"HISTORY SPEAKS" BLOG

“A Wee Little Book”: The Bible of Thomas Jefferson (Part 2 of 4)

By Rick Chromey | April 29, 2024 |

 

Jefferson Bible

 

Jefferson…wrote his own Bible that excluded all references to miracles, wonders, signs, virgin birth, resurrection, the God-head, and whatever else conflicted with his own religious thought.[i]

Robert S. Alley

 

These words–penned by an atheist–reflect a common belief that Thomas Jefferson was an irreligious Deist who “wrote his own Bible.”

Many secularists translate Jefferson’s supposed Deism into agnosticism and atheism.

According to this narrative, it’s Jefferson’s skepticism that supplied the motivation for his most devious deed of penning his own Bible. Similar to many skeptics and atheists today, Jefferson is proposed to have possessed so much hatred for Christianity that he intentionally, even maliciously, authored his own Bible, exorcising the original New Testament of its most offensive doctrines.

This narrative taints the sensibilities of normally reliable sources like Monticello.org, who repeat this idea in more subtle terms: “Jefferson decided to comb through the Gospels and extract what he believed to be the real teachings of Jesus, devoid of perversions…”  To their credit, this source admits ultimately that Jefferson was clearly an Anglican/Unitarian “theist” and not a “Deist.”

 

Surprisingly, many conservative Christians have also swallowed this secular narrative.

Creation scientist Don Landis penned “Thomas Jefferson…took scissors to the Gospels and cut out all references to anything supernatural.”[ii] This edited version of the Gospels also “rejected the superstitions and mysticism of Christianity” and removed “the miracles and mysticism of Jesus.”[iii]  This secular narrative affirms an original charge against Jefferson that he had disavowed his Anglican faith for French atheism. As evidence, he carved up the Gospels to remove what he felt wasn’t true.

For both the skeptic and the Christian, this “cut and paste” work is commonly known as “The Jefferson Bible.” 

But what’s the truth? What was this “Jefferson Bible?” Why did he create it? And did it reflect his emerging agnostic or atheistic theology?

 

Was Thomas Jefferson Ever an Atheist?

Jefferson published only one book in his life: Notes on Virginia (1785). It proved a contentious work for the former Virginia governor. His progressive views on the separation of church created fear among those who held to minority Christian denominational views, especially in Virginia. At the time, every state was colonized and constituted with a “state” religion. Pennsylvania was framed as the Quaker state. Rhode Island was constituted as Baptist. Maryland as Roman Catholic. And Virginia as Anglican.

In Jefferson’s gubernatorial days (1779-1781), all state officials–including the governor–had to swear allegiance to the Episcopal creed in order to hold office. Jefferson did not favor a state religion (any more than he did a national religion) and in his book he criticized this idea, as well as the Anglican denominational hierarchy and leadership. He also  promoted Virginia adopt a “separation of church and state” similar to the U.S. Constitution in order to give non-Anglicans (who were predominantly Christians in other denominations) their “freedom of religion” and civil rights. He wasn’t anti-Christian but anti-one church control. Jefferson opposed a state forcing a religion (even the Anglicanism that he agreed with).

 

Jefferson’s criticism of his own denomination sparked immediate conflict.

His critics, including Anglican clergy, questioned his motives and slandered his religious convictions. Political agitators used this opportunity to hang a libelous label on Jefferson: atheism. In today’s volatile political climate, racism would be that label but in Jefferson’s day, the worst thing a person could be called was an “atheist” or “infidel.” Such individuals were rare in early America. Even the Deist Thomas Paine didn’t go that far.

Most individuals accused of atheism fought back and, initially, Jefferson chose that route…but it only made matters worse. Ultimately, he chose to silence his critics by no longer speaking publicly about his religious convictions. But this unwillingness only fueled his political opposition. Jefferson’s silence, they argued, proved the merit of the charge. For Jefferson, it was damned if I do (speak out and defend) and damned if I don’t (stay silent). So he stayed silent. He never spoke publicly about his religious convictions again. Consequently, the charge of “atheism” followed him all his life.

 

The rumors of Jefferson’s atheism started after his return from France in 1789.

Bitter partisan politics between his Republican party and the Federalists detonated a host of allegations against Jefferson. Daniel Webster’s salacious accusations were particularly damning. He claimed Jefferson was “addicted to French tastes [and] principles…[with] a preference for French opinions, whether in politics, morals, or religion.”[iv] Jefferson was guilty by association. The French were infidels and “atheists,” and so was Jefferson. It didn’t matter if it wasn’t true. The weight of Webster’s words persuaded many, including Christian clergy, to believe Jefferson was a religious skeptic and morally loose. It’s their words that are repeated today by both the irreligious and religious.

 

But Jefferson was no atheist, nor unbeliever.

His time in France exposed him to Deism and skepticism, but, unlike Thomas Paine, Jefferson later rejected these views. His struggle with Anglicanism eventually led him to  abandon “traditional [Trinitarian] Christian doctrine” for a Unitarian “natural religion” featuring a “primacy of morality over dogma.”[v] But these theological moves were early. Jefferson’s lifelong refusal to speak on his religion only created confusion and misinterpretation. Even his affections with Unitarianism never resulted in church membership or even regular attendance at Unitarian meetings (save when he was in Philadelphia).

After his death, the falsehood of Jefferson’s atheism was propagated by his critics (who were mostly Christian clergy). In recent decades, Jefferson’s rumored “atheism” was hijacked as “fact” by skeptics wishing to rewrite American history toward a more secular view. They missed the point on why Jefferson was initially labeled an “atheist” and still propagated the “label” as truth. Similarly Christians continued the old lie, misinterpreting false charges of “atheism” by political opponents as evidence, as well as his Unitarian liberal theology on the nature of God.

The centerpiece evidence for both camps remained the “The Jefferson Bible.”

In reality, there’s no evidence Jefferson ever embraced atheism. It was a false charge then and its a false charge now.

 

Jefferson and Scripture

Thomas Jefferson appreciated sacred texts. He coveted and collected Bibles, even gave them as gifts. Jefferson enjoyed private conversations and letters on religion and biblical topics.

In his elder years, he confided: “I never to go bed without an hour’s reading of something moral, whereon to ruminate in the intervals of sleep.”[vi] His favorite read was a special collection of New Testament passages he assembled himself, cut from his New Testament and pasted into a bound volume.

Surprisingly, the claim that Jefferson hated Christianity or even the Bible fails in light of his personal spiritual practices and habits. Not only did he read and study the Bible, but he promoted it to others. For example, in 1814, Jefferson sent the Virginia Bible Society a $50 donation to help distribute Bibles to the poor. He included this message:

…I had not supposed there was a family in this state not possessing a bible and wishing without having the means to procure one. When, in earlier life I was intimate with every class, I think I never was in a house where that was the case. However, circumstances may have changed…I therefore [enclose to] you [cheerfully] an order…sincerely agreeing with you that there never was a more pure & sublime system of morality delivered to man than is to be found in the four evangelists.[vii]

Obviously if Jefferson was a serious skeptic, Christian antagonist and atheist, he’d not help fund Bible distribution nor affirm the biblical morality of the Gospel writers.

 

To the contrary, this “morality” is what led him to compile his “Bible.”

As a man of the Enlightenment, Jefferson was fascinated with the great philosophers of history. There were books circulating that compared Socrates, Plato and Aristotle to Descartes, Locke and Rousseau. In the early 1800s, Jefferson was also looking to the West.

In 1803, America completed the Louisiana Purchase with France and immediately sent Lewis and Clark on a westward trek up the Missouri to find the mythic waterway to the Pacific Ocean. Jefferson was aware that numerous Indian tribes existed in this land and he hoped to bring “peace and friendship” to the area. In Jefferson’s mind, peace could only come if all the Indians were of the same “ethical and moral” conviction.

 

Consequently, President Jefferson developed a “Syllabus” about the Bible that focused on its ethics and morality.

In 1803, Jefferson felt American democracy hinged upon a common civic “goodness.” Consequently, his “Syllabus” outlined the ethics and morals of Jesus and Christianity. In 1816, Jefferson penned a letter to Francis Adrian Van Der Kemp explaining this “Syllabus” and an “extract” he created to support it:

I believe it [the Syllabus] may even do good by producing discussion, and finally a true view of the merits of this great reformer [Jesus]. pursuing the same ideas after writing the Syllabus, I made, for my own satisfaction, an Extract from the Evangelists of the texts of his morals, selecting those only whose style and spirit proved them genuine, and his own: and they are as distinguishable from the matter in which they are imbedded as diamonds in dunghills. a more precious morsel of ethics was never seen. it was too hastily done however, being the work of one or two evenings only, while I lived at Washington, overwhelmed with other business: and it is my intention to go over it again at more leisure. this shall be the work of the ensuing winter. I gave it the title of ‘the Philosophy of Jesus extracted from the text of the Evangelists.’

This letter to Van der Kemp came with a warning: “Do not connect this work to my name.” Even in 1816, Jefferson still felt the sting of his critics and knew the dangerous implications of his work. Even though done, in his mind, with pure motive, Jefferson recognized that some would argue–just as they did and still do today–that he was messing with Divine Revelation and reworking God’s Word. It wasn’t true. In fact, Jefferson completed a rather common assignment in most Bible college classrooms for a “Life of Christ” class: read the Gospels and compile a list of Jesus’ moral teachings.

