This bright February afternoon, that fills our little apartment home with sunlight, has brought America to heart in a fresh way for me. I am reading a Pulitzer Prize-winning history called “The British are Coming.” The author is Rick Atkinson.
It had been slow going at first. (A very thick book!) The book is deeply researched, with infinite details of life in Britain and life in America. Now that I’m half-way through, I can hardly put it down. The author does character study of British leaders – Army and Navy, and American leaders from George Washington on down.
Much of the fighting was done in New England, New York, and places familiar to Molly and me. Greenwich, Connecticut and nearby New York were home territory for us growing up.
One of America’s few victories in the early years of the Revolutionary War was a coastal battle involving ships of war as well as ground troops. But much of the rest of the story were tales of terrible deprivation and defeat for American forces fighting in Canada, and Washington’s own ignominious retreat from Manhattan Island, Hudson River towns, and into New Jersey.
“Providence” was very real for General Washington and his officers. They knew they were fighting now for the great ideas of America, for the establishment of a country that would be free, where the people constituted government and leadership. The Continental Army, when finally established, was hardly an army. Much of it was local militias. Much of the struggle was over barest necessities of clothing, food, and shelter, exposure to rain and winter snows, and the fact that soldiers were signed up for short times, so fighters were constantly leaving to go home. They hadn’t realized they were involved in an eight-year war that was to fulfill a dream of something that did not exist anywhere else in the world.
Conditions for both armies would seem to have become almost unbearable. To sleep on the cold ground, to march without shoes or socks, to have food that was hardly edible, and to be, for Washington’s army, daily desertions of troops, simply leaving for home when their short-term time was up, was discouraging for Washington and his officers.
And yet there was a strange, almost inexplicable commitment to this war that seemed often so hopeless.
“Yet for those who had come this far and endure this much,” the historian Rick Atkinson observes, “sardonic humor and stubborn defiance would get them through the night, and the next day, and the day following. The British, after all, had to win the war; the Americans had only to avoid losing it.” “Never was finer lads at a retreat than we,” wrote Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Blachley Webb, a Washington aide who led and fought valiantly at Bunker Hill and been wounded at White Plains. “No fun for us that I can see; however I cannot but think that we shall drub the dogs.” (p. 493)
It was Washington himself who called his army to rise above their longing for home and family to see the profound.
Washington had made the point that they were not just fighting for their own land, and family, and property, but for the first time in the world’s history, the people themselves were fighting for a great vision, the cause of liberty, so denied across the globe, to all people in all countries. It was a call that stirred their hearts and made the visionary call to liberty and freedom a spiritual quest, worthy of their devotion and even their lives if it came to that.
He spoke it true when, in his “General Orders of August 23, 1776,” he declared, prophetically, “The hour is fast approaching on which the honor and success of this army and the safety of our bleeding country depend. Remember, offices and soldiers, that you are freemen fighting for the blessings of liberty.”
Which makes it all the more important for us who cherish this vision to understand that it was built upon the radical understanding of their own voyage to the New World from the oppression of England in its State church, on the Puritan movement of faith that had called this band – first of Separatists and soon after, the Puritans themselves – to leave home and country, to claim the Biblical call of being “a city set upon a hill, with the eyes of the world upon us,” as they in the early days of the 17th century acted on that call to build communities like Plimoth and Boston in a wilderness land, but to live out the spiritual vision of a free faith under God, that brought the idea of covenant communities of commitment to each other, in which churches committed their whole congregations to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit through their church meetings led not by dominant clergy or by a handful of lay leaders, but by all the people waiting upon Jesus Himself to come in His Spirit to show them how they could unite in following a common way forward, confident that “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.”
So came the original Mayflower Compact which prepared the way for another generation to declare their independence and to articulate it through a sacred constitution.
So, we hear the same call to us, in our time, and see ourselves as people of “the Way,” led together in unity by Jesus.
One of my own books tries to articulate this through a series of sermons given on Thanksgiving Days and Independence Days. It is a thin volume called “A PASSION FOR AMERICA.” I would love to share some of these with friends who let my colleague Laury Baars know of your interest. Free to the first 25 who write to firstname.lastname@example.org with their name and address.
Let us be about Americans, who rejoice in our heritage, and seek to understand it more clearly, and live it, in our time, more truly.
Arthur A Rouner, Jr -
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