National Holiday: Happy 4th of July! Oh, and what exactly was that … ‘Faith of Our Fathers,’ anyway?

SUNDAY, JULY 4: Americans, start your fireworks!
Today is Independence Day, a U.S. federal holiday that celebrates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence—most commonly with barbecues, picnics, parades and lots of fireworks. (New York City’s fireworks display exploded more than 22 tons of pyrotechnics last year. If you don’t live near a big fireworks show, check the PBS website for a televised display in your area.) So break out into Patriotic song (find lyrics and other Patriotic ideas here) or try out a Patriotic activity, create a craft, take a quiz or cook up a delicious Fourth of July recipe, courtesy of Kaboose.

Here’s a bit of historical trivial that will make you the toast of the July 4 Picnic, we’re sure: Did you know that the official legal separation of the American colonies from Great Britain occurred on July 2—and even John Adams believed that Americans would mark July 2 as a “great anniversary festival” for generations. Nevertheless, U.S. citizens marked July 4 as America’s national day from the beginning, since the legal separation occurred in a closed session of Congress and the Declaration of Independence displays a date of “July 4” for all to see. (Wikipedia has details.) July 4, 1777 was a joyous and elaborate day, as 13 gunshots were fired at sunup and sundown, an official dinner was held for the Continental Congress, speeches were delivered, prayers were said and fireworks were released into the night sky. Parades and music filled the streets (and ears) for early Americans, and even ships were decorated in red, white and blue bunting in the harbors. (Get an interactive perspective courtesy of The History Channel.)

Many Pilgrims came to America to escape religious prosecution, and thus, the Founding Fathers knew that specific religious terms in the Declaration of Independence were of utmost importance. (The Pew Forum recently released a detailed report of modern-day American religious beliefs and affiliations.) Historians have yet to discover exactly what some early leaders, such as George Washington, believed, although they point out that God was included in the document. (Look for more from this Library of Congress page.) The Founding Fathers established the separation of church and state, yet they made it clear that God had made their liberty possible.

Religious Affiliations of Declaration of Independence Signers?

Purdue historian Frank Lambert’s recent book, “The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America,” breaks down their religious diversity this way: 28 Anglicans made up the single biggest block, followed by 8 Presbyterians and 7 Congregationalists. Only 3 were Catholic. Others were Protestant or had no religious affiliation. Some identified themselves as Deists. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin both spoke out against organized religion. Lambert argues that a great deal of religious change took place during the American Revolution. (ReadTheSpirit published a story about the revival of interest in Francis Asbury, who emerged as a major force in this early American period.)

Now, here’s a fascinating exercise for the 4th, if you care to take a moment and look back at our nation’s founding documents: Lambert suggests that we compare religious references in the Declaration of Independence with the U.S. Constitution, which was written years later. (You can read them all at the U.S. Archives website based in D.C.) You’ll find a significant difference in religious tone.

(By ReadTheSpirit columnist Stephanie Fenton)

(NOTE: To see more short articles about upcoming holidays, festivals and anniversaries, click the “RTS Magazines” tab at the top of this page and select “Religious Holidays.”)

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