One interesting side note from this “Syllabus” of 1803 (p. 460-461): Thomas Jefferson defined “Deism” and it’s not how we define the term today. In his syllabus, Jefferson stated the ancient Jews were “Deists” because of their belief in only one God. That would also make Muslims and Christians Deists too, because Judaism, Christianity and Islam are the three monotheistic (one God) religions. Many skeptics today define Deism as synonymous with agnosticism and atheism, but that’s a notion with which Jefferson would disagree.

The Philosophy of Jesus

First, Jefferson never authored a Bible, nor called any writing of his “The Jefferson Bible.” Furthermore, he  likely would’ve objected to such a title on the same grounds that he didn’t want his name attached to it or any other work of its kind. The “Jefferson Bible” title was attached almost a century after Jefferson lived by people who did not know Jefferson personally.

After this Syllabus was created in 1803, Jefferson produced two separate compilations of extracts from the four gospels. The first was created in 1804 and titled, The Philosophy of Jesus. The second was compiled over the course of several years, and finally finished sometime in 1819-1820. This work is called The Life and Morals of Jesus.

Neither work was published nor known to the public until the mid-1800s. Jefferson never intended these documents to be publicly viewed. Consequently, they’ve always been shrouded by questions and open to  misunderstanding. Why did Jefferson compile these extractions? Did he target them toward a certain audience? Why did a collection of Bible verses solve the problem?

Historian Dickinson W. Adams proposed:

Jefferson was motivated by more than just a simple wish to rebut those who were assailing his character on religious grounds. He was also responding to another problem…how to guarantee the perpetuation of republican government in the United States at a time when…political factionalism and social disharmony…[threatened]…it’s basic foundations [viii]

 

During the 1790s, Jefferson grew concerned with America’s partisan conflicts.

The Founding generation fought over two topics: politics and religion. At a time when Jefferson’s own Episcopal faith was in crisis, the attacks that he was hostile to Christianity proved heartbreaking to our third President. Thomas found his peace in Unitarianism, a controversial monotheistic faith that preached Jesus wasn’t God (nor claimed to be). Christ’s earthly mission was to teach humans to be virtuous.[ix] Jefferson’s enlightened rationalism gravitated to Unitarian views on morality and non-trinitarianism, although again he never became a member of any Unitarian church nor is there evidence of church attendance.

One person that Jefferson trusted for the counsel on matters of religion was Dr. Benjamin Rush, whom Jefferson first friended in 1775. Rush was a devout, intellectual, fundamentalist Christian who served as Jefferson’s personal mentor (and pen pal) on religion. It was Rush’s influence that likely inspired Jefferson the President to compile his moral statements from Jesus’ teachings. In fact, Jefferson sent the Syllabus first to Dr. Rush on April 21, 1803.

In early 1804–the same year Lewis and Clark began their Expedition to the western sea–Jefferson culled Gospel verses where Jesus taught a moral truth. Then he clipped and pasted them into columns producing:

46 pages of pure and unsophisticated doctrines…[and] entitled it ‘The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth extracted from the account of his life and doctrines as given by Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John, being an abridgment of the New Testament for the use of the Indians unembarrassed with matters of fact or faith beyond the level of their comprehensions.[x]

The lengthy title reveals: 1) it’s an abridgment, not a complete work; 2) focused only on the four gospels; and 3) intended for use with the Indians to help them understand the “philosophy of Jesus.”

Jefferson only let a few people view this document, including Dr. Rush in 1803. When Rush died ten years later, Jefferson retrieved his abridgment from the family, then shelved it among his personal effects.

Over time, only two “clipped” Bibles, a list of verses, and the title page survived.

 

The Life and Morals of Jesus

A year later Jefferson started a new, more ambitious, multi-lingual compilation that he titled “The Life and Morals of Jesus.” The work would reflect his search for spiritual truth, using the four gospels translated through English, French, Greek and Latin.

He began his new compilation in 1805…and then stopped…likely from busyness as President of the United States.

Jefferson wouldn’t restart his project for several years, finally completing it in 1820.

After Thomas Jefferson retired to Monticello in 1809, Benjamin Rush helped reconcile his fractured, antagonistic relationship with John Adams. Like Jefferson, Adams rejected orthodox Christian doctrines and embraced the Unitarian faith. Between 1812 and 1825 these two Founding Fathers wrote dozens of letters to each other, some relating to Christianity. Adams pressed Jefferson to publish a book but ultimately these interactions inspired him to finish his compilation project.

In 1815, Jefferson confided to Rev. Charles Clay that he “had cut out from [the Gospels] every text they had recorded of the moral precepts of Jesus.”[xi] Once again this counters the narrative that he “cut out” the miracles. In reality, left the life, ministry and practices of Jesus alone. Jefferson “cut out” and “pasted” only the “moral precepts.” That was his focus. He wasn’t creating a new Bible or carving up the old one. Jefferson was putting together an “abridgment” of the moral and ethical teachings of Jesus. This time it wasn’t for the Indians, though. He was creating this unique volume for himself.

Jefferson penned the theologian Charles Thomson in 1816:

I, too, have made a wee-little book from the same materials, which I call the Philosophy of Jesus… a more beautiful or precious morsel of ethics I have never seen; it is a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus[xii]

 

In this letter Jefferson revealed this “wee little book” was about “ethics” not theology.

This is where Christian critics err. They have completely missed Jefferson’s point and confused his work with his beliefs, thinking he is maliciously attacking the New Testament to support his Unitarian or skeptic or atheist creed. But that’s simply not true. Jefferson, again, was creating a special volume of “beautiful…precious…ethics” on which to meditate.

His grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph revealed this truth in 1858:

[My grandfather] left two codifications of the Morals of Jesus—one for himself, and another for the Indians; the first of which I now possess…His codification of the Morals of Jesus was not known to his family before his death, and they learnt from a letter addressed to a friend that he was in the habit of reading nightly from it before going to bed.[xiii]

Jefferson never intended to publish “Life and Morals.” It was for his personal edification as a “real Christian” (his words). Jefferson never mentioned its existence to friends or family, who found the compilation upon his death. This special work was for his nightly moral edification alone. Think about it. Every night, before he retired, Jefferson read the Jesus’ words on how to live a good life. It’s no different than people who read the Proverbs daily for the same reasons.

 

So how did “Life and Morals” become the so-called Jefferson Bible?

After Jefferson’s death, this compilation stayed in the Jefferson family’s care for decades. It was among Jefferson’s most private effects and the family likely respected that privacy. Remember, Jefferson never wanted to publish this work. He was proud of it. Proud enough to share it with a few friends, including Dr. Rush and the theologian Charles Thomson, but he had no intentions of his prized abridgment reaching a wider audience.

Then in 1895, a Smithsonian librarian named Cyrus Adler learned of the work and that the family estate still possessed it. He purchased it for the Congressional library in 1895. That’s when it fell into the hands of a Iowa congressman named John Lacey. This “wee little book” of morals (sayings of Jesus) inspired the politician. Consequently, he decided to revive Jefferson’s book for national distribution in 1900. Two years later, Lacey initiated a resolution to print “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” for every U.S. senator and representative. For the next half century, Jefferson’s work–never intended for public consumption–was distributed to every freshman U.S. senator and representative upon taking their oath of office.

 

Of course, it then was printed for every American to read.

The skeptics and secularists derisively renamed it “The Jefferson Bible.” Meanwhile, the old lies of Christian clergy regarding Jefferson’s “atheism” resurfaced and since this “Jefferson Bible” contained no “miracles” or doctrines referencing Jesus’ Divinity, the work was cast as a “cut and paste” Bible. Over time, the secular title and the sacred charge of atheism married into a single narrative. Of course, the skeptics, irreligious and atheists used Jefferson’s so-called “atheism” as proof for their own non-belief, fostering a lie that remains to this day (that Jefferson was an atheist). Meanwhile, Christians swallowed the lie that Jefferson’s “Bible” was a “cut and paste” job to support his irreligious and immoral beliefs and lifestyle.

Today, few Americans even know the original title, purpose or intended audience of Jefferson’s “Life and Morals of Jesus.”

And they should.

 

Thomas Jefferson was a religious reflection of his young nation.

It’s why we need to flip the script and tell the true story about this literary work and its author.

Thomas Jefferson was no atheist nor unbeliever. Whatever skepticism or “unbelief” (if any) he carried home from France was temporary. Jefferson was a complex man and a deep thinker, with affection for philosophy, ethics, morality and religion. He chose silence to quiet the critics in his day. Looking back, that strategy only fostered and framed the false claims of “atheism” in the decades after his death. His silence also negated more public proclamations that would’ve clarified his religious convictions.

All we know for sure is Jefferson grew up Anglican (Episcopal). He later rejected this childhood faith for Unitarianism, but never attached himself wholly to the point of membership or regular church attendance. Furthermore, there’s evidence (as will be revealed in part three of this series) that Jefferson’s Christianity was rather eclectic and “nondenominational.”

Like his politics, Jefferson’s religion and his religiosity was framed by a “we the people” (democratic, autonomous, non-hierarchal) ethic. He battled kings, popes and clerics with the same fury and held disdain for systems (political or religious) that oppressed or suppressed the citizen. He struggled with understanding the Trinity, but he’s not alone in that view. Even those who accept a Trinitarian view of God, have a difficult time conceiving it.

It’s why he could say, when all was said and done, “I’m a real Christian…a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.” 

Jefferson’s theology was open for conversation, but what truly inspired him was how Jesus lived–morally–in a corrupt world.

 

TO BE CONTINUED….THE CHURCH OF THOMAS JEFFERSION (PART THREE)

 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
SOURCES:

[i] “The Real Jefferson on Religion” by Robert S. Alley: https://secularhumanism.org/1998/10/the-real-jefferson-on-religion/  Accessed March 15, 2024.

