will probably not have the same experience of patriotic services in their home country. Deep blending of civil religion with Christian worship may well come across to them as idolatrous, and they might not appreciate claims about America being the greatest nation on the face of the earth! In light of the kingdom reality of believers coming from every tongue, tribe, and nation, triumphalist American patriotism in a worship service is incongruous, at best.

The fact that patriotic services have deep historical roots in America is significant. As believers, we are always located in a certain time and place, and patriotism can be a valuable thing. But for a Christian, patriotism can only be a second-order good. It needs to be placed in its proper context. Let’s not confuse patriotism with worship.

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