Biblical Themes in Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” Speech

            Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death” speech is a masterpiece, weaving many biblical themes throughout.  On multiple occasions the speech comes across as more of a sermon than a call to arms.  To even mention the Bible today, in the same type setting, would provoke cries that Mr. Henry was violating the separation of church and state.  However, In the days prior to the revolution, speaking in biblical language struck a chord with most colonists.

            Mr. Henry’s introduction explains in part why he speaks in such vivid biblical language.  While he never quotes scripture directly, there is no doubt as to Mr. Henry’s purposeful use of themes found in the Holy Bible.  From the beginning, the audience is informed of their responsibility to God first and the country second.[1]  The speech goes as far as to say that silence on the matter would deem Patrick Henry disloyal to God and guilty of treason to his country[2].

            Just as Jesus often made statements such as, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear”,[3] Mr. Henry says some , “having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not”[4].  He could have very well said “they buried their heads in the sand”, indicating they were ignoring the problem in hopes it would go away, but he did not.  Did Patrick Henry speak this way, because he was a devout Christian, and it naturally flowed from his Biblical studies?  There is no question that a sincere student of the Bible will be affected by the scriptures.  A later speech, however,  given by Patrick Henry on June 4, 1788, to the Virginia Convention, is not so inundated with the biblical language, indicating there was another purpose behind the method.

            To understand the reason behind Mr. Henry’s use of biblical language and why it resonated with the audience, the mindset of the American people must be understood.  At the time of the reformation in Europe, civil disobedience and the duty of Christians in the political arena began to be considered.[5]  This was largely due to the persecution of groups, like the puritans, who later came to America in order to freely worship God.  This coupled with the fact that most Americans were Christians made the audience of Patrick Henry’s speech fertile ground.  Being very familiar with persecution, the colonists were taken back by phrases like, “Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss.”[6]  Patrick Henry’s masterful use of this phrase not only reminded the people of their recent persecution, but of the way one of Jesus’ own disciples betrayed him.[7]

            While “Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death” has the feel of a sermon, in reality it is a political and patriotic call to arms.  The biblical phrases were not used in the context of scripture, but as catch phrases and attention getters throughout the speech.  Patrick Henry speaks of love and reconciliation which brings to mind the love God had for the world and His purpose of reconciling man to Himself, because of that love.  This, being the opposite of what the British Empire was attempting to do, must have given the audience a sense that God was on their side.  Therefore, to do nothing, was to disobey Him.

            Mr. Henry belting out, “I beseech you”,[8] with his gifted oratory ability, had a dramatic impact on all those who heard the speech.  It might be noted that the speech was also given in a church, which provided the perfect setting for the patriotic sermon.    Facing the alter of the church, where they may have been to pray in the past, the people hear, “we have prostrated ourselves before the thrown” and “our supplications have been disregarded”[9].  These were not references to the throne of God or prayers to Him, but represented the extent of the colonists attempts to gain the ear of their earthly king.

            None of this is to say Mr. Henry was using the Bible simply as a way to get to the heart of the people.  From the very beginning of his speech, Mr. Henry made it clear that he revered God above all earthly kings.[10]  Looking at Patrick Henry’s life,  a detractor would be hard pressed to prove otherwise.  The only conclusion that could be drawn is that he was speaking as a follower of Jesus Christ to his brothers in Christ, using their language, expressing his own very strong convictions.  If any in attendance thought otherwise, surely it was a very small minority.

            The culture and values were so different in the days of Patrick Henry, than we see in the United States today.  While everyone was certainly not a Christian, a vast majority was.  Many would look back on the speech, from twenty first century America, with contempt, claiming he was mixing politics with religion.  He may have been doing just that, but at the time political correctness was not an issue.  While a couple of centuries later this might have been looked at as a violation of the Constitution, the document didn’t exist in 1775.

            Patrick Henry was at least two things.  First and foremost, he was a devoted follower of Jesus Christ.  After that, he was a patriot, striving for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, for all Virginians and his fellow Americans.  Although he was a Christian first, he did not separate his duties as a Chrisitian from his duties as an American.  Combining his love for God and passion for liberty in one speech resulted in one of the most memorable speeches in American history.  As he closes with the famous line, “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”, the listener would have been taken back to the closing line of Joshua’s speech to Israel.  “And if it seems evil to you to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”[11]


[1]  Patrick Henry. “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!” Speech to the Virginia Convention, March 23, 1775.

[2] Ibid

[3] Mar 4:9 (NKJV)

[4] Patrick Henry. “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!” Speech to the Virginia Convention,

March 23, 1775.

[5] Christianity & the American Revolution http://bb7.liberty.edu/webapps/portal/frameset.jsp?tab_tab_group_id=_2_1&url=%2Fwebapps%2Fblackboard%2Fexecute%2Flauncher%3Ftype%3DCourse%26id%3D_1937052_1%26url%3D (accessed April 3, 2013)

[6] Patrick Henry. “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!” Speech to the Virginia Convention,

March 23, 1775.

[7] Luk. 22:48 (NKJV)

[8] Patrick Henry. “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!” Speech to the Virginia Convention,

March 23, 1775.

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

[11] Josh. 24:15 (NKJV)

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