One Nation Under God
I would ask you to come with me to Gettysburg. The date: November 19, 1863. The signs of the battle which occurred 4 1/2 months before are still much in evidence: flattened fences, broken trees, burned-out homes. Not a pleasant scene.
President Abraham Lincoln is on his way to set aside a portion of the battlefield as a national cemetery. After all, more than 55,000 lost their lives in that battle. At the White House, Lincoln begins the preparation of the brief address he is to give at Gettysburg at 10 o’clock on the morning of November 18. He works at it for more than two hours. He then boards the train that will take him to Gettysburg. On the train, contrary to popular surmise, he gives no attention at all to the speech! The next morning, November 19, he devotes considerable time to it before arriving at the place where the address is to be given.
We have Lincoln’s manuscript of the address, and we also have transcripts of the address taken down by reporters as Lincoln delivered it. There is a slight, but significant difference between Lincoln’s written manuscript and the record of the address as he gave it. He added to his remarks, as he spoke, two additional words—two very crucial words. In his written manuscript we read this sentence: “This nation shall have a new birth of freedom…” But when he actually delivered that sentence, this is what he said: “That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom…”
That phrase, “this nation under God,” has become so much a part of our national vocabulary and our national understanding that we have made it a part of our Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. But that day when President Lincoln first used the phrase, it was quite unusual. He was announcing for all the world to hear his deep and abiding conviction that the destinies of all nations are determined by God—that all peoples and societies, no matter how great or small, no matter how rich or poor, no matter how learned or ignorant, are under the sovereign control and providence of Almighty God.
It is of God’s sovereignty in the affairs of nations that I would speak today. I shall speak to two propositions. First, the greatness of God is to be seen in His direction of the nations. Secondly, the greatness of a nation is to be seen in its dependence upon God. It is my hope that ‘ere this sermon is done, we shall reclaim the memory of what this nation, under God, started out to be and we shall recapture the vision of what this nation, under God, may yet become.
First, then, the greatness of God is to be seen in His direction of the nations.
The power of God to direct the course of human events is made clear in both history and in the Scriptures. See for yourself.
God, working to make His voice known in the world, chose a nation—Israel—to become the agent of His instruction. But Israel was stiff-necked and proud. Israel made the mistake of thinking that because it was great, it had been chosen by God. Exactly the opposite was true. Because it was chosen by God, it became great. But the people would not hear of that so God determined that Israel would have to be humbled and He raised up the Babylonian Empire for that purpose. The Babylonians came and conquered and captured Israel and led the people into slavery where they learned subjection and humility.
But the Babylonians themselves showed no subjection or humility before the Lord, so their empire soon passed from the pages of history. This was accomplished through the rise of the Persian Empire which came with mailed fists and beat upon the brass gates of Babylon until they fell. Yet Persia, too, became addicted to power, and consequently that power soon faded.
God decided, you see, that He wanted to come to His people in a new way. He wanted to be able to walk with His people and talk with His people. In order for that to occur, a new language would have to be developed—a language which would spread through the world—a language of precision and beauty—a language which could begin to capture the thoughts God had for His people. So the Greek civilization arose. God put it into the mind of a young man named Alexander that the whole world should think Greek and speak Greek. So Alexander set out to conquer the world, and for all practical purposes that is what he did. Tragically, though, Alexander’s power led him to think of himself as God until a little wine began to wash him away. But God had done what He set out to do. For now there was a language abroad in the world which could capture the words of God in Jesus Christ in such a way that the people could understand.
Then God began to draw the world together in a unity stronger than a widely-known tongue. The Greeks were laid aside and Rome was brought to the fore. Suddenly, the nations of the world were tied together in a commonwealth unknown up to that time. Roman roads, Roman laws, Roman ships, Roman seaways, Roman rule tied one country to another and to another and made it possible for the Good News of the Gospel to spread with extraordinary speed and effectiveness. But Rome never fully bowed the knee to the Lord. So it passed away—now only ruins for tourists to see.
The people whom God used to finish the Roman Empire were the Huns from the north. They came crude and callous and severe. But beneath their animal-skin clothing and their rough-hewn exterior there was a deeply ingrained but undeveloped love for philosophy and theology. It was that love that later on developed the great universities of Germany, and it was to those universities to which Christian scholars came from all over the world. There they began to articulate the great truths of the Christian faith, and from there they began to communicate those truths to the world. But the Germanic Empire made the mistake of pushing God off the throne in life and worshiping instead the god of materialism. From that time on, the story of the Germanic Empire was one of decline.
Then the Anglo-Saxons stepped to the fore. The Druids put aside their animal sacrifice. The Celts began to carry the cross of Jesus Christ. England became the first great colonial empire. And wherever England went with its flag, it went also with its Bible. But alas, the English began to give themselves more to the pursuit of gold than to the extension of the Gospel. So today the British Empire is largely forgotten.