[ii] “Jonah and the Great Fish” by Don Landis, Answers in Genesis: https://answersingenesis.org/bible-characters/jonah-and-the-great-fish/?gad_source=1&gclid=CjwKCAjw48-vBhBbEiwAzqrZVAmImjoSE_8u0LjvAW4S0ck-v1aO8UMtqNxMsXM_Hj9JPmHh-ziDohoC4isQAvD_BwE Accessed March 15, 2024.

[iii] “Thomas Jefferson on Christianity & Religion” compiled by Jim Walker, Free Republic: https://freerepublic.com/focus/news/745447/posts  Accessed March 15, 2024

[iv] Henry S. Randall, The Life of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 1 (New York: Derby & Jackson, 1858): 491. Download at Google Books.

[v] Dickinson W. Adams, ed., Jefferson’s Extracts from the Gospels: The Philosophy of Jesus and The Life and Morals of Jesus (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983), 9.

[vi] Thomas Jefferson Letter to Vine Utley (March 21, 1819): https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/03-14-02-0144  Accessed March 15, 2024.

[vii] Adams, Jefferson’s Extracts, 13.

[viii] Bible Society of Virginia: Thomas Jefferson Monticello: https://www.monticello.org/research-education/thomas-jefferson-encyclopedia/bible-society-virginia/  Accessed March 15, 2024

[ix] Adams, Jefferson’s Extracts, 14-16.

[x] Ibid., 28.

[xi] Andrew A. Lipscomb, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (Washington, D.C.: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904): 232-233.

[xii] Ibid., 385.

[xiii] Henry S. Randall, The Life of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 3 (New York: Derby & Jackson, 1858): 671-672.

“I am a Real Christian”: The Religious Views of Thomas Jefferson (Part 1 of 4)

By Rick Chromey | April 26, 2024 |

Thomas Jefferson

 

Jefferson’s personal history…disgraceful conduct…reputation for free thinking and loose morality is admitted.[1]

“An atheist and fanatic.”[2]

“[His] knowledge of and admiration for the teachings of Jesus have never been equaled by any other president.[3]

“Jefferson’s religion…was misunderstood…criticisms came from those who knew neither Jefferson nor his religious beliefs.”[4]

 

It’s been two centuries since Thomas Jefferson lived and died. And his religious views still remain mysterious and murky.

Historically, Jefferson’s most combative critics? Christians. They were the first to tag him as an atheist (as a political punch).

Today, skeptics and Christians alike believe the Monticello man was anti-Christian, agnostic, or atheist, pointing to certain writings, or theological/political positions, or his “Jefferson Bible”—a vapid, empty and self-designed gospel (they say).

Finding the truth isn’t easy. Mostly, because Thomas Jefferson is a hard nut to crack.

Jefferson’s religious views were complex, but Christian.

As a man of the Enlightenment, Thomas studied philosophy, politics, science, history and religion. His private library contained nearly 6500 books. And yet, on matters of religion, he wrote sparingly. Nevertheless, in every missive in which Jefferson wrote on religion or his religious views he was never vague, disingenuous, or confused about his theology. Unlike today’s agnostic, there was no doubt where Jefferson stood.

Jefferson did have strong words for certain churches. He opposed the Anglican (Episcopal) church—in his day, the Virginia state religion—for its ecclesiastical hierarchies. As a Protestant, he was anti-Catholic, yet there was never a hint of being “anti-Christian” (as certain New England denominations feared and political opponents promoted in his day).

And there’s no evidence Jefferson denounced, nor ceased practicing Christianity. Throughout his life he practiced his Christianity in various forms, from Bible reading to prayer to church attendance to giving to missions.

Thomas Jefferson’s religious views demand context.

Jefferson’s more salient written statements seem to promote skepticism, giving the irreligious some ammunition, but when viewed in their wider contexts offer another perspective.

In 1787, for example, Jefferson encouraged his nephew Peter Carr to question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”[5] Many argue that Jefferson is encouraging and embracing secular rationalism in this statement? Maybe. But the context also suggests Jefferson wanted Peter to view religion with more tolerance. It’s okay to question the existence of the Divine, to doubt and wonder because “if” there is a God then He would have no issue with the process of thinking through something. In other words, God is bigger than our doubts.

On another occasion, Jefferson penned (1801): “I … reposed my head on that pillow of ignorance which a benevolent creator has made so soft for us, knowing how much we should be forced to use it.”[6] Again, many skeptics employ this statement as evidence of Jefferson’s agnosticism? Possibly. However, the context is clear. Jefferson is responding to a query about the soul’s transmigration into eternity. It’s a  topic that, in his mind, wasn’t worth his time. Consequently, he preferred to remain ignorant (“I don’t know”) or apathetic (“I don’t care”) on the subject. Ironically, Jefferson rests his ignorance on a “pillow” that he believes was made by a “benevolent creator.” It’s difficult to argue for his unbelief in the same sentence that he affirms his faith in a creator God.

Jefferson’s framing faith was Anglican.

Thomas Jefferson’s religious views—particularly his Christianity—were rooted to his Anglican faith.

Jefferson was baptized and raised Anglican (Episcopal). Later, for political purposes, he affirmed its denominational creed, because all Virginia office holders were required by law to accept the state religion of  Anglicanism.

Thomas married a devout Anglican (Martha) and they had six children (all baptized Anglican). During this time, Jefferson was a dedicated Episcopalian. In 1776, Jefferson penned an extensive treatise he called “Notes on Religion” that included an affirmation of historic Christian doctrines.[7]  In the same year, Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence incorporated biblical themes that appealed for Divine Protection, argued for Divine Creation, and reminded readers of Divine Judgement. He also included four clear acknowledgments of God.

To his dying day, Jefferson seemed to maintain some form of Episcopalian faith, even though he embraced–for a season, in part, or permanently–a popular new form of Christianity known as Unitarianism. Nevertheless, at least one historian Charles B. Sanford has argued, “From the evidence of his life, we may safely conclude that Jefferson remained a member in good standing of his local Episcopal church all his life, in outward form at least.[8]

Jefferson flirted with doubt and disbelief.

Before he turned 40, Thomas Jefferson suffered the horrific loss of three children. Then, his beloved Martha died. These bereavements deeply depressed Jefferson for weeks.

Eventually he accepted a diplomat role in France. Once in Paris, the secular, hedonistic French culture seduced the spiritually wrecked Jefferson to towards a lifestyle of disbelief and self-indulgence. As many nonreligious types point out, Jefferson’s reading list now included skeptics like David Hume. It’s one of the reasons that upon his return to America that he was labeled an “atheist”–because he returned home with the clear stench of French hedonism and secularism upon his person.

The problem?  It didn’t stick. Jefferson eventually downplayed his French escapades and dismissed Hume’s dangerous ideas:  “I remember well the enthusiasm with which I devoured [Hume’s writings] when young, and the length of time, the research and reflection which were necessary to eradicate the poison it instilled into my mind.”[9]

Nevertheless, the French “ways” did influence Jefferson. He was never the same after 1789.

A New Kind of Christian

The early 1800s were precarious times. France was at war, and recovering from bloody, secular revolution. Meanwhile, America was test driving its new Constitution while a Second Great Awakening baptized the nation in a religious fervor that carved a “Christian” America frame for over a century.

This “awakening” birthed new types of non-denominational churches that promoted Christian unity, local church autonomy and a restored or “primitive” faith. Virginia was one of the places where the Second Great Awakening revivals burned hottest. Fellow Virginian and former secretary to Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis’ mother (Lucy), converted from her Anglican heritage to the firebrand Methodism of the second Great Awakening. Thomas Jefferson, who opposed hierarchical religion and appreciated unity and autonomy was also drawn to this type of liberating Christianity.

In fact, after retirement, he regularly attended religious services at the Albemarle Courthouse that featured preachers from a variety of different denominations.[10]

“I am a real Christian,” Jefferson confessed to a friend, a decade before his death, “that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus Christ.”[11]

What he meant by that declaration remains debatable. At the time, Jefferson was fully immersed in Unitarianism–a brand of Christianity considered heretical by more orthodox believers. Jefferson seemingly rejected (again, to what degree) core Christian doctrines, including Jesus’ divinity, resurrection and atonement.

Still this proves Thomas Jefferson was never fully atheist nor agnostic, despite what critics—then and now—say about him. Yes, his Christianity was clearly unorthodox, but perhaps he explored Unitarianism like he did French culture. It was a seasonal, momentary exploration that never drew him too far from his Anglican roots. Consequently, some fair-minded historians have described Jefferson as either a liberal Episcopalian or conservative Unitarian. But even these boxes don’t fit too well. Jefferson’s refusal to explain his religious views makes determining his precise opinions difficult, save one. In an apologetical letter to the devout Dr. Benjamin Rush, he rejected “state religion” and avowed: “I have sworn, upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”[12]

Nevertheless, historian Henry Randall, one of Jefferson’s earliest and most partisan biographers, concluded: Mr. Jefferson never, at any period of life, made himself an aggressive assailant of Christianity; … never, in a solitary instance, sought directly or indirectly to proselyte a human being to unchristian views, or to shake his conviction in Christian ones.[13]

Agree or disagree, Thomas Jefferson proved a new kind of Christian for a new kind of nation.

And maybe that’s what he envisioned all along.

 

PART TWO: THE BIBLE OF THOMAS JEFFERSON

 

SOURCES:

[1] “The Private Character of Thomas Jefferson” from The New Englander, printed in The Living Age, No. 892, July 6, 1861: 515.

