Our Historical Memory . . . Or Lack Thereof

It was 241 years ago today that the Continental Congress approved the wording of the Declaration of Independence. Although Thomas Jefferson drafted the document, there was a committee that was responsible for sending it to the floor of the Congress. Two of those committee members were John Adams and Benjamin Franklin.

Jefferson later said that he didn’t write anything original, that he was merely putting into words the consensus of the era concerning rights that come from God and the necessity of forming a new government.

The preamble tells us that there is a Law of Nature (a phrase traced back historically to the book of Romans in the Bible) and that our Creator granted men certain rights that government cannot take away.

The final paragraph included an appeal to “the Supreme Judge of the world” for the rightness of their motives in making the move to independence and ends with these stirring words:

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, & our sacred honour.

They meant it. Many suffered for this action. They knew they were now prime targets, seen as traitors to the Crown.

What remains of our historical memory?

Point out this ignorance to some of our educators and what response might you get?

I remember very well the day in class when I found out that some of my students couldn’t write cursive. I was stunned. The loss of that skill is another blow against historical knowledge:

The Fourth of July became a major celebration for the first time on its fiftieth anniversary in 1826. Since Jefferson and Adams were still alive, they were invited to the celebrations, but both begged off due to their health. The nation was then startled a few days later by the news that both had died on the Fourth of July, exactly fifty years after their historic participation in the framing of the Declaration.

Odd as it may seem to some, that news sparked unity in the nation, as if God held off their deaths for that specific day to highlight the significance of American independence.

Unity. What a nice concept.

Are we worse off now than ever? As a historian, I know there have been worse times in some ways—the Civil War, the Great Depression. We came through those, but what about today?

Our problem may be worse today with the rapid decline in our culture’s Biblical worldview. As you go about your celebrations today, pray for God’s mercy on our nation.

Whitefield & the Awakening

George WhitefieldDavid Garrick, the most popular actor in Britain in the eighteenth century, once remarked, “I would give a hundred guineas if I could say ‘Oh’ like Mr. Whitefield.” He was referring to evangelist George Whitefield, who, at the young age of 25, arrived in the American colonies and became the focal point of the First Great Awakening.

Whitefield was educated at Oxford and became a close friend of John Wesley’s. Together they were part of a student organization called “The Holy Club,” which was dedicated to the disciplines of the Christian life. Converted during his time at Oxford, he was ordained within the Anglican church and spent the rest of his life as an itinerant evangelist, easily, along with Wesley, the most effective voices for the faith in that century.

Whitefield was very dramatic in his preaching, which is why Garrick was so enamored of him. His sermons were like stage plays, entertaining the crowds while communicating the need for spiritual rebirth. The churches were too small to hold the crowds who wanted to hear him, both in England and in America. Sometimes, those outdoor crowds could be raucous and mocking to both Whitefield and Wesley, throwing fruit or whatever was at hand to make fun of them. Yet both continued to preach despite the attempt at persecution. The people’s need for salvation trumped everything.

George Whitefield Preaching

When Whitefield toured the American colonies throughout 1739-1740, revival followed everywhere in his wake. He struck up a friendship with Benjamin Franklin, who made a number of observations about Whitefield. Amazed at his speaking voice and its projection, Franklin once calculated that, in an open space, 30,000 people would have no trouble hearing him preach. At another time, listening to one of his sermons, Franklin donated some money to the orphanage Whitefield had started in Georgia. As the sermon continued, Franklin felt impressed to donate more. Before it was over, he had emptied his pockets.

After Whitefield left Philadelphia, Franklin remarked that one could not walk down the streets of the city without hearing people singing hymns in their homes. The spiritual tenor of the place had been transformed.

Whitefield and Wesley parted ways theologically, with Wesley a confirmed Arminian and Whitefield a Calvinist, yet they remained friends. Whitefield’s Calvinism, though, took a back seat to the practicality of his preaching. As Jonathan Edwards’s wife Sarah, who heard Whitefield preach when he came to Massachusetts to join with Edwards, remarked, “He makes less of the doctrines than our American preachers generally do and aims more at affecting the heart. He is a born orator. A prejudiced person, I know, might say that this is all theatrical artifice and display, but not so will anyone think who has seen and known him.”

According to historian Paul Johnson, Whitefield, during his lifetime, was conceivably the one man known by nearly everyone in all the colonies. Johnson rates his popularity on a par with George Washington. Yet how many people today know of Whitefield?