It was then that God began to forge a new people, a new nation. This people would be made up of all the world’s people. God took men and women and children from all the world’s shores and brought them to one place—this place—this land. So that Herman Melville could say: “We are not a narrow tribe. Our blood is as the flood of the Amazon with a thousand noble currents all flowing into one mighty stream. We are not so much a nation as we are a world.” God, you see, at work—developing His strategy, working out His purposes, determining human history. Phillips Brooks said it best: “I do not know how one can be an American, even if he is not a Christian, and not catch something with regard to God’s purpose for this great land.”
That’s just a sketch of history, painted in broad, sweeping strokes, but still the message of the Psalmist rings clear: “Let all the earth fear the Lord, let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him, for He spoke, and it came to be, He commanded and it stood forth.” Yes, the greatness of God is to be seen in His direction of the nations.
Now this: the greatness of a nation is to be seen in its dependence upon God.
What more significant illustration of that truth can be found than the story of America? You will understand, I hope, if I speak passionately of America. Henry David Thoreau recommended that we begin each day with the prayer: “Lord, I thank Thee that I have been born.” Whenever I pray that prayer, I always add to it these words,”…and that I live in America.” I do not disparage those who live in other nations. Not for a moment. It is just that because America is in my heart, my heart is in America.
You know when Christopher Columbus first arrived here, he believed that he had found Paradise. Well, American is not Paradise. Oh, there have been times when it has come close to being Paradise. There have been times in America’s story when we have been so aware of dwelling under God’s guiding hand that we have experienced the full measure of God’s blessing. There have been times when the words of the Psalmist have rung true in this land: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people whom He has chosen as His heritage.”
But there have been other times when we have put our trust not in God, but in treaties and organizations, in documents and detente, in armed might and dollar power. There have been times when we have relied to much on our own resources and fought too hard for our own desires.
That seems especially true today. We have become a nation where Patrick Henry’s great, noble cry, “Give me liberty or give me death,” has been shortened to just “Give me.” We have become a nation of people who have forgotten that freedom is not the license to do as we please, but the liberty to do as we ought. We have become a nation where anything goes, forgetting that in a nation where anything goes, soon everything is gone. Yet I would remind you that God is not so genially tolerant as to be morally indifferent. He has lifted nations and He has lowered nations. And He did not run out of ideas after thinking up America. He can remove us from the flow of human history just as Babylon or Persia or Greece or Rome. God’s purposes, God’s truth shall prevail in this world, with America’s help or without it.
I read not long ago of a little girl who lost her sense of touch. She could place her hand on a hot stove and not feel a thing. At first I thought to myself that that might be good. Then I realized I was wrong. For if she could not feel anything, then she would not know that her hand placed on a hot stove was burning. And precisely because she could not feel, because she was insensitive to pain, the burns she sustained would be much worse than the burn of one who had the sense of touch and quickly pulled the hand away.
Well, I think that we are in danger in America of becoming insensitive to the wrongs which exist in our nation, and insensitive to the direction of God in our national life. That’s why I call us today to recapture a deep longing for the decencies of life which have been so smothered by the philosophy of “anything goes.” I call us today to blend our hearts and voices together and say: “We have had enough of cleverness without wisdom, brilliance without values, liberties without responsibilities, power without compassion. God wants us to live a better way. God wants us to live His way!” I call us to do these things because I love America.
There is within me a deep, unfailing love for this land. I glory in her history. I exult in her freedom. I am wounded by her failures. I am hurt by her occasional blindness. I love America. I become absorbed in reading about her great heroes. I marvel at the sheer genius of her Constitution and her Bill of Rights and her valiant attempt to make them work for all of the people. I love America. I am moved to tears when I sing her songs, when I see her flag, when I speak of her promise, when I pray for her people. I love America. For American testifies to the truth that the more a nation depends upon the greatness of God, the more the greatness of that nation will be revealed.
I cannot speak for you—only for me. I cannot proclaim your hopes—only my own. But I can do that. Perhaps, just perhaps, my thoughts and my hopes will be yours. You see, I want
American first, not merely in things material
But in things of the spirit.
Not merely in science, inventions, motors, skyscrapers,
But in ideals, morals, principles, character,
Not merely in the calm assertion of rights,
But in the glad assumption of duties.
Not flaunting her strength as a giant,
But bending in service over a sick and wounded world like a Good Samaritan.
Not in splended isolation
But in courageous cooperation.
Not in pride, arrogance, and disdain of other peoples and races,
But in love, sympathy and understanding for all.
Not treading again the same old, worn, bloody, pathway which ends in disaster, But blazing a new trail along which, please God,
Other nations shall follow into the New Jerusalem where wars shall be no more.
Someday, some nation will have to take that path
Unless we are to lapse into utter barbarism,
That honor I covet for my beloved America.
So in that spirit and with these hopes,
I say with all my heart and soul,
Because I love America, that is what I want; that is what I hope for; that is what I pray for—America first, and always, “One nation under God!” Then shall the promise of the Psalm be fulfilled: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.”