Lexington, Concord, and the Crypt in the Basement

[This column will appear at TOWNHALL.COM on July 4, 2013]

If America was born 237 years ago this week, the case can be made that she was conceived decades earlier. Long before men named Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hancock, and Franklin became notable and influential, there were a few clergymen—yes, preachers—who meteorically blazed across the colonial sky.

In September of 1775, five months after the battles of Lexington and Concord, and while the shot heard ‘round the world later immortalized by Ralph Waldo Emerson still echoed, some Continental Army volunteers gathered at a church in the small coastal Massachusetts town of Newburyport, located almost 30 miles northeast of Boston. They were about to go to battle—an initiative led by, of all people, Benedict Arnold. The men decided that a little prayer accompanied by an extemporaneous sermon might be a good idea.

Old South Church in Newburyport, MA
Old South Church in Newburyport, MA

The town’s Old South Church had found a bit of recent fame as people proudly pointed out that the bell in its clock tower had been cast by a fellow named Paul Revere, who had just months before made a name for himself on horseback. Revere, of course, is better known for his connection to a certain Old North Church. But some of the citizen-soldiers listening to Chaplain Samuel Spring’s challenge that day knew that they were also in the presence of another important bit of history—something they saw as very relevant to the emerging War of Independence.

As they listened to the sermon that day, many of them couldn’t help but be preoccupied with the pulpit itself. On the Sunday immediately following the battles of Lexington and Concord, the local minister, Dr. Jonathan Parsons, spoke fervently about liberty. His passion prompted a man named Ezra Hunt to step into the church’s aisle to form a company of 60 fighting men on the spot—said to be the first such group to attach itself to the fledgling Continental Army.

But as if those two connections to the greater cause weren’t enough, there was a third even more compelling reason many of the men found the venue so fascinating.

It was what was under the pulpit that inspired them.

Five years earlier, a famous preacher had been scheduled to speak at the Old South Church in Newburyport. He was America’s most famous clergyman, although his preferred appellation was—“revivalist.” His name was George Whitefield. He died that morning in 1770. A few days later, with much grief and ceremony, he was buried in a crypt directly beneath the church’s pulpit –where his crypt remains to this day.

Many of the men sitting in the church on September 16, 1775, preparing to go to war, were restless. No disrespect was intended for the chaplain, they just wanted him to be done with his remarks so they could see Whitefield’s tomb. They wanted to make a connection—not only with history and fame: but with what we might now refer to as the DNA of faith.

Lost to many Americans today via the whitewash of history that has led to a bit of a cultural brainwash when it comes to the founding era, is the story of Whitefield and the Great Awakening he helped spark. The common revisionist narrative today places faith and matters of religion on the periphery of history—an enduring lunatic fringe encompassing past and present. This better fits the secularist worldview espoused by those who want us to see government, secular, and struggles for “social justice” as not only the way to move boldly into the future, but also as consistent with our past.

There will be reenactments this weekend illustrating Revere’s ride, volleys fired, and a declaration proclaimed, but what will be missing as America rounds up its usual respects this 4th of July will be a cultural revisit to the seeds planted in the hearts and minds of men and women in the decades before 1775-1776.

Ordained in the Church of England at the tender age of 22 in 1736, he quickly became well known for his voice—it was loud and commanding, but never shrill and off-putting. It was said that he could speak to 30,000 people (Benjamin Franklin counted them once) and that all could hear him, even in the open air. His diction and flair for dramatics had audiences hanging on every word.

Whitefield emphasized personal conversion with his powerful messages on the new birth from the Gospel of John. The converted formed new churches—hundreds of them. And they revived existing churches that had long been spiritually moribund.

The chronological locus for the Great Awakening was the period of 1740-1742, but the residual and enduring effects lasted into the revolutionary period. And this is where the history being taught in schools today—and that most of us grew up hearing—misses the boat.

While revolutionary France defined itself by its hostility to religion, Americans had no difficulty embracing the values of the Enlightenment and republicanism, while at the same time clinging to their religious principles.”

And we have the Reverend George Whitefield, among many others, to thank for this.

When the sermon was finally done at Old South Church that September day, some of the citizen-soldiers sought out the church’s sexton and asked to see where Whitefield was buried. The sexton actually opened the coffin and a few of the officers obtained tiny bits of material from the dead preacher’s collar and wristband, carrying them into battle as good luck charms.

whitefield1Of course, I am not all that into amulets and such, but I find myself cutting these men some slack. Their simple excision of fabric was really an exercise in remembrance and connection. They knew that what they were going to do soon in battle was somehow, someway tied to what Whitefield and others had been part of years before.

