By Ronald Stokes, author of “America’s Covenant”
In the slavery debate preceding the Civil War, slavery advocates rejected Natural Law arguments that all men are born with equal rights. Abolitionists argued that God endowed equal rights to everyone and that those who violated those rights were sinning. The abolitionists’ argument was consistent with the Declaration of Independence, but was it true? Would God protect rights he endowed when government failed?
Abolitionist John Brown decided the best way to free the slaves was to arm them. He led men who broke into the armory at Harper’s Ferry to steal armaments, but before they could escape, they were surrounded. In a speech given in court after his conviction, John Brown conveyed the moral motivation for his raid:
This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to “remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.” I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say, I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons.
In light of the moral debate and subsequent devastation, many Northerners considered the Civil War a judgment from God. Julia Ward Howe and traveling companions delayed by passing troops beguiled the time with snatches of army songs. One commemorated the death of John Brown, “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the ground; His soul is marching on.” Rev. Clarke suggested that Howe write more uplifting lyrics to that stirring tune. Howe described how this transpired in her book “Reminiscences: 1819-1899”:
I went to bed that night as usual, and slept, according to my wont, quite soundly. I awoke in the gray of the morning twilight; and as I lay waiting for the dawn, the long lines of the desired poem began to twine themselves in my mind. Having thought out all the stanzas, I said to myself, “I must get up and write these verses down, lest I fall asleep again and forget them.” So, with a sudden effort, I sprang out of bed, and found in the dimness an old stump of a pen which I remembered to have used the day before. I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper.
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;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
Everyone who has sung “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” has proclaimed and rejoiced that the Civil War was an act of divine judgment.
Lincoln made this point in his second inaugural address:
Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
The idea that the nation was judged for national sins is an Old Covenant mindset in which sins are clearly defined, blessings promised for compliance and curses threatened for disobedience. The United States is not a party to that covenant. Nevertheless, for the Civil War to be a judgment over slavery there must be a covenant. Abolitionists correctly interpreted the clear implication of God-endowed rights but missed an even more important and profound consequence of a subsequent passage in the Declaration.
The final sentence of the Declaration holds the key to perceiving it as a covenant. “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.” This sentence is far more than verbal flourish announcing the termination of the document. The word, “pledge,” is covenant language. In exchange for the protection of Divine Providence during the Revolutionary War, it promised that the colonies would form a government based upon the principles delineated previously. Colonists vowed to forfeit their lives, fortunes and sacred honor if they failed to implement a government securing delineated unalienable rights.
Unfortunately, the country was in default. By condoning slavery, the government denied liberty to slaves. God warned the nation of impending peril through an event so astounding as to rival any similar event in human history. The two men most responsible for the Declaration, its author, Thomas Jefferson, and its chief advocate in the debate for ratification, John Adams, died on its 50th anniversary. They were the only two signers to serve as president and had outlived all who voted for ratification. The commonly accepted explanation for these simultaneous deaths is that it was a random occurrence. Could there be another explanation?
God waited 50 years before executing judgment on Adams and Jefferson for covenant violations because the Bible places special significance on the 50th year, calling it the year of jubilee.
“A jubilee shall that fiftieth year be unto you:” (Leviticus 25:11a)
The Bible goes on to explain how the jubilee was to be celebrated.
“And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family. …
“And if he be not redeemed in these years, then he shall go out in the year of jubilee, both he, and his children with him.” (Leviticus 25:10, 54)
One of the ways everyone was to hallow the 50th year was to free their slaves. When the 50th year of the United States had come, the slaves were not freed.
The 50th anniversary pointed to God’s commandment to release slaves on the year of Jubilee. God kept Adams and Jefferson alive until this time to warn the country that he held it responsible for securing the right of liberty for everyone, including slaves. It implied that God considered our founding document a covenant.
Undoubtedly, many were focusing on the Constitution as the governing document. Prior to the Civil War, the nation had complied with the Constitution. Beyond dispute, the Constitution did not prohibit slavery. However, the Constitution did not annul the Declaration.
“Brethren, I speak after the manner of men; Though it be but a man’s covenant, yet if it be confirmed, no man disannulleth, or addeth thereto.” (Galatians 3:15)
The Constitution drafters did not have authority to annul the covenant after the colonies received protection from Divine Providence. The warning came in 1826 after the Constitution had been approved, demonstrating that the covenant formed by the Declaration was still active. The verdict rendered by the Civil War required the Constitution be amended to agree with the Declaration indicating the Declaration has greater authority.
After graduating from the U.S Air Force Academy and serving 20 years specializing in operations research, Ronald Stokes taught mathematics at Central Washington University and has studied statistics at the Ph.D. level. His new book, “America’s Covenant,” available at the WND Superstore, examines the spiritual implications of the Declaration of Independence.