“For the support of this declaration, with firm reliance on the protection of the divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other, our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” Declaration of Independence
The men who made this statement were risking everything to achieve the liberties they believed were God’s intent for themselves, their neighbors and their descendants. We hear a great deal about Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and of course John Hancock but what of the others who signed and pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. There were lawyers and jurists, merchants, farmers; men who had achieved some wealth, who were well educated – mostly at schools intended to prepare men for ministry. But they signed the Declaration of Independence understanding the implications for their families, their property and their lives if they were captured by the British or if their efforts were lost.
Throughout the war they were hounded by the British, for most of them poverty was their reward. Of the fifty-six signers, nine fought and died from wounds or hardships of fighting the British. Five signers were captured by the British as traitors, and tortured before they died. Twenty, including two Virginia signers, Carter Braxton and Thomas Nelson, Jr. * had their homes ransacked and their possessions stolen. Eight had their homes destroyed. The sons of two of the signers were killed serving in the Revolutionary Army. Another signer had two sons captured.
The signer from New Jersey, John Hart and their thirteen children fled for their lives as his wife lay dying. As British soldiers laid waste to his fields and gristmill, he lived in forests and caves for a year, returning home only to find his wife dead and his children gone. Within a few weeks he had died from exhaustion and a broken heart. Such were a few of the stories and sacrifices of those who had so publicly stood up against the tyranny of the British government during the American Revolution. (LT John Loiselle, USN, WESTLANT Admin Office.)
Several years ago at a lecture series about the importance of studying history, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowen Williams stated…”the figures the historian deals with are not modern people in fancy dress; they have to be listened to as they are, and not judged or dismissed..” because ideas, culture, morals have changed. (Williams, Rowen; Why Study the Past, Sarum Theological Lectures, 2004; page 10) Another way of putting it is that we are challenged to read history in the climate of opinion of that earlier era, not ours, and that our actions will be judged by the climate of opinion of our times. His point was that our awareness of our history deepens our present thinking about ourselves and the world in which we live. The ability to tell our story to the next generation helps us understand ourselves and shape the vision for future generations.
Those fifty-six men who met in Philadelphia in 1776 set the framework that allowed them to break free from the oppressive rule of the British Empire. Though they did not see the world as we do, they accomplished more than they had dared to imagine and laid the foundation for expansion of rights and privileges over these past 235 years, as slow as it has felt to Americans today. Just as the Declaration expressed a reliance on divine providence, their personal letters and journals as well as those of the regular soldiers, their wives, sons and daughters all reflected a profound belief in God’s providence – believing that God is present, that whatever happened they were in God’s hands.
The Rev. William White, the assistant minister at Christ Church, Philadelphia on July 4, 1776 when the rector struck out the name of George III, King of England in the prayer for the Whole State of Christ’s Church replacing it with “the Peoples of these United States” was probably the author of the Collect for the Fourth of July. That prayer reminds us of our duty to beseech God’s direction in the affairs of our nation. The belief of our founders was that this was the opportunity to fulfill God’s covenant— to create the New Jerusalem.
If we are actually to be faithful to God, the grounding of that faithfulness for Christians is in our baptism, and in the promises we have made to strive for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being. It is not merely about having a motto prominently displayed, or saying “God bless America” but about how we live our lives in relationship to one another and to God. It means looking at policy and attitudes from the perspective of the person whose lives will be affected by those policies or attitudes. It means respecting all people, rich and poor alike, native born and foreign, black and white, male and female, old and young, regardless of faith or religious beliefs. It means having the courage to take a stand that may be unpopular. It means addressing the struggles, prejudice and darkness within our own hearts.
The point of Jesus’ teachings was to create an image of life, which offers an ever-deepening process of internal transformation, the primary quality of which is compassion. Can we look at ourselves in the mirror and see ourselves as truly under the sovereignty of God? Today as we sing the hymns that stir the patriotic emotions and sometimes a tear, we also hear the words of Scripture reminding us of our continued responsibilities to respond to the needs of those here and around the world who do not share the extraordinary blessings we have.
Chapter 11 in Matthew’s gospel begins with John the Baptist sending his disciples to ask Jesus: “Are you the one who was going to come?” and Jesus responded: “Go back and tell John what you are hearing and seeing: the blind can see, the lame can walk, those who are weary and over burdened are strengthened and refreshed for our tasks in the world. Jesus’ words “Come unto me all who are weary and heavy burdened, and I will refresh you,” that we have just heard reminds us that the incomparable, compassionate love of God is a gift that empowers us into life with God as responsible human beings who seek a deeper relationship with God and one another. The yoke Jesus offered is about sharing the load, the hard work of living into our covenant relationship with God and our neighbor, reminding us that we are not alone in this effort. The rest Jesus offered is not idleness or inactivity but strengthening to carry out God’s passion for justice which is rooted in respecting the dignity of every human being, seeing in all persons the divine spirit, the image of God, and living lives through which others are able to find God’s peace and justice.
You and I are blessed, with the freedom to make choices that are reflected in our words, in our actions, in our date books and in our checkbooks. Such a time of remembering calls us to ask: what do ours look like? How do we express the love of one another we are called to give? How do we care for those who are needy in this community and in the world? From the blessings God has given to each of us, what do we give back to God?
The truth is that we are on a journey, both as individuals, as a church and as a nation. My hope is that as we continue this journey we will become more open to listening to the heartbeat of God, recognizing that the divine spirit, the image of God in which we were each created, is in all people. On any journey there are high points and low points. Few today would say that equality we expect was accomplished in 1776 but the question we must always ask is whether we are moving closer to our goal of being the people God created us to be — being the people God knows we have the potential to become.
As we strive toward that goal, it is appropriate to stop and celebrate and to give God thanks and praise for the work and risks undertaken by the founders of this country and all those men and women throughout our nation’s history whose courage has opened our hearts and minds to new understandings of liberty, freedom, peace and justice for all.
* Jeanne Brydon wrote that the family tradition is that her ancestor, Thomas Nelson, Jr. of “was on board a ship in the harbor The British had taken over Nelson’s house for their headquarters. His friends said don’t fire on Nelson’s house. Nelson said, “I’ll fire the first shot!” There are cannon balls in the siding today.”