America, for the most part, has long-since forgotten the spiritual roots of the revolution we’ll sort of remember this week. — DRS 

Which Revolution?

main-jfk-inauguration

In my opinion, the best part of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address on January 20, 1961, had nothing to do with asking anyone anything. The moment to remember was when he said:

The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe – the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God. We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution.

It is interesting, even sadly ironic, that what is going on in our nation right now does resemble an old revolutionary spirit, but not necessarily that of Lexington, Concord, or Philadelphia. In fact, a case can be made – if one looks closely – that the spirit of 2013 is more like the spirit of 1789 than 1776.

The American and French Revolutions are linked in our minds because of chronology; but they were vastly different affairs. One led to a new birth of freedom; the other to terror and tyranny. That one also became the portal and model for horrors to come.

As our nation morphs its way along, en route to becoming what some liberal diehards very much want it to be, a significant number of people would seemingly prefer “Liberty – Equality – Fraternity” over “Life – Liberty – and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

It is in the parsing of those vitally important words that we find the keys to understanding where we came from, where we are, and where we are going. One revolution was about individual rights and dreams. The other was about “the people” as a group and the highest virtue being “the greater good.”

Can you guess which is which?

When Thomas Jefferson wrote about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence, he was borrowing from 17th century English philosopher, John Locke, whose triad was “life, liberty, and the pursuit of property.” Jefferson’s use of this language was clearly designed to describe the rights of individual people to live free, be free, and freely pursue their dreams in a free marketplace. Those thoughts were very much in presence in that Philadelphia birthing room.

The French Revolution, on the other hand – though similar to what happened here in the sense of changing things and breaking free from an old order – had little to do with individual rights. It was all about collectivism. And in many ways, the French Revolution is the ancestor of all totalitarian systems to follow. Hitler, Mussolini, Pol Pot Lenin, and all other political gangsters were heirs of Robespierre and later, Napoleon. Those tyrannical manifestations were not misguided aberrations – distortions of something that started out good (as in, “Lenin was cool, but that Stalin guy, he was messed up!”) – the seeds of the horror were present at the beginning.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 18th century Enlightenment philosopher, had written about volonté générale or “general will” and the Jacobins, followed by others, ran with it insisting that voice of “the people” could best, actually only, be expressed by so-called “enlightened” leaders.

Our revolution indeed drew a measure of strength from the Enlightenment, but it was of the earlier Locke variety. And America’s use of Enlightenment concepts was tempered by something else; something that set it apart from what happened in France—a spiritual foundation.

french_revolution

Vive la revolution — Vive la difference.

The French not only declared war on the monarchy, they also attacked Christianity, replacing it with a religion of the state, introducing the worship of secularism. Sound familiar?

In America, it was very different. Now, I am not one of those who spends a lot of time trying to prove the Christian bona fides of our founding fathers, but I do believe that the influence of The Great Awakening, which ended about 20 years before the shot heard around the world was fired, was still very much a part of our national fabric at the time.

And another such movement, often referred to as The Second Great Awakening began while the French were unsuccessfully trying to figure out how to be free. To ignore those religious and cultural movements in America is to miss an important piece of the puzzle.

The very concepts of liberty, equality, and fraternity sound nice and make for great propaganda. But in the end, without virtue born of something deeper and greater, it all ends up looking the same. This is why all totalitarian regimes like to call their realms The Peoples’ this or that – like The Peoples Republic of China, or Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or The Peoples Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

We need to beware of those who share our vocabulary, but use a different dictionary. Are we still about the individual, personal, hard-fought-for rights: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, or does the cry: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity seem to increasingly be the spirit of this age?

The reason it has all worked and endured so well in this land is because we are a nation “under God.” There I said it. There is no real liberty without that. All attempts at actual freedom end up moving toward tyranny without some sense of higher purpose and power. I believe firmly in the separation of church and state. But minus positive religious influence, a nation cannot long remain free.

Thomas Paine’s story should be a cautionary tale. He, of course, wrote Common Sense in early 1776, and it was by all accounts vital to shaping public opinion in support of our patriotic ancestors. He was a revolutionary. Mr. Paine helped us early on, but as he moved on and shared more of his thinking via his acerbic pen, he expressed ideas that, while probably resonating with some today, would in no way mesh with the spirit of 1776.