[2] Alexander Hamilton’s charge against Jefferson, according to Charles B. Sanford, The Religious Life of Thomas Jefferson (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1984): 1.

[3] Ibid, 3.

[4] Ibid., 6.

[5] Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, with Enclosure, 10 August 1787: https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-12-02-0021

[6] Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Isaac Story, 5 December 1801: https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-36-02-0025

[7] Thomas Jefferson, The Works of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Paul Leicester Ford, Volume 2 (New York: G.P. Putman’s Sons, 1904), 255. Google Book download.

[8] Sanford, Religious Life of Jefferson, 1984: 5.

[ 9] Letter from Thomas Jefferson to William Duane, 12 August 1810: https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/03-03-02-0001-0002

[10]Thomas Jefferson and Religious Freedom,” The Jefferson Monticello: https://www.monticello.org/research-education/thomas-jefferson-encyclopedia/thomas-jefferson-and-religious-freedom/#fn-13

[11] Thomas Jefferson, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Albert Ellery Bergh, editor (Washington, D.C.: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904), Vol. XIV, p. 385, to Charles Thomson on January 9, 1816.

[12] Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, September 23, 1800: https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-32-02-0102

[13] Henry S. Randall, The Life of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 1 (New York: Derby & Jackson, 1858): 495-96. Google Book download.

The Battle Hymn of the Republic: The Story Behind the Anthem

By Rick Chromey | March 11, 2024 |


Civil War Battle

“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord! He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.”

The “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was how the Union “slapped the face” of a Confederacy committed to slavery and secession.

They just did so with a catchy tune.

This song became the victory tune for the North during a bloody, four-year Civil War that left 620,000 dead and tens of thousands wounded.

“He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift word! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! His truth is marching on.”

Today, this “battle hymn” is a song of controversy and hate to many on the Left, particularly the secularist.

Dr. Robert Bray, an English professor (emeritus) for Illinois Wesleyan University nicknamed it “the ‘Bad Old Hymn of the Republic” and labeled it “an evil song.” He claimed the song “preached a military crusade” that was “justified…morally as God’s (Jesus Christ’s) apocalyptic will.” This “evangelical Christian ilk,” he wrote, was no different than “uncivilized” Islamic jihadists slaughtering people in the name of Allah.

With respect to Dr. Bray, perhaps he hasn’t taken any American history courses on the Civil War. Perhaps he doesn’t understand the reasons the secessionist, slavery-bound South and the free, abolitionist North fought to protect their way of life. Nor why both sides (at that time) thought they were “doing God’s Will.”

“I have seen Him in the watchfires of a hundred circling camps; They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps; I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps; His day is marching on.

For four long years, the Southern Confederacy whistled “Dixie” going into battle, while Union soldiers belted out a song penned by a poet.

Julia Ward HoweJulia Ward Howe (1819-1910) was born and raised the fourth child of a strict Calvinist Episcopalian banker father (Julia’s mother died when she was five). Well-educated and pedigreed, she lived in New York City’s high society. Howe eventually married, bore six children and moved to Boston. Her marriage was troublesome and unhappy.

Raised Episcopalian, Julia converted to Unitarianism at 22 years of age. She also began writing. Her plays, dramas, essays and poetry were published, opening opportunities for social activism. She worked for a “Mother’s Day of Peace” (eventually became “Mother’s Day”) and advocated for women’s right to vote.

“He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat; He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgement seat; Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him; be jubilant, my feet; our God is marching on.”

In November of 1861, a visit to D.C. and a meeting with Abraham Lincoln inspired Howe’s most famous poem.

At the time, the Civil War was only months old. When she was in Washington, Howe watched a squadron of Union troops march by loudly singing a popular marching song called “John Brown’s Body.” His execution two years earlier had incited a slave rebellion.

John Brown was a devout Christian who believed he was God’s instrument to end American slavery, even if it required violence.

John BrownBrown was convicted and hung for treason on December 2, 1859 in Virginia (a southern slave state). He was the first person executed for treason in the United States. In the crowd watching him hang were two soldiers who’d eventually play big parts in the Civil War story: Stonewall Jackson and John Wilkes Booth.

Northern abolitionists viewed Brown as a martyr. Frederick Douglass admiringly wrote that Brown’s “zeal in the cause of my race was far greater than mine…I could live for the slave, but he could die for him.”

John Brown was a traitor to the South, but was the “emblem” for the Northern Cause to abolish slavery.

Once again, the Black abolitionist Douglass lauded Brown: “He was with the troops during that war, he was seen in every camp fire and our boys pressed onward to victory and freedom, timing their feet to the stately stepping of Old John Brown as his soul went marching on.”

“In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, with a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me; as He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free; while God is marching on.”

As Julia listened to those Union troops sing “John Brown’s Body,” a preacher friend leaned in and suggested she pen new lyrics to the song.

That seemed like a big ask to Howe. Until Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, John Brown was unquestionably America’s most popular (in the North) and famous person. It would take a special poem to replace John Brown’s legacy. Howe wished for inspiration.

The very next morning Julia awoke at dawn…with “the wished-for lines” rumbling around in her head. She later recounted how she laid still and silent until the very last verse was “completed…in my thoughts” and then wrote it down quickly. Once completed, she fell back asleep, remembering “feeling that something of importance had happened to me.”

Indeed, it had.

A few months later in February 1862, the Atlantic Monthly magazine bought that poem for five bucks.

When the new lyrics reached the Union troops they traded the old “John Brown” lines for Julia’s Divine Call to finish the job John Brown started.

Julia used the Bible as her template–especially the Book of Revelation–to hammer out a new “Battle Hymn of the Republic” Her target was slavery. The injustice of human bondage. The evil of owning another person. The true moral cause that drove Union soldiers to fight. And the “glory hallelujah” of victory when God’s on your side.

Now for the irreligious, secular and atheist, I imagine this song does sound like “jihad” but it’s not.

It’s an unfair comparison that reveals ignorance of Islam and world history. “Jihad” has come to mean many different things today in Islamic theology. But originally “jihad” or “holy war” was a call to expel and exterminate a group of people in order to create a Muslim city or nation. In 620s AD, Muhammad called a “jihad” upon certain cities to force their conversions to Islam. In the Middle Ages, Islam used “jihads” to overtake and rule other nations under Allah and Islamic religion. More recently, Hamas–in its founding charter–called for “jihad” to take all of Palestine from the Jews and destroy the State of Israel. It’s a violent, forced religious overthrow. That’s jihad.

So the good English professor for Illinois Wesleyan University is sadly misled and wrong about what a “jihad” is.

In reality, the Battle Hymn of the Republic wasn’t calling for “jihad” but rather a “Jubilee.”

A Jubilee is an ancient Jewish tradition (Leviticus 25). Inherent to this celebration (every 50 years) is a liberation of property (mostly land, but also some slaves). The “Battle Hymn” pronounced a freeing, an emancipation of the Black and an end to slavery in America. Yes, it was God’s Will. Even the most hardened atheist would confess that emancipation and abolition of slavery was a good thing.

Ultimately, that’s what the Civil Way was about in the end. It was a spiritual battle. It was a moral war concerning an ethical question related to the worth of human life. And, as anyone who trusts in God will profess, when you’re on the side of God then you’re already on the winning side.

The Battle Hymn of the Republic is a timeless poem and song for our nation.

It’s still relevant today for an American culture that’s lost its moral center. Yes, the song will have it’s critics, naysayers and objectors but remember they protest from bias and ignorance. It’s why we must be patient and helpful to educate (even while we remain open to learn ourselves).

Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
God’s Truth is (still) marching on.

The French vs. American Revolution: Why Religion Made a Lasting Difference

By Rick Chromey | February 25, 2024 |

French Revolution

“What is liberty without wisdom and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evil; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without restraint.”

“Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites.”

Edmund Burke penned these words as part of his indictment of the secular French Revolution.

A core feature of this 18th century cultural revolution was an eradication of religion.

In the late 1700s, the whole world watched, including our Founding Fathers, as the French revolted to forge a secular government. One of the key features of this new political machine was a systematic persecution of pious French citizens and clergy…and eventually all who dissented against it.

Churches were shuttered, then converted into dens of “scandalous depravities.” The Cathedral of Our Lady of Strasburg was refashioned into a Temple of Reason. The clergy were executed. Church services and all religious education outlawed. Crosses were forbidden and the graves of the saints were desecrated. Christian monuments, statues and icons were torn down and removed.

The purpose of the French Revolution was to de-Christianize France and replace the mother religion with a “secular civic religion of state worship.”

The French even changed how western culture kept time and scored history. First, they abandoned the biblical 24-hour, 7-day week and adopted a new calendar. The French made 1792 the first year in their calendar. They also replaced a “seven-day” week with a 10-day “decade” week with each day composed of 10 hours (and every hour of 100 minutes and every minute of 100 seconds). Because the secular French believed “10” was the number for humanity they created an entire system for time and measurement based upon these “10s.”

And their measurements still exist to this day…as the metric system.

It’s not surprising America’s Founding Fathers watched the French Revolution closely.

And they eventually rejected its fundamental philosophical premise that a good government required a wholly secular state. At the time American culture was 98% Protestant, deeply influenced by the First Great Awakening (1730-1770). In fact, while the French Revolution raged, America was teeing up a Second Great Awakening (1795-1835) that shaped and deepened the Christian culture of the 19th century.

As our Founders observed the secular French Revolution, including the fall of the monarchy and the repercussions of a godless culture, they grew concerned. During the 1793-1794 “Reign of Terror” over 40,000 were executed (most of them Christians). Consequently, the Founders were not silent in their opinions.

