This is the text of a talk I delivered to the Albuquerque, NM, West Stake singles branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Don't expect hard corps historiography; I was talking to intelligent young people, not to professors.
I would speak to you tonight on the hand of God in the coming forth of the United States of America. My life has made me more qualified to speak on historical things than on Scriptural things, so we shall all be witness to the work of The Spirit in guiding me. It is my testimony to you that any inadequacy tonight is due to my insensitivity to His promptings.
Just so y’all understand where this is coming from, I am an American, first, last, and always – unabashedly so – unapologetically so – lock and load, come and take it if you think you can so.
Why should we consider the matter of the Scriptural context of the founding of this nation? Because we are being challenged daily on the legitimacy of our nation. We see challenges to our right to our own institutions – including our religion – to our right to stand as equals among the nations of the earth – indeed, to our very right to live. We see challenges to the legitimacy and even the decency of those who founded this nation – and not just the Founding Fathers, but the farmers and shopkeepers and tradesmen who built her up out of mud and wood and iron. We’d better have a pretty good idea of whence we came and why. Our sense of rectitude will be put to every test imaginable, and to some we mercifully cannot imagine.
L. Tom Perry, in the June, 1976 Ensign – “The United States represents the major source of human and financial resources that go into the expansion of the Lord’s work throughout the world. It is very essential that America remain strong in order that the Church can continue to support the Lord’s work in all corners of the earth. It’s true that Saints in other nations are beginning to come to the point where they can be “independent” in the sense that they can supply their own leadership and resources—but there are few nations in the world where the Saints are of sufficient numbers and have available means to be able to support even among themselves the expansion of the Church in a very significant manner.
“In addition to that central idea we have a basic religious message, a unique message to tell the world—and that is that God’s hand was in the founding of America. America is the cradle of the Church. We know that the great reformation of centuries ago was God-inspired. The rediscovery of America by Columbus was God-inspired. The founding of this land with a form of government that would permit the gospel to be restored and be established was God-inspired. This is a great message. A message of fulfilled prophecy. A message that God lives—that he is in our lives, that he is involved in the shaping of history in ways that many people do not know. I tell you, this is great news! The Lord himself said that he raised up “wise men” for the purpose of founding the United States’ constitutional government, a form of government that has been modeled and patterned after all over the world because it provides the kind of freedom, agency, and opportunity our Father’s children need in order for them to grow, mature, and develop.”
There were many prophesies of the discovery and development of the New World.
Nephi had a vision of Columbus: “And I looked and beheld a man among the Gentiles, who was separated from the seed of my brethren by the many waters; and I beheld the Spirit of God, that it came down and wrought upon the man; and he went forth upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren, who were in the promised land.” (1 Ne. 13:12.)
And of the Pilgrims: “And I, Nephi, beheld that the Gentiles that had gone out of captivity were delivered by the power of God out of the hands of all other nations.” (1 Ne. 13:18–19.)
There are many Scriptural references to the fact that the New World was a choice land, given to The Lord’s chosen people, but only on condition of their continued righteousness: : “Behold, this is a choice land, and whatsoever nation shall possess it shall be free from bondage, and from captivity, and from all other nations under heaven, if they will but serve the God of the land, who is Jesus Christ, who hath been manifested by the things which we have written.” (Ether 2:12)
The Book of Mormon, quoting Jesus as he spoke here in America, reads:
“This land shall be a land of liberty … and there shall be no kings upon [it]. …
“… For I, the Lord, the king of heaven, will be their king, and I will be a light unto them forever, that hear my words. …
“… For it is a choice land, saith God … wherefore I will have all men that dwell thereon that they shall worship me.” (2 Ne. 10:11, 14, 19.)
Lehi, the patriarch of the colony divinely led to America in 600 b.c., prophesied that “there shall none come into this land save they shall be brought by the hand of the Lord” (2 Ne. 1:6).
The Old Testament offers this oblique prophecy, which applies to us this day, as well:
“And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.
“And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of” (Gen. 28:13–15).
We know that we were created with a level of agency, “In His Own image.” Because of that gift, it is right and just that we be allowed exercise of it. Only through the freedom to use our God-given minds and creative faculties can we be fully human. This is a critical point! Freedom must include both intellectual and physical freedom! To be free to learn and think, but not free to act on what we’ve learned is an obscene contradiction; it would reduce us to roughly the equivalent of spirit beings, whose lack of a physical bodies prevents their acting on the world around them.
To be free to act, but not to learn and think is equally obscene; it would make us blind and dumb beasts, stumbling through life on the guidance of glandular squirtings or raging whims.
Man is a being of integrated mind and body, and if either is constrained, he ceases to be fully human. He has been, as a human, murdered. As we go along in this talk, look especially for points that recognize this principle in the founding of the United States. Observe how the principles of freedom, both intellectual and physical, were established and protected.