While Common Sense supported the ideas of freedom, small government, and even low taxes – all very much part of that old revolutionary spirit – by the time the French were acting out, his writings became increasingly more radical. When parts one and two of his work, The Rights of Man, appeared in 1791 and 1792, he became a pariah in England and fled to France like where he was treated like a hero, being made an honorary citizen of the republic. But by this time, his writings advocated a progressive income tax, public works for the unemployed, and guaranteed minimum incomes.

And don’t even get me started on his next bestseller, The Age Of Reason; a rant against revealed religion. Paine died virtually alone and penniless in 1809. Only six people attended his funeral.

This of course, brings us back full circle to the thesis of this article – that concepts of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, expressed individually (the intent of our founders), can only keep from drifting toward collectivism when there is a spiritual impulse – or at least a spiritual pulse.

C. S. Lewis said it very well in The Screwtape Letters 70 years ago:

Hidden in the heart of this striving for Liberty there was also a deep hatred of personal freedom. That invaluable man Rousseau first revealed it. In his perfect democracy, only the state religion is permitted, slavery is restored, and the individual is told that he has really willed (though he didn’t know it) whatever the Government tells him to do. From that starting point, via Hegel (another indispensable propagandist on our side), we easily contrived both the Nazi and the Communist state. Even in England we were pretty successful. I heard the other day that in that country a man could not, without a permit, cut down his own tree with his own axe, make it into planks with his own saw, and use the planks to build a tool shed in his own garden.

Forgotten Jewish Hero of Thanksgiving

[This article appears at EXAMINER.COM]

Our national Thanksgiving narrative is rich with stories about proclamations, gatherings, meals, traditions, football, and of course, the obligatory pardoning of a turkey by the president of the United States. Schoolchildren rehearse that day long ago when the Plymouth pilgrims broke bread. We note famous things men named Washington and Lincoln said.

But did you ever hear of Gershom Mendes Seixas?  He is one of America’s forgotten heroes.

We hear much these days about our “Judeo-Christian” heritage and its early and enduring influence on our culture. A look back at the founding era of our nation reminds us, however, that only about 2,500 Jews actually lived in the colonies in 1776. Usually those of us who speak of that early dual influence are referring to the Christian Bible with its Jewish roots.

But pointing this out is not to say that Jews were not active and represented during the colonial and founding periods. Quite the contrary.  And Gershom Mendes Seixas is a case in point. Described as “American Judaism’s first public figure,” he was appointed, in 1768, chazzan of New York’s Congregation Shearith Israel – the only synagogue serving the city’s approximately 300 Jewish residents.

He was just 23 years old at the time. Largely self-taught in the Talmud with much help from his devout father, he never actually became an “official” rabbi. In fact, it would be several decades before a rabbi was ordained in America.

Seixas was the first Jewish preacher to use the English language in his homilies. He was a gifted teacher and tireless worker. And when it came to the American Revolution, he was a patriot – as demonstrated by his actions while the colonies were struggling to actually realize the independence that had been recently proclaimed.

His synagogue, like much of the greater public, was somewhat divided on the issue of independence. But Seixas used all of his persuasive skills to convince his congregation that they should cease operations in advance of the approaching British occupation of the city, during the early days of the conflict.

He fled to his wife’s family home in Connecticut, carrying various books and scrolls precious to the synagogue for safekeeping. In 1780, he accepted the leadership role at a synagogue in Philadelphia, where he became an outspoken cultural voice regularly calling on God to watch over General Washington and the great cause.

When the war ended, he was invited back to resume his work with Congregation Shearith Israel in New York. He returned with the books and scrolls to serve from 1784 until his death 32 years later.

When George Washington was inaugurated as the first president of the United States on April 30, 1789, Seixas was asked to participate as one of the presiding clergyman. This was certainly an act of gratitude by Washington for the preacher’s stalwart support during the war. It was also, though, an expression of Washington’s thinking about the importance of religious freedom and diversity in the new nation.

Later that year, as the nation set aside Thursday, the 26th of November, the date so designated by the president for Thanksgiving, Seixas preached a sermon to his New York congregation.  His Thanksgiving Day message was based on a text from the Psalms where it talks about how King David had “made a joyful noise unto the Lord.” Seixas told his listeners that they had much to rejoice about – “the new nation, its president, and above all, the new constitution.”

Warming to his theme, he reminded them that they were “equal partakers of every benefit that results from this good government,” and therefore should be good citizens in full support of the government.

Beyond that, they were encouraged to conduct themselves as “living evidences of his divine power and unity.” He further admonished them “to live as Jews ought to do in brotherhood and amity, to seek peace and pursue it.”

As the nation prepares to celebrate Thanksgiving next week, Gershom Mendes Seixas’s sermon is every bit as relevant to all of us 223 years later.