One feature of the French Revolution, our Founders recognized was the flaw of a pure democracy.

Ultimately, the American Founders preferred a representational government that looked more Roman “republican” than French “democratic.” But the key to any democracy, in part or whole, to survive was with a populace committed to civility and morality. Furthermore, in their study of history, no civilized culture could be moral without religion.

Essentially, a civil citizen possessed a core morality. But morality doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s the result of cultural moral codes rooted, historically, to their religious ideology. Just like it’s impossible to spell “good” without “g-0-d,” its equally unreasonable to think a godless culture can be “good” on its own.

To the contrary, whenever a religious nation (regardless of the deity) adopts a secular frame, it eventually collapses from within. The populace increasingly grows selfish, immoral, sexualized, violent and profane.

It’s why the Founders discovered little good in the secular French constitution and culture.

NOAH WEBSTER (1796): “The reason why severe laws are necessary in France is, that the people have not been educated republicans – they do not know how to govern themselves.” 

ALEXANDER HAMILTON (1799): “The praise of a civilized world is justly due to Christianity; – war, by the influence of the humane principles of that religion, has been stripped of half its horrors. The French renounce Christianity, and they relapse into barbarism…”

JOHN ADAMS (1799): “The people of the United States are still held in jeopardy by…insidious acts of a foreign nation [France], as well as by the dissemination among them of those principles subversive to the foundations of all religious, moral, and social obligations … I hereby recommend … a Day of Solemn Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer.”

GOUVERNEUR MORRIS (1789): “The materials for a revolution in France are very indifferent… Everybody agrees that there is an utter prostration of morals; but this general proposition can never convey to an American mind the degree of depravity.”

Morris continued, “The great masses of the common people have no religion but their priests, no law but their superiors, no morals but their interest.

Three years later, Morris concluded: Religion is the only solid basis of good morals; therefore education should teach the precepts of religion, and the duties of man toward God. These duties are, internally, love and adoration; externally, devotion and obedience.”

Gouverneur Morris would speak more than any other delegate at the Constitutional Convention (173 times). He would pen the final draft of the U.S. Constitution. He also created the statement: “We the people of the United States.”

Historian William Federer noted: “Where secular France pulled away from God, America experienced a religios revival called the Second Great Awakening which spread across country.”

This Second Great Awakening in America imprinted American spirituality 19th century with a thoroughly Christian flavor.

From “frontier camp meetings” to college campuses to mission movements to the American West and beyond (Hawaii, China, Burma, Carribbean), America flexed its spiritual (Christian) muscles to heal, teach, serve, protect, pastor and lead countless people to Christianity.

Of course this view of America (as a Christian nation) is neither popular nor taught today.

People who point out America’s “Christian” roots–even with footnotes and clear evidence–are mocked, challenged, ignored, labeled and canceled. Their view of history is labeled as “fake” and misleading, even dangerous. They are also tagged as “Christian nationalists.”

But its this type of intolerance to true history that French secularists used to first revise, then censor, then cancel, and finally outlaw and eliminate the religious influences in its nation. It’s not unlike what we seeing in America today.

The irony? Since 1790, America has enjoyed a single constitution in its democratic-republic revolution in 1776. To contrast, secular France has had 14 constitutions, 5 republics and three revolutions.

But that may change.

Since 1960, America has slowly cut its Christian roots to grow secular wings. 

And as a result, we’ve now look like France in 1790…immoral barbarians and brutes. American cities are killing fields. Our media–television, movies, music, books, video games–promote violence, profanity and explicit sexuality. Without a moral center, our schools have devolved into propaganda zones for lifestyles once considered deviant, perverse or abominable.

Meanwhile, Christians and churches face persecution and prosecution like never before. Christianity is mocked, skewered, censored and cancelled. Who would’ve imagined any of this in 1960 (when over 70% of USAmericans attended church or synagogue)? But it’s only taken three generations to grow a crop of kids who don’t know God.

Our Founders were right. France has always been wrong (at least since 1790).

America’s greatness is rooted to its goodness.

And you still can’t, and never will, spell “good” without G-O-D.

 

 

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SOURCES CITED:

1. Edmund Burke “What is Liberty”: Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France” by edited by F.G. Selby (London: Macmillan and Company, 1890): 276. Downloadable at Google Books.

2. Edmund Burke “Men are Qualified for Liberty”: The Works of the Right Honorable Edmund Burke, Volume 4 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 186):9 51. Downloadable at Google Books.

3. Noah Webster, “Political Fanaticism, No.III,” published in The American Minerva; September 21, 1796.

4. Alexander Hamilton Quote: Henry Cabot Lodge, “The Works of Alexander Hamilton,” Vol. 8, (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1904), pg 425-426.

5. John Adams Quote: “Proclamation—Recommending a National Day of Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer” (March 6, 1799) https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/proclamation-recommending-national-day-humiliation-fasting-and-prayer

6. Gouverneur Morris Quote: To George Washington from Gouverneur Morris, 29 April 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-02-02-0125. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 2, 1 April 1789 – 15 June 1789, ed. Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987, pp. 146–148.]

7. Gouverneur Morris Quote “Religion is the only solid basis for all good morals”: The Life of Gouverneur Morris by Jared Sparks, Vol. 3 (Boston: Gray & Bowen Publishers, 1832): 483. Available for download at Google Books.

President’s Day: The Story Behind the Day America Celebrates Her Presidents

By Rick Chromey | February 19, 2024 |

President's Day

“HAPPY PRESIDENTS DAY!”

Celebrated on the third Monday of February, it’s one of 12 federal holidays (originally proclaimed in 1879). But the celebrations had been around much longer, initially to celebrate the birthday of the “Father of our Country” George Washington, and later the Great Emancipator Abraham Lincoln.

In fact, since 1862, the U.S. Senate has read George Washington’s Farewell Address aloud, as per public request to not forget the Founding Father’s admonitions on partisan politics and civil war.

But today hasn’t always been “President’s Day.”

In fact, depending on your state, there are 15 different names for this day. As mentioned, it was originally designated to honor George Washington’s birthday (Feb 22). And then Abraham Lincoln’s birthday (Feb 12).

Consequently, in many states its still known as “Washington’s Birthday” or “Lincoln’s Birthday.”

However, other states felt it was better to honor all the presidents…therefore “President’s Day.”

Of course, the counter-cultural, non-traditional California took a more politically-correct path. They prefer a bland, generic and cumbersome tag: “The Third Monday in February” (to avoid honoring any particular president). With that logic, they should be consistent and do the same with the months of the year (to avoid honoring any particular Roman god, leader, festival or number).

The irony? California was the first state to organize a President’s Day celebration in 1951.

Ironically, one state has historically chosen not to celebrate President’s Day (or Washington/Lincoln’s birthday)…and it’s President Joe Biden’s home state of Delaware. No reason why.

Black History Month is also connected to this holiday.

After the Civil War, the Black community were grateful for their freedom from slavery. By 1900 dozens of Black communities were using February to honor the the birthdays of the slave emancipator Abraham Lincoln and Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass. As part of these celebrations, Black historians used the opportunity to teach their history, and to honor other abolitionists (both Black and White) who worked tirelessly for their freedom, including Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and Harriet Beecher Stowe, President John Quincy Adams, John Brown and anti-slavery publisher William Lloyd Garrison.

In 1926, Black historian Carter C. Woodson proclaimed the second week of February “Negro History Week.” For decades, it was an important time for Black children especially to learn their story. In the 1970s, after the Civil Rights Movement opened new doors and equalized opportunities for Black America, the week was expanded to a whole month.

However, the emergence of Black nationalism and “Black Power” eliminated the “white” part of their story. Black History Month was only for Black history and Black people, effectively kicking Lincoln and the White abolitionists, civil rights activists, politicians, and influencers who fought for Black equality to the curb).

Sadly, many Black Americans today won’t celebrate nor honor either George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or the other U.S. Presidents (save Barack Obama).

President’s Day is a Day to Celebrate Heroes

If you’re in the mood to celebrate on President’s Day, enjoy some cherry pie. The traditional treat that honors Washington’s legendary chopping down of a cherry tree (which he didn’t, of course).

Here’s an interesting fact: The “Purple Heart” award for America’s killed or wounded was instituted on Washington’s 200th birthday in 1932. Why? Because George Washington was America’s first general to award a medal for being injured in battle.

President’s Day isn’t just another day for federal employees to enjoy a paid holiday. Nor should it be a day our children–regardless of race–not learn about the lives of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

Proposed: U.S. President History Month

In fact, as a historian, I argue that February should rightfully be designated U.S. President History month. Four U.S. Presidents were born in February (Washington, William Henry Harrison, Lincoln, and Ronald Reagan). John Q. Adams and Woodrow Wilson died. It’s the month Washington was first elected U.S. President and Andrew Johnson was the first to be impeached.

With 46 (and counting) U.S. presidents, every day in February could easily focus on one, and sometimes two, presidents. The curriculum would gradually inform our youngest generations how these great men lived, led and died. For example, every child should learn their story (history). Every teen should understand their contributions to America (how they helped or hurt America). And every college student should examine their political philosophy and leadership practices.

President’s Day, Independence Day and Constitution Day (another forgotten holiday) should be America’s foundational “holy” days.

For without our leaders, our Declaration and Constitution, America would not exist.

It’s why we can never forget.

Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Making of an American Moses (Part 3)

By Rick Chromey | January 20, 2024 |

Martin Luther King speaks

 

In PART ONE, the individuals and events that influenced King’s childhood and adolescence were addressed. 

