We are a free people. However. . . it is not from our privileges and liberties . . . but from the use we make of them, that our felicity is to be expected.
Several decades after the U.S.A.’s founding people from numerous nations expressed astonishment over the miracle of America’s success. Other countries were graced with soils as fertile, climates as friendly, resources as plentiful. Yet, relative to America, they remained in the same, old humdrum poverty. How come? Why the U.S.A.’s fantastic prosperity?
Governments of several countries sent commissions to the United States to unearth the secret. Their findings? It was our Constitution that made America successful. Home they went and copied our document. But no miracle followed! Why? Our political documents—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights—unparalleled though they are—were not cause but, rather, the flowering of moral and spiritual roots. Alexis de Tocqueville is credited with having found the answer:
I sought for the greatness and genius of America in fertile fields and boundless forests; it was not there. I sought for it in her institutions of learning; it was not there. I sought for it in her matchless Constitution and democratic congress; it was not there. Not until I went to the churches of America and found them aflame with righteousness did I understand the greatness and genius of America. America is great because America is good. When America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.
Members of the foreign commissions saw only the flower: our Constitution. The discerning Tocqueville, on the other hand, discovered the root below the blossom: the churches aflame with righteousness!
The nature and source of this righteousness is all but forgotten. We, therefore, owe a debt of gratitude to the scholarly Franklin P. Cole for his book, They Preached Liberty.1 Who are “they”? The preacher-patriots, those clergymen who 20 to 25 years prior to the Declaration of Independence, laid the groundwork, established the roots, for the very essence of Americanism:
. . . that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
In all exemplary movements there is a leader, some one out front. Who was America’s pacemaker? “To Jonathan Mayhew (1720-1776) belongs the distinction of being the first of the Revolutionary preacher-patriots.” Indeed, this Doctor of Divinity wrote and/or preached the outstanding ideas that appeared in the Declaration of Independence 25 years prior to its signing. “. . . great minds run in the same channel, but Jonathan Mayhew said it first.” Therefore, it seems appropriate that we reflect upon and take advantage of this man who “said it first”—his seminal ideas.
Parenthetically, our forefathers had a drive working for them which seems to have lost its power. Relative to today’s material abundance, they were poverty stricken. With them it was a case of root hog or die, and they rooted. They had to exchange goods and services or go hungry, and so they traded. Unless they were honest no one would trade with them, and so they were truthful. Briefly, they were faced with obstacles to overcome, and overcoming is the road to individual becoming. This explains to a marked extent the morality and exemplarity of our forebears.
Horace, a Roman of 2,000 years ago, observed:
Adversity has the effect of eliciting talents which in prosperous circumstances would have lain dormant.
The adversity of our forebears elicited talents that accounted, in no small measure, for their exemplary behavior. Intellectual and moral talents in our prosperous circumstances tend to lie dormant and that dormancy accounts, in no small measure, for a reprehensible behavior on the rampage—a flagrant misuse of our liberty!
Upon our use of our liberty, thought Mayhew, depends our happiness and our fortune—our felicity. Another great thinker, Lecomte du Noüy, expressed the identical thought in 1947:
In order to improve himself [man] must be free, since his contribution to evolution will depend on the use he makes of his liberty . . . and only a highly evolved man is willing to defend the liberty of others.
It is a fair guess that neither of these Frenchmen, Tocqueville or du Noüy, ever heard of Jonathan Mayhew. But it is another confirmation that “great minds run in the same channel.”
History reveals another “great mind,” a preacher-patriot whose preachings and writings appeared one century after Mayhew’s works—Henry Ward Beecher. Reflect on the following wise observations.
There is no liberty to men whose passions are stronger than their religious feelings.
When passions—run-away feelings—override or take the place of religious feelings, there can be no liberty. Passions, thus defined, forge our fetters. Had passions been stronger than righteousness—religious feelings—there would have been no Declaration of Independence, no individual liberty, no American miracle. Hail to our preacher-patriots!
There is no liberty to men in whom ignorance predominates over knowledge.
Ignorance in the driver’s seat explains why liberty has so rarely appeared in the history of mankind, and why we Americans will lose our precious liberty if knowledge doesn’t come to the rescue. Today, there are those in the political driver’s seat who haven’t the slightest awareness of how little they know. They “think” they can run your life and mine better than we can—each driver behaving as if he were the Creator.
For wisdom to predominate requires no more than a few clean and clear thinkers such as Mayhew, du Noüy, Beecher to arrive on the scene, individuals who know how to use their liberty. Exemplars!
There is no liberty to men who know not how to govern themselves.
Imagine no self-governing individuals, no self-control exercised by anyone, everybody running around hog wild, as we say. With no self-imposed restraints, the situation could be likened to a population of madmen or of imbeciles. Liberty? None whatsoever!
The very first step in knowing how to use our liberty is self-government. What is the key to this discipline, the mastery of pride? It is humility, the right estimate of self. Saint Augustine gave an excellent guideline: “The sufficiency of my merit is to know that my merit is not sufficient.” Rudyard Kipling adds his wisdom: “Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice, an humble and a contrite heart.” Liberty is possible only when men know how to and do, in fact, govern themselves!
In conclusion, ponder the profundity of du Noüy’s thoughts:
1. To improve himself, man must be free.
2. His contribution to evolution depends on the use he makes of his liberty.
3. Only a highly evolved man is willing to defend the liberty of others.
Man’s earthly purpose is to evolve, to emerge, to grow in awareness, perception, consciousness—possible only when he is free. And how will the highly evolved individual lise his liberty? He will strive as best he can to defend the liberty of others, regardless of race, creed or nationality. It is the very essence of enlightened self-interest for each of us to strive for the liberty of all.
Why do I find encouragement in our present situation? In an informal group designated The Remnant, coordinated by my associate, The Reverend Edmund A. Opitz, we know at least 650 present-day preacher-patriots. And there must be hundreds of others unknown to us, not only in this country but throughout the world. Thus, the writings and preachings of Jonathan Mayhew, the preacher-patriot who said it first, are bearing fruit.