After more than a thousand years of intellectual and spiritual stagnation, several things happened with breathtaking suddenness. There was an awakening of learning, brought about through several channels at almost the same time: Marco Polo’s reports of the science of China, Guttenberg’s press, the emergence of strong monarchs who could unify large parts of Europe into nations, and finally, the reformation of the Church by men like Tyndale and Luther. All these things served to generate pressure, like boiler, that had to have an escape. But where could such a relief valve come from?
Was there a place on Earth that recognized the need for agency? Not a one. Every nation then in existence was ruled by tyrants or gangs. The only freedom available was out on the frontier, away from the power of the tyrant; but if one got that far from one tyrant, one was almost surely getting closer to another. Indeed, the idea of mankind being free was looked upon with astonishment; one needed only to look around to see what horrors had come from people being free! Tyranny was a very natural and comforting – if not comfortable – alternative. The most powerful forces in philosophy were unified against freedom, and against the very idea that Mankind was capable or worthy of it.
Thomas Hobbes taught that it was literally criminal for a person to even question his monarch. Emanuel Kant taught that the moral was whatever the state chose to force people to do. Germany, called, “The land of poets and philosophers,” produced a whole string of so-called “idealists.” GFW Hegel taught that mankind truly exists only as a fragment of the state, and the soul of man was a myth outside the context of the state. Schoppenauer recognized pre- and post-mortal existence, and taught that Mankind’s only hope for happiness lay in murdering all women so that the species could become extinct and return to the companionship of God. Serious academic courses on the ideas of these men may be found on any modern college campus. They really did espouse this kind of stuff, and people really did eat it up. They still do.
Thomas More’s Utopia featured a benevolent, totalitarian government and a society in which every person looked, dressed, and acted the same way. There was no theft because everyone had the same thing, and none of it was worth stealing. There was no contention because the government made sure all were the same, and had the same prospects – ie, none to speak of.
De Montaigne expressed a pretty low opinion of mankind: “Democritus and Heraclitus were two philosophers, of whom the first, finding human condition ridiculous and vain, never appeared abroad but with a jeering and laughing countenance; whereas Heraclitus commiserating that same condition of ours, appeared always with a sorrowful look, and tears in his eyes… I am clearly for the first humor: not because it is more pleasant to laugh than to weep, but because it expresses more contempt and condemnation than the other, and I think we can never be despised according to our full desert.”
(Going back to the ancient Greeks, Heraclitus taught that the only thing that really exists is “flux,” or change. In his model, there is no absolute reality, and therefore, no right or wrong. You’ll see him referred to glowingly in the writing of the Colonial period, and his ideas were central to those of William James, the American pragmatist and founding father of the Progressive movement.)
Jean Jacque Rousseau posited the idea of the “noble savage,” a primal man of great strength and drive, who is seen by the rest of Humanity as a threat to their simpering mediocrity. He said that law, custom, manners, and concepts of decency were merely contrivances of the mediocre masses to keep the Noble Savage in check, and that Mankind’s only progress came when the Savage got the bit in his teeth. (For a look at a modern application of Rousseau’s philosophy, I would direct you to Cambodia in the time of Pol Pot, who was a self-described Rousseauan.)
In England, France, Spain, Portugal, the German states, the Ottoman Empire, these ideas were the heart of government. There were kings and sultans and pashas, but the common denominator was that individual human beings were the property of the ruler. The English, with the Magna Carta, viewed themselves as free, but in religion, economics, and property rights, they held that freedom only at the whim of the monarch.
Against this intellectual and political monolith, a Virginia farmer had the brazen gall to say it was self-evident that all men were created equal, and that they weren’t equally depraved or revolting. This is a critical concept. The United States was not the end result of a long string of causality. It was an outrageous, totally preposterous deviation from the direction taken by the rest of humankind. There were a few tiny sparks – Adam Smith, who wrote of economic freedom, and John Locke, who wrote that the right to life was a “natural right,” based on the nature of Man, but until the 1760’s, they were virtually alone in a cesspool of tyranny and corruption.
I think we need some intellectual Listerine to swish that stuff from our minds. Try this on for size:
"IN CONGRESS, JULY 4, 1776
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America
"When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.”
There follows a long list of abuses, some of which could be published today, and the closing paragraph, the thunder of which reverberates through the soul in the passion of truth. Listen for reference to God:
"We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor."
The United States was, from the beginning, a point well off the line – an improbability of staggering magnitude. Unless, of course, you consider the hand of God in all this. All of these widely disparate forces and factors worked together in a subtle, exquisite symphony, drawing slowly toward an earth-shaking climax. In fact, the process was so subtle it has totally eluded historians and sociologists for 200-odd years.