In PART TWO, Martin Luther King’s rise to inspire and lead the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

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By 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. had lived up to his royal last name. His speeches were legendary and he had created an interracial movement for black civil rights in America.

Like the biblical Moses, King led his people through a new wilderness of social change that challenged old paradigms. It was in these moments that Martin leaned upon his influences, individuals who had walked a similar path and spoke into his life.

One of King’s influences was the German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Bonhoeffer founded Germany’s “Confessing Church”--a Protestant group that openly resisted Hitler and the Nazi regime. Ironically, Bonhoeffer’s social justice was influenced by  Adam Clayton Powell, Sr.—the black preacher of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, NY.

During his seminary years, Bonhoeffer lived in New York City and was exposed, for the first time, to black culture. He eventually joined, participated, served and preached at Abyssinian Baptist Church. Powell was his mentor.

Bonhoeffer returned to Germany deeply moved by the black church in America, especially its ability to navigate hardship and persecution.

Other great men shaped the adult Martin Luther King, Jr.

Others who influenced Dr. King included his good friend Billy Graham. In 1948, Graham launched a national revival ministry that eventually used television to broadcast its crusades. Graham’s astute ability to hold fast to his Christian faith and yet still interact, friend and work with the skeptic and doubter, impressed King.

Martin faced opposition not just by the white but also the black (Malcom X,  Stokely Carmichael, Black Panthers).  King later credited Graham with making his civil rights movement successful.

Another influencer was the author Henry David Thoreau (who wrote a book on civil disobedience in 1849).

Booker T. Washington’s works (and words) impacted King, likely more than anyone else.

Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute and author of Up From Slavery (1901), was a broad-shouldered, six-foot tall man who walked with poise and confidence. Just his presence earned respect.

With “close cut” neat hair, eyes that “gleam with kindness” and a firm jaw displaying courage and conviction, Washington was an impressive and successful man.

Washington penned:

I would permit no man, no matter what his color might be, to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him. With God’s help, I believe that I have completely rid myself of any ill feeling toward the Southern white man for any wrong that he may have inflicted upon my race…I pity from the bottom of my heart any individual who is so unfortunate as to get into the habit of holding race prejudice.

Like King, it was Christianity that drove Booker T. Washington’s convictions. In a Columbus, OH address (May 24, 1900), Washington stated: “The men doing the vital things of life are those who read the Bible and are Christians and not ashamed to let the world know it.” 

King appreciated Washington’s ability to navigate the secular and sacred with passion. In his book “Putting the Most Into Life” (1906), Booker penned:

My observation has taught me that the people who stand for the most in the educational and commercial world and in the uplifting of the people are in some real way connected with the religious life of the people among whom they reside. This being true we ought to make the most of our religious life…

Booker’s success was noticeable, especially to Black Americans like King.

In many ways, Booker T. Washington started the job of lifting the black “up from slavery” and now, six decades later, Martin Luther King, Jr. was going to finish the  work. His “dream” was a reflection of Washington, as well as other great Blacks, like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman.

But similar to the “King of Kings” he worshipped, Martin’s story  was soon to face a crucifixion.

On April 4, 1968, upon a motel balcony in Memphis, TN, the dream of a King died.

Dr. King and his entourage were finalizing preparations for their evening’s event in a room at the Lorraine Motel. At one point, Martin turned to the musician Ben Branch, who was slated to perform, and made a request: “Ben, make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.”

Then Martin stepped out onto the balcony of room 306 to catch the evening sunset. It had been a nice, warm Tennessee day. The time was 6:01 p.m.

A gunshot rang out over the din of the Memphis traffic passing in front of the motel. King fell to the balcony floor. Aides rushed to his side. A lone bullet struck his right cheek, tunneled through his spinal column and buried in his shoulder. He was still alive…barely.

Sixty-four minutes later, at a local emergency room, Martin Luther King, Jr. was pronounced dead.

He was 39 years old.

But his autopsy revealed a different truth. King “had the heart of a 60 year old” man.

In the end, Martin lived and died just like another of his influencers—Mahatma Gandhi—lived and died. Gandhi was assassinated twenty years earlier (January 30, 1948) and equally famous for his nonviolence social activism.

In 1959, King toured India for five weeks and studied Gandhi’s philosophy and practices. He concluded that Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance was the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity.”

He also said of Gandhi:

Mahatma Gandhi was the first person in human history to lift the ethic of love of Jesus Christ, above mere interaction between individuals and make it into a powerful and effective social force on a large scale.

I have a dream, Martin preached in 1963.

A dream that all people would be judged, not by the shallowness of their skin color, but by the depth of their true character.

Martin Luther King, Jr. died before his dream was fulfilled. 

Just as the biblical Moses stood outside the Promised Land, unable to enter and experience its glorious views and benefits, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood upon a similar mountaintop. All he could do is look forward and point from the other side of Jordan’s waters.

Martin left his “dream” in the hands of future generations.

Perhaps one day…ALL people…black, white, red, brown, yellow or otherwise…will no longer be judged by the color of their skin…but the content of their character.

On that day, we will all be free.

Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we’re all free at last!

Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Making of an American Moses (Part 2)

By Rick Chromey | January 15, 2024 |

 

In PART ONE, the individuals and events that influenced King’s childhood and adolescence were addressed. 

+++++++++++++++++++++

 

Every prophet journeys through a season of preparation. Just as Moses spent years as a desert shepherd, Martin Luther King honed his message through years of education. As Martin’s influence grew, so did the opposition to his calls for social change.

As a son of the South, King knew the cost of his calling.

Nevertheless, a “dream” was bubbling within Martin’s soul. Like the ancient prophet Jeremiah, it was vision burning so hot within his heart he could not keep it to himself forever.

But his dream wasn’t yet ready for primetime. It needed time for the vision to gel, ruminate, mature and find its wings. For now, Martin Luther King was on a journey to learn, experience, understand, develop and prepare.

Between 1944 and 1955, King devoted himself to higher education. 

In the fall of ’44 King enrolled at Morehouse College…at the tender age of fifteen.

Morehouse was an all-black male school with a reputation for churning out preachers. Martin’s dad and granddad attended the school to achieve their qualification for ordination in their Baptist tradition. King declared his own calling into ministry in his junior year. He now believed the Church was the best way “to serve humanity.”

In 1948, he graduated with his BA in sociology at nineteen years of age.

King attended Crozer Theological Seminary (Upland, PA) for graduate work…and fell in love…with a white girl named Betty. It was a romance that even in the liberated north turned heads and wagged tongues. And now Martin talked of tying the knot.

That’s when Martin’s dad and his friends interrupted the relationship. They told the lovestruck King it was a terrible idea. Interracial marriage was poking the bear for social norms. It could hurt his young reputation. Or wound relationships with family, friends and congregants. It might even cost him the opportunity to pastor a church, especially in the South.

King soon learned how this relationship deeply hurt his mother. His dad and friends were right. Martin and Betty broke up. According to his closest friends, King never got over Betty. She was always his “love.” This experience taught Martin how certain racial lines were impassable. Even if something (like love) felt innocent and right, it required time to be socially acceptable.

In 1951, King graduated with his Bachelor of Divinity from Crozier. Four yeas later he finished his Ph.D. in systematic theology from Boston University.

In 1954, King moved to Montgomery, AL to pastor Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. He was only 25 years old. Fortunately, he didn’t move alone. A year earlier, King met and married Coretta Scott. Eventually, the couple had four children: Yolanda (1955-2007), Martin Luther King III (1957), Dexter Scott King (1961) and Bernice King (1963).

Montgomery, AL soon became the flashpoint for Martin Luther King’s emerging national vision.

Two separate bus incidents sparked the fire that spread King’s influence. Both involved black women who–like the younger King–refused to relinquish their seats to a white. The girls names were Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks.

Their resistance violated Jim Crow segregation laws. Parks’ arrest received more press and sparked the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott (led by King). The boycott lasted over a year. Racist agitators bombed King’s home. Then the Birmingham police arrested and jailed King on a petty speeding charge.

But that proved a blessing. The national media took up his story and suddenly King had a national platform.

In 1957, Martin Luther King, Jr. launched the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Inspired by Billy Graham’s crusades, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference included other Montgomery clergy and civil rights activists. The stated goal of the S.C.L.C. was to “harness the moral authority and organizing power of black churches to conduct nonviolent protests in the service of civil rights reform.”

From that day forward, King laid his life on the line for his people. Similar to Moses in the Bible, King desired to lead his people out of the past. His vision pointed to a new Promised Land where civil rights, desegregation and racial harmony ruled the day.

Knife attacks, police arrests, jail, and hard labor prison sentences accompanied King’s calling.

One spring day in 1963, Martin’s movement took a turn in Birmingham, AL. The police released their dogs and sprayed firehoses upon a large S.C.L.C. demonstration march.  The  demonstration included dozens of black children as part of a “crusade.” The optics looked bad.

However, as usual, the law arrested and jailed King before the trouble touched him. But, in the end, King’s greatest contribution wasn’t on the street but from his cell. He wrote the Letter from Birmingham Jail during his incarceration. It became an immediate critic’s choice. One writer called the book “one of the most important historical documents penned by a modern political prisoner.”

The Birmingham moment in April 1963 created the “March on Washington” four months later.

On August 28, over 250,000 people gathered in Washington, DC for a peaceful protest. There were several goals for the march.

First, to highlight continuing racial segregation in schools. Second, to promote meaningful civil rights legislation. And, third, to improve other protections for the discriminated black.

