“The whole meaning of history is in the proof that
there have lived people before the present time
whom it is important to meet” (1).
I greatly enjoy meeting the heroes of history and hope you do, too.
One such hero, a founding father of America, is remembered more for his words than his deeds–words such as:
“Give me liberty or give me death.”
His name: Patrick Henry, born May 29, 1736. (His birthday is this Sunday.)
But what brought Patrick Henry to that pivotal moment in history and that immortal statement? What influence did he carry afterwards?
A bit of exploration revealed the following:
Patrick Henry’s education and faith began at home, under the guidance of his college-educated father and his namesake-uncle, an Episcopal minister. Uncle Patrick’s teaching, example, and encouragement helped instill in young Patrick the Christian virtues that would impact his entire life.
As Henry grew into manhood, he transitioned from business to law to government. He was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1765.
Soon after, Great Britain established the Stamp Act, which required almost everything printed in the American colonies to be inscribed on specially stamped paper, available only from agents of the British crown–with the payment of a hefty tax.
Henry spoke eloquently against the Stamp Act: “If this be treason, make the most of it,” he challenged. The Virginia Stamp Act Resolutions passed, and those with pro-British leanings did consider the action treasonous.
In 1774, Patrick Henry was elected to the First Continental Congress. Delegates met to determine a course of action for the colonies, in response to Great Britain’s offenses: taxation without representation, searches and seizures without probable cause, confiscation of firearms, and more.
On March 23, 1775, Henry rallied the Second Virginia Convention, calling them to arms against advancing British troops. England was already at war against the colonies, he reasoned. Then Henry concluded with those famous, rousing words:
(“Is life so dear, or peace so sweet
as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?
Forbid it, Almighty God!
I know not what course others may take;
but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!”)
No doubt such eloquent and impassioned words held the delegates spellbound. But more astounding still? Henry had not prepared a speech for that day; he held no notes in his hands.
Another surprise for most of us: Henry spoke of God throughout that speech, and quoted from the Bible. In one short paragraph, he used eight scriptural phrases.
Other examples include:
- “Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace—but there is no peace (Jeremiah 6:14). The war is actually begun!
- “The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone” (Eccl. 9:11).
- “There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations, and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us” (2 Chron. 32:8).
Remember, his speech was delivered with no notes. These verses and many more were imprinted in Henry’s memory.
On many occasions during the war that ensued, he encouraged the beleaguered soldiers to pray for divine intervention, reminding them that:
“…the same God whose power divided the Red Sea for the deliverance of Israel,
still reigns in all of his glory, unchanged and unchangeable…” (3).
The American Revolution officially began April 19, 1775 at the Battle of Lexington and dragged on for eight long years. At first, Henry served in the military, as commander-in-chief of the Virginia militia. But in 1776, Henry shifted his attention from the military to governmental aspects of the war and the development of a new nation.
In fact, governmental affairs were to be his main focus from that time forward. Henry served five terms as governor of Virginia and as a representative in the state legislature.
Yet it was not his accomplishments that he prized most.
(“Being a Christian…is a character which I prize
far above all this world has or can boast” (4).
After Henry’s death, this note was found, containing truth just as appropriate for today as in 1799:
“Whether this [the American Revolution] will prove a blessing or a curse
will depend upon the use our people make of the blessings
which a gracious God hath bestowed on us.
If they are wise, they will be great and happy.
If they are of a contrary character, they will be miserable.
Righteousness alone can exalt them as a nation [Proverbs 14:34].
Reader! – whoever thou art, remember this! –
and in thy sphere practice virtue thyself and encourage it in others.
–P. Henry” (5).
Patrick Henry certainly practiced Christian virtue himself, and is still encouraging it—in those who will listen.
(1) Eugene Rosenstock Huessy, Speech and Reality, Argo Books, 1970, p. 167.
(2) The Founders’ Bible, p. 1734
(5) The Founders’ Bible, p. 957
The Founders’ Bible, Shiloh Road Publishers, 2012