Great, pagan old China didn’t discover the New World, though they were far, far ahead of Europe in exploration and trade. They had the means and the skill, but, for some reason, lost the will, and folded back in upon themselves, changing from the world’s most outgoing nation to a recluse, muttering in its self-imposed exile.
France had the means and the skill, but the King was too absorbed with his petty wars and court intrigues. He turned Columbus down. Great Britain had the means and the skill, and probably the drive, but, like the French, were busy with little things. The Portuguese were too intellectual to be bothered. The Spanish, at first influenced by the same sort of learned fools who hobbled their neighbors, decided to give it a try. They’d turned Columbus down repeatedly, but he kept trying them, and finally, inexplicably, Isabella let him have his go. Had he been commissioned by any of the others, he would have started from their home ports, straight into the teeth of the prevailing westerlies, and would have stumbled back into port, exhausted and beaten by weeks of endless tacking and wearing. Spain owned the Canary Islands, and, departing from there, Columbus slipped into the east winds, which bore him to the New World. Any other choice would have doomed his effort.
The very processes of establishing the colonies that became the US was anomalous. The Spaniards were intent on looting the New World, and saw their colonies only as marshalling points for plunder. (At the sharp end of the stick – the explorers, themselves - there was a tremendous desire to bring Christianity to the native peoples.) The French also wished to exploit the natural treasures of the New World, but lacked the sanguine drive and grand vision of the Spainish. Theydidn’t want to alienate the native peoples, and, while New France enjoyed mostly cordial relations with them, restrictions on immigration kept the colony small, and barely viable. Spain and France were both practicants of a mercantile economy, which sharply limited speculation, risk-taking, and growth.
And Queen Elizabeth I… who saw her coming? Talk about a point off-the-line! Under her, the English Navy became an unimaginably powerful force around the world. Her privateers – Drake, Hawkins, and others – wreaked havoc on the Spanish treasure fleets, further slowing the growth of the Spanish colonies.
The English pattern of using joint stock companies to fund colonies rewarded risk-taking and innovation. The Virginia Company made fortunes for its stockholders, which enabled them to keep pouring resources and humanity into that putrid death trap called Jamestown, the survival of which is another outrageous improbability. At one point, two ships, traveling in opposite directions, in a thousand square miles of ocean, in a dense fog, actually met each other. One was evacuating the last survivors of the winter of 1609-10, and the other was a relief ship. If either of those ships had varied her course by 100 yards, or her time of arrival at that crucial point by 5 minutes, Jamestown would have become another New World cemetery, filled with broken dreams and untold suffering.
Those who settled New England were driven to establish a religious dictatorship. They weren’t here for religious freedom. They had nothing against absolute theocracy, as long as it was their theocracy! Southern settlers were, in many cases, treasure-seekers and gentlemen-adventurers who were allergic to work. How ironic that they ended up here, where the work was brutal and endless! In fact, the early history of the United States didn’t show us much other than an incredible courage and toughness. That courage and toughness were exactly what was required to bring into existence what amounted to a whole new subspecies. The vastness of the American continent made it possible for people to get away from the theocrats and the slackers, and exercise their own agency. Insulated from any possibility of royal favor or nepotistic coddling, the New World rewarded the do-er. It’s written of the settling of the American west that the cowards never started and the weak died along the way. It was equally so of the settling of the eastern seaboard and the first colonies.
Once the colonies were established, it is almost as if the English crown were carefully creating a race of irascible, stiff-necked, free-thinking Yankees. The unpredictable, often irrational combination of neglect and heavy-handed regulation combined to create a highly flammable environment, and then fill it with incendiary characters.
The colonists, themselves- especially those who moved west -were rabidly independent and allergic to constraint. Their leaders possessed some of the most outrageous and individualistic personalities ever catalogued, much less ever brought into one room for the purpose of discussing their passions, and agreeing on who had the best ones! The odds of that bunch of prima donnas agreeing on the color of a horse were near zero. But they did agree, and on some of the most magnificent political abstractions ever put on paper.
From the Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, (101: 77-80)
“According to the laws and constitution of the people, which I have suffered to be established, and should be maintained for the rights and protection of all flesh, according to just and holy principles;
“That every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment.
“Therefore, it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another.
“And for this purpose have I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose, and redeemed the land by the shedding of blood.”
The Scriptures tell us that God the Father assembled this group of individuals for the express purpose of founding the United States, and, considering the odds of that many men of that caliber in one room at the same time… There were good leaders in the early days, but nothing to foreshadow the blinding brilliance of the Founders. They were all born within a 50-year period, and within a thousand miles of each other. Nowhere else in human history is there anything even remotely like it.