From the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington monument was a sea of humanity. Like ancient Israelites waiting for manna from heaven and a Red Sea miracle, the people waited for King to speak.

I have a dream,” Martin began, with a slight pause, “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’”

Across the lawn of the National Mall, the congregants leaned into his words. Then King reached back into his memory bank. He tapped into those moments when racial bigotry and hate nearly consumed his soul. Then he baptized them in hope and raptured a new godly vision for his people.

“I have a dream,” King voiced again in that familiar Baptist preacher tone, “that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”

“I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

From the Lincoln Memorial, for 17 minutes, King’s words rose and rang as a clarion bell for change. A century earlier a white American president emancipated the slave. Now, a black American preacher reminded Americans of their true heart and core principles.

“I have a dream,” King thundered, “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

A year later the 1964 Civil Rights Act was signed into law.

King’s Civil Rights Movement of passive nonviolent protest was underway and he won a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. In his acceptance speech he stated:

“… profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time — the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression.”

This passive philosophy would be tested repeatedly over the next four years, from the Deep South of Selma, AL to the urban streets of Chicago, IL …but King never wavered.

 

TO BE CONTINUED

Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Making of an American Moses (Part 1)

By Rick Chromey | January 14, 2024 |

Martin Luther King, Jr

In Black American history there have been many influential people.

Phyllis Wheatley. Sojourner Truth. Harriet Tubman. Frederick Douglass. Booker T. Washington. George Washington Carver. Jackie Robinson.

But few transformed America and his race more than Martin Luther King, Jr.

It’s why every January, America stops to celebrate his birthday. He’s on par with Washington and Lincoln. But who influenced King? Why is Martin named after the Protestant Reformer? And what can we learn from his story?

Here’s the story behind the story you might not know about this social reformer. And it starts with his name. It wasn’t originally Martin.

Michael Luther King, Jr. was born January 15, 1929.

He was born in a lineage of faith. His daddy (Michael Sr.) and granddaddy were Baptist preachers in Georgia. Michael Sr. and Michael Jr. were known as “Big Mike” and “Little Mike” by their family and closest friends. King grew up in the wooden hardback pews of his father’s Atlanta church…a congregation that he would one day also pastor…Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Originally Martin’s name was “Michael.” But Big Mike changed it to Martin after he attended the 1934 Congress of the Baptist World Alliance in Berlin, Germany. As part of that trip, the elder King toured historic German sites related to the Protestant Reformation and Martin Luther. At the same time, Big Mike was also exposed to a rising German Nazism.

Both Luther’s righteous rebellion against the political system of his day and Hitler’s fascist control over a people captured the Sr. Michael’s attention. He resolved to live and lead differently.

As a testament to that conviction, he changed his name to “Martin” Luther King, Sr. Then bestowed his new moniker upon Little Mike “Martin” Luther King, Jr. It was a father’s blessing, and also an anointing. The “junior” King would be set apart, much like Moses, to be used of God–an instrument for righteous change in an America that still treat blacks like they were segregated slaves in Egypt.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a student of the Bible…from his youngest days.

The “junior” Martin grew up reading the Bible aloud and listening in rapt awe to his “Mama” Jennie (grandmother) weave stories about biblical characters and events. He memorized dozens of Bible verses and hymns…as a preschooler. His favorite hymn? “I Want to Be More and More Like Jesus.” His deep knowledge of Scripture and ability to communicate served him well as an orator with a message.

A childhood friendship introduced King to racial bigotry.

At the tender age of six, King befriended a white neighbor boy. The two kids were inseparable…until their education forced the young boys to enroll in different schools. After that point, the white boy’s parents suddenly prohibited their friendship. The young King was deeply hurting and confused. His parents tried to console him, and explained the difficult racial divide between whites and blacks, especially in the Deep South.

Thats the day King learned about his people’s legacy of racism, segregation, and slavery.

Initially, King’s hurt went negative. He felt anger and bitterness. He vowed to “hate every white person.” However, his Christian parents quickly corrected that attitude. Instead, they encouraged the young Martin to love others, unconditionally, like Jesus. Nevertheless, in this experience, King learned to feel the pain of his people and tap the anger in a productive and positive way to transform America.

King’s adolescence proved a time of change and transformation…into a man, orator and protestor.

As a teen, Martin loved the opera and playing the piano and violin. His favorite subjects were English and history. King attended Booker T. Washington High School—the only all-Black high school in Atlanta—and posted a B+ average. But it was Martin’s public speaking ability that caught the attention of his teachers and peers. King’s young emerging baritone voice and deep vocabulary put him on a different level as a orator.

He not only sounded great to the ear but also spoke great words to the heart.

In 1944, King won his first speaking contest. In his speech he argued: Black America still wears chains. The finest negro is at the mercy of the meanest white man.” King and his teacher learned what that line meant on their bus ride home to Atlanta. Their white bus driver, in order to seat all the white riders, ordered King and his black teacher to abandon their seats…and stand for the ride.

It had already been a long day, so a long ride standing had no appeal. The adolescent King angrily protested and refused to give up his seat. However his instructor persuaded him to reconsider that decision. It was an illegal act (a violation of Jim Crow laws) and it could produce disastrous consequences from a beating to jail to lynching.

However, by 1944 lynchings had been on the decline since the mid-1930s (according to the Tuskegee Institute). In 1935, there were 18 lynchings of blacks, but only 17 combined between 1940-1943. In 1944, there were only two black lynchings.

Martin finally agreed to give his seat away. However, the moment left a bad taste in his mouth. He learned that day how some forms of social protest made things worst…and weren’t worth the price.

A few months later, King also experienced a different side (and kind) of America.

Martin headed to Connecticut to work a tobacco farm with some friends. It was his first time north of the Mason-Dixon line. King wrote his father how the integrated North was refreshingly different. To his surprise, he experienced “no discrimination” and found the “white people…were very nice.”

King further noted how blacks could “go to any place” they desired and “sit anywhere” they wanted. He was amazed that even “the finest restaurants” did not separate or refuse service to the black. He even happily attended a church where “Negroes and whites” worshipped together. This brief experience provided King a vision for what could be. It also proved not all whites were racist. In fact, to the contrary, they were welcoming, tolerant and helpful.

It was the America that Martin Luther King, Jr. would eventually cast as a “dream” for his people and homeland.

READ PART TWO

 

SOURCES:

  1. Wikipedia: “Martin Luther King, Jr.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Luther_King_Jr.
  2. “Lynchings by State and Race: 1882-1968,” Tuskegee Institute: http://www.archive.tuskegee.edu/repository/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Lynchings-Stats-Year-Dates-Causes.pdf

 

July 8, 1835: The Day a Judge, the Liberty Bell and the Founding Era Ended

By Rick Chromey | January 10, 2024 |

John Marshall

One night a stranger sought refuge in a rural tavern.

Exhausted from his travels, the hungry, unkempt visitor longed for solitude. However, the man quickly realized he had interrupted a debate regarding the “merits of the Christian religion.”

In a long, contentious argument, several young men discussed biblical truth related to Christ’s divinity and God’s nature. The weary outsider remained silent.

“Well, my old gentleman,” someone at the bar yelled to him, “what do you think?”

The tired old man could no longer ignore the topic. As he rose to speak, every eye turned. For the next hour, the elderly gentleman lectured the bawdy tavern crowd into a stunned silence as he systematically and rationally destroyed every irreligious and agnostic argument presented by the young men.

Across the tavern, there were whispers.

Who was this slovenly man who spoke so eloquently in defense of Jesus? Finally someone dared to ask the old man, to which he replied:

“My name is John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States.”1

John Marshall was born in Germantown, VA in 1755. During the Revolutionary War, he fought under George Washington’s command and near the war’s end, left the military to practice law. Eventually Marshall served in the Virginia House of Delegates, then the U.S. House of Representatives.

In 1800, John Adams appointed him Secretary of State and a year later to the U.S. Supreme Court.

As chief justice, Marshall worked under six different presidents for 34 years—the longest tenure in U.S. history. He authored over a thousand legal decisions to carve America’s constitutional identity.

Most notably was Marbury vs. Madison (1803) that forged the principle of judicial review, allowing courts to “review” and rule against unconstitutional federal and state laws.

It was Marshall’s Court that ruled against Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act (1830) to relocate 46,000 Indians to the West so Southern slavery could expand on the vast acreage left behind.

In matters of religion, John Marshall proved enigmatic.

For most of his life he preferred Unitarian Christianity yet attended Episcopal services. He refused church membership yet considered himself “a sincere friend of religion.”2 Marshall was a by-product of the First Great Awakening that created a cultural “Christian” America.

It’s why Marshall endorsed Rev. Jasper Adams’ sermon pamphlet titled The Relation of Christianity to Civil Government in the United States (1833).3

Marshall penned his own surprising observation: The American population is entirely Christian. It would be strange, indeed, if with such a people, our institutions did not presuppose Christianity.“4

In early 1835, another clergyman named Alexander Keith further influenced Marshall. His work Evidence of the Truth of the Christian Religion persuaded the aging judge to finally abandon his Unitarian position.5 Shortly thereafter, Marshall traveled to Philadelphia for medical care.

Unfortunately, his health worsened, and John Marshall died July 6, 1835.

Two days later, his funeral was held, where he was eulogized for his integrity, intelligence, charity and faith.

Across the city of Philadelphia, bells rang to honor the storied judge, including the famed Liberty Bell. She was first rung on the same day 59 years earlier (July 8, 1776) to call a public reading of the Declaration of Independence.

His death signaled the end of the Founding Father era.

