Let There Be Light - Part I
Is the United States of America a Christian nation?
Those who have studied the founding of the United States of America often call to remembrance the Founding Fathers, but often overlooked are the contributions that a number of other key patriots provided to the colonists. Among these American patriots were some of the most powerful preachers the world had ever seen. But, just because someone was considered a patriot or a Founding Father, it doesn’t mean he was Christian. Men like Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Paine, who were pivotal to the charge of independence, were not necessarily Christians, but they were still guided by God’s will in establishing a nation under His protection. But, as important as understanding the men and women who dared to defy the British Empire, they were nothing without the providence of God and the power unleashed by the Word of God.
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” (Gen. 1:1).
Everything has a beginning. The very first verse of the Bible tells us that. Therefore, if we’re going to adequately answer the question, “Is the United States of America a Christian nation?” we have to trace the roots of Christianity all the way back to sixteenth century Europe at the dawning of a new era in Christendom—the Protestant Reformation.
The development of a new Christian discourse of faith would produce a new religious theology and philosophy within Christianity. Reformation theology would not only open an expanding discussion concerning spiritual understanding and authority, but it would also lead to decades of strife and conflict, changing the course of history. The Reformation pulled the world out of the Dark Ages and into a new era, so why would it cause such a stir in sixteenth century Europe? Because it was a message of joyful certainty in an age of uncertainty.
In a land drowning in a sea of gloom and corruption, a dynasty of theological darkness held humanity captive. This land: the Holy Roman Empire. Its captors: the Roman Catholic Church. At the head of this dynasty was the pope. Within this dynasty was an army of followers who held the authority of the papal office above all else. In order to combat this evil scourge of power, it would take an opposing army of men—men like John Wycliffe and Martin Luther—men who felt a significant calling to take a stand against the authority of the church. These courageous attempts to follow their hearts and spread the truth of the gospel would change the face of Western civilization.
At the time of the Middle Ages, the landscape of the Holy Roman Empire lay in a deep pool of impurity and filth. The concept of sanitation was something to be desired. Livestock dwelled under the same roof as their peasant owners, and pungent odors permeated the air. The fragility of human life was all too dire. Man faced a number of obstacles, crippling diseases, and various uncertainties (wars, famine, plague), yet, this all paled in comparison to the greatest uncertainty of them all: the uncertainty of eternal life.
The church had drifted into a state of apostasy. For centuries, a dark cloud loomed overhead. The papacy withheld the Bible from the common people’s hands; therefore, very few souls were actually saved. The door to the gospel was locked, and Satan held the key. He found great success in generating and maintaining the uncertainties of life. It was this bondage that chained mankind to the shackles of sinful darkness.
The Roman Catholic Church reigned supreme—not just theologically and politically, but economically, as well. Priests were assigned to every village to oversee the daily activities of life from the church to the common market, from the schools to civil affairs.
The Catholic Church thrived under the concept of “canon law.” According to canon law, the pope was the ultimate authority on earth. The Word of God was disregarded. This gross abuse of power allowed the pope to control nearly every aspect of life. As corruption emanated from Rome, godly men began to stir and became increasingly outraged. A storm was brewing.
While many experts consider Martin Luther to be the pivotal agent for sparking the Reformation, it was Englishman John Wycliffe who, two centuries before, began to spark a revolution. He was the crucial first step in this greater movement—that step being the first translation of the Bible into the English language, finally making the literal words of God available to the masses.
Wycliffe was renowned for his intellectual capacity. In 1372, after years of intensive education, Wycliffe received his doctorate of theology from the University of Oxford. Wycliffe became increasingly aware of the Catholic Church’s abuse of power, turning him into a staunch dissident of their doctrines.
He became disillusioned with the overall embodiment of the church, arguing that the Bible should be the authoritative center of Christianity—not a system of laws and traditions established by the pope. Wycliffe denounced the deceptive works of priests, specifically the sale of indulgences.
It is plain to me that our prelates in granting indulgences do commonly blaspheme the wisdom of God. —John Wycliffe
Under canon law, priests diligently pushed the sale of indulgences—a payment for the remission of one’s sins with a small financial sacrifice. From the crowds of purchasers to the shouts of the sellers, it looked much like a market, but a market conducted by monks. The merchandise they were selling, at which they offered a reduced price, was the salvation of souls.
The common criminal was led to believe that he could do whatever he wanted and then acquire an indulgence to receive forgiveness for his sins, in effect, fending off time in purgatory and gaining entry into the portals of heaven, with the Catholic Church acting as mediator before God. This bizarre practice flourished all throughout the European landscape, enraging Wycliffe.
He exhorted his fellow ministers to preach the gospel, not fables or entertainment, so that those with attentive, spiritually hungry minds would be grounded by faith in one biblically-centered gospel.
Wycliffe believed the Bible should be consumed on a daily basis, not just by the religious elite, but also by the multitudes. He thoroughly read through the Scriptures, interpreting them and applying them to his own life. The revelation of these Scriptures opened Wycliffe’s eyes, enabling him to see the nefarious system of the Catholic Church and its opposition to the Word of God.
Speaking out against the pope’s possession of total political and social control, Wycliffe believed that the church should limit itself to its own jurisdiction. The church’s primary affairs should be of the spiritual realm, not political. Thus, Wycliffe became one of the first men to promote the separation of church and state.
He contended that the Catholic Church was deep in transgression. In fact, Wycliffe declared the entire embodiment of the Catholic Church a misguided and corrupt practice of religion.
One example of that corruption was the papal schism, in which three different men simultaneously claimed to be the vicar of Christ.
A resolution was reached, unifying the church under one pope, but many eyes were awakened to the perversion of government within the Catholic Church. The damage done to its reputation was irreparable, further confirming Wycliffe’s declarations.
With such bold declarations, Wycliffe quickly garnered a following. Through earnest teaching, eloquent preaching, and his unbending courage, he won the esteem and confidence of his peers.
Excerpt from the book Light of Liberty by Donnie Swaggart and Justin Nicholson.
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