Consider this about the republic they created. It was a government of law, with strict constraints on that government. But what good is law? Plenty of people break the law, some of them not in government, at all! The law tells us how to act, and the consequences if we misbehave. Where do those consequences come from? From the government. What if the government breaks the law? Is it likely to levy consequences on itself? Not likely. So the law is no constraint on the government, at all. It is like shouting at the wind; you can do it all you want, but you’ll only get hoarse.
There’s an old saying that the only real safety device on a car is the nut behind the wheel. So it is with the law. The only binding parameter on the law is the character of those charged with enforcing it. Character. If those in government are of good character – honest, with integrity – they will keep the law because they believe it is right to do so. If those in government are not of good character, they will not keep the law because they believe it is inconvenient or unprofitable to do so. In the end, it is not the law, but the commitment to it of those in authority who make a government work.
Our Founders gave us a government that is absolutely and explicitly dependent on the character of those elected to office. They believed so much in the inborn common sense and sagacity of the American people that they set up a government that recognized and operated on character. Of course, they also gave us the 2nd Amendment, in case we needed to correct a bad decision, but that is a topic for a wiser man than I.
This government of character and law recognizes Human agency. It leaves us free to choose and to act. It leaves those in government free, too, though I can’t believe the Founders could have foreseen the depravity this would unchain in the world. There is no prior restraint placed on Americans. We are free to decide. We can make deposits in the bank, or we can rob it. However, according the law, at least, there are consequences of misbehaving, and if we choose the action, we also choose the consequences. The man who introduced me to this church once observed that you can’t pick up just one end of a stick. If you pick up the end called action, you also get the end called consequences. In the entire, sorry catalogue of political ideas by which men have tormented themselves, the ideas upon which this nation was based are the only ones to recognize the essential nature and agency of Mankind.
And this brings us back to the starting point: a large number of our countrymen, and a majority of the rest of the world, hate us for our freedom. They see freedom as bad. All that freedom and expression is so untidy! It gets in the way of organization and system. They say the world would be a better place if we’d all surrender our precious FREEDOM – emphasized with little claw marks in the air – and let the real professionals – academics and bureaucrats – run our lives in a way that would benefit everyone. It’s as if More, Kant, Hegel, James, and all the other over-educated idiots were brought back for a cast encore.
We believe that our Father in Heaven is loving and just. Think of a creature, created with very specific traits and abilities – the greatest of which, and those that literally define the creature - are the ability to think, learn, and decide its course in life. Now think of an environment, created specifically for that creature, that clasps shackles upon those great abilities, and forces the creature to deny its creation and the very things that define it. Could this possibly be the work of a God that is loving and just? I’ll answer that for you.
In 1831, the French writer, de Toqueville, wrote, “I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers, and it was not there; in her fertile fields and boundless prairies, and it was not there; in her rich mines and her vast world of commerce, and it was not there. Not until I went to the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”
I will close with L. Tom Perry, again from the bicentenniel year of 1976:
“The success of the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War came about through men who were raised up by God for this special purpose. You must read the Declaration of Independence to feel its inspiration. You merely need to study history to recognize that a group of fledgling colonies defeating the world’s most powerful nation stemmed from a force greater than man. Where else in the world do we find a group of men together in one place at one time who possessed greater capacity and wisdom than the founding fathers—Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and others? But it was not to their own abilities that they gave the credit. They acknowledged Almighty God and were certain of the impossibility of their success without his help. Benjamin Franklin made an appeal for daily prayers in the Constitutional Convention. In that appeal he said, “If a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid? I believe without His concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the building of Babel.”
“The Constitution was and is a miracle. Both Washington and Madison referred to it as such. It was an inspired document, written under the divine guidance of the Lord. James Madison, commonly called the Father of the Constitution, recognized this inspiration and gave the credit to “the guardianship and guidance of the Almighty Being whose power regulates the destiny of nations whose blessings have been so conspicuously displayed to the rising of this republic.” (Prologue, p. 95.) We believe that the Constitution was brought about by God to insure a nation where liberty could abound, where his gospel could flourish. Joseph Smith said, “The Constitution of the United States is a glorious standard; it is founded in the wisdom of God. It is a heavenly banner.”
As we pray daily to God for guidance, we could do worse than to make the same plea that George Washington made in his prayer for our country. Notice how many points of the Gospel he touched on, though this was many years before the restoration.
“Almighty God, who has given us this good land for our heritage, we humbly beseech Thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of Thy favor and glad to do Thy will.
“Bless our land with honorable industry, sound learning and pure manners.
“Save us from violence, discord and confusion; from pride and arrogancy, and from every evil way.
“Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought out of many kindreds and tongues.
“Endue with the spirit of wisdom those whom in Thy name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be peace and justice at home, and that through obedience to Thy law, we may show forth Thy praise among the nations of the earth.
“In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in Thee to fail.
“All of which we ask through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.”