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.
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.