Devotion for Week of April 19th, 2010 - The Christian Philosophy of Patrick Henry pt #3

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The Christian Philosophy of Patrick Henry pt. 3

By James Wells

 

Luke
6:45, “A good man out of the good treasure of his
heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil
treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance
of the heart his mouth speaketh.



The
purpose of these next few devotions is to illustrate the extraordinary depth of
Patrick Henry’s religious convictions, the wide range of Christian doctrines
which had an influence upon him, and the manner in which this affected his
philosophy of life and government.

 

This
historical survey of the influence of Christianity upon the political career of
Patrick Henry was presented to and approved by the Faculty of the Sam Houston
State Teachers College, Huntsville, Texas, July, 1960, as a thesis in partial
fulfillment of the requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts.

 

Leadership
of Revolutionary Virginia



A
recapitulation of the political career of Patrick Henry, for the purposes of
studying his ideas of government and of the nature of men, quite naturally
falls into three divisions: first, that early portion of his career, during
which he rose to acknowledged leadership of his state and to prominence as a
national revolutionary spirit; second, his unsuccessful fight against the
American Constitution at the Virginia Ratification Convention, which was the
fullest expression of his philosophy of government and of man; and, third, that
controversial period shortly before his death when he came out of retirement to
challenge the Jeffersonian leadership then dominant in Virginia.



It is
the purpose of this portion of the report to resurvey that period of Patrick Henry’s
career during which, to quote his foremost opponent, James Madison, he reached
a position of “omnipotence in Virginia.”  Curing this time, the influence of Henry’s
Christian philosophy is markedly evident in his attempts to secure religious
freedom for all Christian groups in Virginia, to secure the freedom of the
American colonies from the oppression of the British Kind, and to secure for
America that greatness which he felt was her “manifest destiny,”
through safeguarding the West.  These
factors may be explained best by a recapitulation of the more outstanding
incidents of this portion of his career.  The complete philosophy of the Virginia leader
unfolds during this period and by noting certain factors in would have been
possible to predict his future course of action.



Leadership
and Disestablishment



The rise of Patrick Henry into a position of political leadership in Virginia
enabled him to bring about religious toleration for all Christian groups in the
state.  This struggle for religious freedom
began with the Parson’s Cause case and ended with the establishment of a new
government—a government which granted religious freedom to all of its citizens.



The Parson’s Cause



The
first appearance of Patrick Henry which gave him statewide recognition and
prominence was his role as defense lawyer in the celebrated “parson’s Cause Case.”  William Wirt Henry presented the background of
the case in the following manner: The legislature of Virginia had passed
legislation which would have enabled the clergy of the established Anglican of
Episcopal Church of the colony to be paid in coin at the rate of two-pence per
pound of tobacco instead of in tobacco itself as their salary had formerly been
based.  The legislature had defended its
actions as being necessitated by a tobacco shortage due to drought and by the
corresponding rise in the price of tobacco, which would, therefore, have worked
a hardship on the parishioners if they had been forced to meet the salary
payment in tobacco.

 

The
King, upon plea of the clergy, had disallowed the act.  Thus, lower courts had been forced to declare
it null and void.  It remained only for
the clergy to sue for damages resulting from having been paid their yearly salary
on the two-pence scale.  The case in
Louisa County had attracted great attention.  Patrick Henry was at this time a relatively
unknown country lawyer; yet he managed to sway the jury with his eloquence to
the extent that it brought in a verdict of one penny damages for the clergy—a
decided blow to their pocketbooks.



Henry
cited two reasons why the court should find only one penny damages and thereby
uphold the spirit of the Two-Penny act; first, the King by disallowing the Act
had broken the compact between Crown and subject; second, the clergy had failed
to serve the purpose for which they were ordained and, therefore, should be
punished.  These ideas Henry was to
follow devotedly with amazing tenacity and consistence until his death.



Henry maintained that government was a conditional compact composed of twin
dependent covenants—the government of the King promising protection on the one
hand, and the people pledging obedience and support on the other.  He maintained that a violation of these
covenants by either party discharged the other from its obligation.  As the Two-Penny Act had been a good law and
designed for the general welfare, the disallowance was an instance of misrule;
therefore, the King had departed from his role as the father of his people and
had degenerated into a tyrant.  The
people, then, were released from their obligation to follow his order regarding
the Act.  At this point Patrick Henry
heard the first murmurs of “treason!” from a Virginia audience.



As for
the clergy, by their refusal to acquiesce to a law designed to meet the general
welfare of the public, they had counteracted the aims and purposes of their
organization.  As a result, instead of
the respect due to them as useful members of the state, they should be
considered as enemies of the people.  In
the case before the court, then, they should, instead of being awarded damages,
be punished. Henry proceeded to attack the Anglican clergy with vigor.  He asked, “Do they manifest their zeal in the cause of
religion and humanity by practicing the mild and benevolent precepts of the
Gospel of Jesus?” and replied “…Oh, no, gentlemen!...These rapacious
harpies would, were their powers equal to their will, snatch from the …widow
and her orphan children their last milk cow!”

 

 He continued his allegory in a violent tone
and concluded by saying, “they would snatch…the last bed, nay, the
last blanket from the lying-in woman!”  The parsons labeled Henry’s speech as violent
demagoguery designed to win popularity with the people; yet, an examination of
Henry’s statements before and after this time show him to be a firm and
unyielding foe of the establishment of religion.  Henry concluded the case in hand by declaring
that the issue was whether or not they would be free and make their own laws,
or whether or not they would rivet the bonds of slavery by deciding for the
Parsons.  This insistence of
self-government in local matters was to be the beacon that Henry held forth
through the Revolution.



The
case itself accentuated a revolt against establishment which Chitwood held had
begun with the great Presbyterian and Calvinistic revival of Patrick Henry’s
youth and which culminated in the American Revolution.  Miller maintained that revolution and
disestablishment were inseparable forces in the Southern colonies.  He pointed out that it was the Presbyterian
Church which taught the moral righteousness of rebellion against a dictator.  Patrick Henry became the acknowledged leader
of both disestablishment and rebellion.

 

 

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