He was 55 when he returned to America for the last time in 1770. His health was failing. A friend told him he was more fit to go to bed than to preach. Whitefield agreed, but said emphatically that he would rather wear out than rust out. He was in Newburyport, Massachusetts, and nearly unable to stand, but once he started his sermon, his strength returned. Afterwards, at the pastor’s residence where he was staying, he was going up to bed, only to be asked by a crowd to speak to them again. He obliged, then went to bed. Whitefield died at dawn that next morning.

George Whitefield was a man wholly devoted to carrying out the task God had given him. He deserves to be remembered, and his life should be an inspiration for those of us who seek to do what God has called us to do in our day.

Finding the Truth Too Late

When dealing with the religious beliefs of America’s Founding Generation—those who participated in the Revolution and the creation of the Constitution—one must draw a clear distinction between those who were genuine Christians and those who were merely religious in a general sense. As I tell my students incessantly, early America was a society built on a Biblical framework of thinking, even though some of the prominent individuals may not have been what evangelicals call “born again.” Yesterday’s post dealt with Jefferson. Today I’d like to focus on Benjamin Franklin.

At the Continental Congress, Franklin and Jefferson were placed on a committee to try to come up with an official seal for the new United States. Interestingly, here was their proposal:

For both Jefferson and Franklin, apparently nothing would make the point better than comparing America’s situation with the Israelites fleeing from Pharaoh. The seal shows Pharaoh [read: George III] drowning in the Red Sea by the providential hand of God.

Franklin, at the Constitutional Convention, famously made an appeal to the assembled delegates when they seemed to be at cross purposes and the convention was on the verge of failure. At that crucial point, he reminded them of something:

The longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth: “that God governs in the affairs of men.”And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid? We have been assured … in the sacred writings that except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it. I firmly believe this.

These two instances—the devising of the seal and the appeal to look to God—show that Franklin operated within the Biblical milieu that dominated the times. But what of his personal faith in Jesus Christ?

On March 9, 1790, Franklin sent a letter to Ezra Stiles, the president of Yale. Stiles had asked about Franklin’s views of Jesus. In his response, the 85-year-old Founder commented,

As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw, or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting Changes, and I have with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his Divinity: tho’ it is a Question I do not dogmatise upon, having never studied it, and I think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble.

If you read yesterday’s post on Jefferson, you see a similarity here. Franklin believed that those who wrote the New Testament embellished upon who Jesus was. He mentions dissenters in England, by which he undoubtedly means the Unitarians, who rejected the idea of the Trinity. For me, the saddest part of this letter is that last line. He doesn’t even want to check into the matter further because he expects very soon to know the truth for sure—he knew he was ailing and would not be around much longer. He was right. Franklin died one month after penning this letter.

That’s not the best way to find the truth. By then, it’s too late.

Heroic Heritage

Historic anniversaries abound this week. Yesterday was one that almost everyone in America knows: D-Day. How many, though, can talk about what took place at the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc on that day?

One of the most heroic actions of D-Day was the scaling of those cliffs by a special Army Ranger battalion. Their mission was to take out the guns at the top that could have devastated the invasion force on all the other beaches. Those Rangers achieved their goal despite numerous challenges that almost led to disaster. I recommend a good book about their exploits: Douglas Brinkley’s The Boys of Point du Hoc.

Brinkley’s book also showcases what took place on the 40th anniversary of D-Day when President Reagan went to the Normandy coast and delivered speeches that should be recognized as some of the most inspirational in American history. One took place at the top of those cliffs in front of the memorial set up to honor those Rangers.

In the audience that day in 1984 were surviving Rangers who returned to remember and commemorate those who lost their lives in that daring mission. Reagan’s speech was important, as it made clear to a new generation what a previous generation sacrificed for liberty.

It was so fitting that twenty years later, on June 5, 2004, Ronald Reagan passed from this side of life into eternity. Just as all the media converged on Normandy again for the 60th anniversary, they also had to cover Reagan’s death. His tributes to his own generation were replayed that weekend over and over, so that another rising generation would learn a valuable lesson—if they would take heed.

Then there’s today, June 7. For that one, let’s go back 235 years to 1776. It was on this date that Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, with the full endorsement of his state, brought to the Continental Congress a series of resolutions, beginning with a bold statement that all allegiance to Great Britain should be dissolved and that a new United States of America should be established.

Another of his resolutions was that a committee should be formed to draw up a draft of a declaration of independence—just in case it might be needed. That committee was composed of five gentlemen, three of whom are most often mentioned: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin. This was the beginning of the end for colonial America and the start of something brand new, a nation declaring independence because the God of Nature had bestowed on all people the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, among others.

Let’s celebrate our heritage, whether it be from 1776, 1944, 1984, or 2004. Let’s remember our beginnings, as well as the times when we’ve demonstrated most openly the spiritual and moral underpinnings that formed the cornerstone of that heritage.