After 1835, a new generation of American leaders emerged that couldn’t recall the American Revolution. Their generation faced new American problems like slavery, Reconstruction, immigration, Indian relations, and westward expansion.

For nearly a century, two “great” Christian revivals or “awakenings”—the First Great Awakening (1730-1770) and the Second Great Awakening (1795-1835)—had tattooed the psyche of a young nation.

In 1831, the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville noted their influence: “Upon my arrival in the United States the religious aspect … was the first thing that struck my attention...In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom marching in opposite directions. But in America I found they were intimately united and that they reigned in common over the same country…”6

Early America was a distinctly Christian culture.

But cultural change was coming (thanks to a secular French Revolution). The first fissures in the Liberty Bell surfaced in 1835. The same year John Marshall died, and the Second Great Awakening ended. Similarly, by the 1830s, secular ideas were finding root in a Christian nation. Coincidence? Two decades later, a secular minority population was evident.

That’s when Congress commissioned a committee to investigate America’s founding to squelch any question about “who we once were.” Their final judgment: “Had the people, during the Revolution, had a suspicion of any attempt to war against Christianity, that Revolution would have been strangled in its cradle… In this age, there can be no substitute for Christianity… That was the religion of the founders of the republic and they expected it to remain the religion of their descendants.”7

According to legend, it was John Marshall’s funeral that cracked the bell named “Liberty.”

In 1835, the “crack” of secularism appeared and the Second Great Awakening ended. The Founding Father era was over. America was destined to grow into its constitutional frame.

A century later various Supreme Courts systematically removed Christianity from America’s institutions, creating a spiritual void Americans filled with agnosticism, atheism, and secular humanism. The result has proven devastating.

In 1962, America’s schools removed prayer (followed the next year with the removal of Bible readings). From that point, America the Secular introduced a more profane, suicidal, violent, sexually-deviant, confused, psychotic, agnostic, atheist and addicted culture.

And the “Christian America” of John Marshall, George Washington and our Founding Fathers faded into history, along with the freedom, equality and justice rooted to biblical principle.

Founding Father Jedidiah Morse predicted this would happen:

To the kindly influence of Christianity we owe that degree of civil freedom and political and social happiness which mankind now enjoys. All efforts made to destroy the foundations of our Holy Religion ultimately tend to the subversion also of our political freedom and happiness. In proportion as the genuine effects of Christianity are diminished in any nation… in the same proportion will the people of that nation recede from the blessings of genuine freedom… Whenever the pillars of Christianity shall be overthrown, our present republican forms of government – and all the blessings which flow from them – must fall with them.8

And to think it all started with a judge’s death and liberty bell’s crack.

 

 

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SOURCES:

  1. Albert J. Beveridge, The Life of John Marshall, Volume 4, The Building of the Nation, 1815-1835 (Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1916): 70-71. Available for download at Google books.
  2. Ibid., 69.
  3. The Relation of Christianity to Civil Government in the United States: A Sermon Preached in St. Michael’s Church, Charleston, February 19, 1833, by Rev. J. Adams (Charleston: A.E. Miller Publisher), 1833. Available for download at Google books.
  4. Charles Hobson, ed., The Papers of John Marshall, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006): 278.
  5. Alexander Keith, Evidence of the Truth of the Christian Religion: Derived from the Literal Fulfillment of Prophecy (Edinburgh: Waugh & Innes, 1826, 2nd ed.). Available for download at Google books.
  6. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume 1 (New York: George Adlard Publishing, 1839): 307.
  7. Reports of Committees of the House of Representatives Made During the First Session of the Thirty-Third Congress (Washington: A. O. P. Nicholson, 1854), pp. 6-9.
  8. Jedidiah Morse, A Sermon, Exhibiting the Present Dangers and Consequent Duties of the Citizens of the United States of America, Delivered at Charlestown, April 25, 1799, The Day of the National Fast (MA: Printed by Samuel Etheridge, 1799), p. 9.

George Washington and Valley Forge: How a Christmas Prayer Saved America

By Rick Chromey | December 24, 2023 |

The winter of 1777 should’ve been the end of the great American Revolution.

Everything was going wrong for our patriot forefathers at that time.

Throughout the fall of 1777, the British army had tightened its grip on the colonies. When Philadelphia was captured, the war looked over. It usually is when a capitol city is occupied. Our Continental Congress were now “wanted men” and forced to flee for their lives. Meanwhile, fear raced through the colonies as thousands of Americans were captured and confined on British “starving ships.” Most died on board. It was a trying, desperate time in early America.

On December 12, 1777 the fugitive Congress awarded Gen. George Washington “full power” to “direct…the operations of the war.”

A week later Washington retreated with 11,000 soldiers to Valley Forge, PA to wait for spring…and hopefully better days.

Washington’s rag tag volunteer army enlisted men from ages 12 to 60. Most were Europeans, but free blacks and Indians also served. By Christmas 1777, the weather had turned ugly. The bitter cold and snow proved deadly to man and beast. Horses perished by the hundreds. Over 2500 troops froze, starved or died from typhoid, pneumonia or dysentery. Over 500 women also died at Valley Forge that winter…and countless children too. Families often fought together. Wives kept the army fed, clothed and nursed. And now they were among the dying too.

George Washington noted that nearly 2900 of his men were “unfit for duty.” Most of his troops had no shoes. Many were barely clothed. Washington confessed that without “some great and capital change” his army would “starve, dissolve, or (need to) disperse.” If his army didn’t live to spring, Washington rightly feared their war of revolution was over.

At one point, it was so bad the Continental Congress debated replacing Washington as “commander-in-chief.”

Many politicians had lost faith in George’s abilities, but none of his men did. As one patriot soldier confessed, Washington’s army was fused together with a “spirit of liberty.” They believed in Washington. They believed in this revolution. “Give me liberty or give me death!”

George Washington needed a Christmas miracle in 1777.

And that’s when this man of deep and devout faith turned, once again, to his God. In the bitter cold of Valley Forge, the “Father of our Country” retreated outside of camp, knelt down in the snow and prayed.

Washington’s prayerful pose became one of early America’s most famous images. For nearly 200 years American children were taught how Washington’s prayers at Valley Forge turned the Revolutionary War to our advantage. U.S. Presidents routinely reminded Americans of Washington’s prayer. Artists and sculptors recaptured this prayer. In fact, paintings of Washington praying at Valley Forge were more popular  than his famed crossing of the Delaware. It was common to see this image in homes, schools, courthouses, businesses and churches.

George Washington praying at Valley Forge

George Washington recounted that terrible winter of 1777-1778.

“No history,” he wrote, “can furnish an instance of an army’s suffering such uncommon hardships as ours has done…to see men without clothes to cover their nakedness, without blankets to lay on, without shoes, by which their marched might be traced by the blood from their feet, and almost as often without provisions…marching through frost and snow, and at Christmas taking up their winter quarters within a day’s march of the enemy…is a mark of patience and obedience which…can scarce be paralleled.”

Washington’s desperate prayers and pleas worked.

When Virginia Governor Patrick Henry heard of the conditions at Valley Forge, he was furious. He petitioned Congress to do something immediately…and they did. Within days a new quartermaster had resupplied Washington’s troops with clothing, food, blankets, ammo and other supplies. In February a Prussian drill master arrived to train Washington’s volunteer army to become better soldiers. Morale immediately boosted.

Throughout that terrible winter, particularly at Christmas, a certain carol was sung.

Its opening lyrics stated: God rest ye merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay. This song reminded colonial patriots that God was in control and He alone provided the “rest.” With God on their side, what did they have to fear? Furthermore, they rode with the great George Washington–a patriot general who had already escaped death five times. Horses were shot out beneath him. His hat was shot off. His clothes were nicked and ripped by bullets.

However, a Lutheran clergyman named Henry Muhlenberg was more impressed by George Washington’s spiritual leadership. He wrote: “I heard a fine example today, namely that His Excellency General Washington rode around among his army yesterday and admonished each to fear God, to put away wickedness … and to practice Christian virtues...From all appearances General Washington does not belong to the so-called world of society, for he respects God’s Word, believes in the atonement through Christ, and bears himself in humility and gentleness.”

Muhlenberg concluded: “Therefore, the Lord God has also singularly, yea, marvelously preserved [George Washington] from harm in the midst of countless perils, ambuscades, fatigues, etc., and has hitherto graciously held him in his hand as a chosen vessel.”

George Washington’s leadership and God’s Providence through that desperate winter eventually turned the War to the colonial patriots.

It inspired more patriot soldiers to enlist and lit a new fire under Americans to support the war. What was Washington’s response for God’s Provision at Valley Forge? He ordered a “religious day” of “fasting, humiliation and prayer” on April 22, 1778. Washington commanded all troops in his Continental Army to cease work and go to church for spiritual instruction and worship. Washington proclaimed: “To the distinguished character of patriot, it should be our highest glory to laud the more distinguished Character of Christian.”

America has faced many desperate Christmases since Valley Forge in 1777.  We’ve endured war and Depression, crisis and catastrophe, bitter cold and deadly disease. And yet through each historic trial, and an increasingly secularized culture, most Americans still pause to reflect on the Reason for the Season.

It doesn’t have to be Christmas for us to endure a winter of trial and trouble.

Perhaps Washington’s prayer life should be a model for us? And maybe that old carol that sustained the troops at Valley Forge should become our song?

God rest ye merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay.

For Jesus Christ our Savior, was born on Christmas Day;

To save us all from Satan’s power, when we were gone astray.

O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy,

O tidings of comfort and joy.”