by Mike Ford (1955-2021)
November 12, 2013
In 1885, twenty-year-old John Pierce Cunningham left New York for the West. He spent three years trapping in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and studying the land. After identifying what he thought was the area with the best soil, he filed his homestead claim on 160 acres in the north end of the valley. He married Margaret, and together they began a life of working the land—what would soon be their land. Under the Homestead Act of 1862, they had to live on the land for five continuous years, build a structure, and improve the land. If they did this, and paid a $15 filing fee, the land became theirs.
The valley of the Snake River, known as Jackson Hole, is a beautiful part of God’s creation. The Grand Tetons loom large over its western edge. Numerous glaciers feed Lake Jackson. Back in the nineteenth century, the water could still be used for irrigation, and land was available for claiming. What a deal!
Unfortunately, winter lasts six months out of the year there, making for a short growing season. Large-scale farming of any kind is out of the question. At that time, raising cattle was the best choice, but to get the cows through the winter required a lot of hay. At any given time, J. Pierce, as he was known, ran eight horses and a hundred head of cattle, and for winter feed, he raised hay on a hundred acres. Life was tough, but they were building something tangible.
In 1926, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and his family visited Jackson Hole and the Grand Tetons and fell in love with the area. On one of his visits, he hiked to the top of a small hill and ate lunch while watching moose and elk graze against the background of the lake and mountains. Inspired, he decided to buy this land and its view to preserve it. Having the time and the money, he began to buy up the ranches, eventually buying even the Cunningham place.
After a lifetime of hard work, J. Pierce and his wife retired to Idaho, where the winters are just as bad. Mr. Cunningham’s original two-room, dirt-floored log cabin still stands today. He had lived in it for only a few years until he could build a better home for his bride. The couple used the original cabin for storage. Nevertheless, it stands there as a testament to their efforts.
In 1955, Mr. Rockefeller built a grand lodge on the shore of Lake Jackson, positioning it so that the west wall of the lodge faces the 13,000-foot, snow-covered peaks of the Tetons. He had 60-foot-tall windows installed so that when a person walked up a flight of stairs into the upper lobby, he saw that view. When he died, he deeded his land and the lodge to Grand Teton National Park, enlarging the park greatly.
When my wife and I walked into that great room recently, the sight of those snow-capped mountains awed us. Caretakers of the lodge had lined up several couches and matching chairs so that visitors could sit and gaze out the windows at the lake and peaks. Seated in those couches and chairs were a dozen older teens and young adults, but not one of them was looking outside. Every one of them had earbuds in, their eyes glued to the screens of their various electronic devices. They might as well have been in a windowless room somewhere.
I could not help but think of J. Pierce Cunningham leaving home at their age, coming west to build a life. He wanted land of his own to work, to improve, to create something with. If he had only had an iPhone, he could have saved himself a lot of calluses. Of course, at the end of his life, he would have had nothing to show for it.
God and Owning Land
Contrasting the homesteaders of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries and today’s urban culture made me consider how God views land, as well as how Satan has perverted its use. J. Pierce worked his land, and it worked, in return, for him. Ultimately, it provided for his retirement. Perversely, today’s culture seems to have no interest in land, only the latest toys and gadgets.
In Numbers 33:53, as the Israelites’ wilderness wanderings neared an end and they stood ready to enter the Promised Land, God tells them to “dispossess the inhabitants of the land and dwell in it, for I have given you the land to possess.” In Leviticus 25, He lays out instructions about the Land Sabbath and the Jubilee Year, which are pointless statutes if a person does not have any land.
In Leviticus 25:23, God states, “The land shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with Me.” God intended that the land remain in the family, to be handed down through the generations. If things got tight, an Israelite could sell the land, but it could be redeemed by a relative or released back to the family in the Year of Jubilee.
A house within a walled city could be sold, and if it was not redeemed within a year, it belonged permanently to the person who bought it and it would not be released during the Jubilee. Homes in unwalled villages, however, were treated as land. God puts land in a different, more important, category.
As mentioned earlier, a lot of folk do not seem to want land, and statistics bear that out. Home ownership in the United States is at its lowest point in 18 years. Home is supposed to be, not only where the heart is and where the various family members go when they are in trouble, but it also used to be where the family’s wealth was. Not so much anymore.
God owns the earth and all its fullness, as Psalm 24:1 tells us, but in His kindness, He lets us have a portion to “dress and keep” (Genesis 2:15, KJV). This portion would allow a family to provide for itself. If the family had a piece of land, they might grow their own food on it and sell the excess. They could harvest its timber. They could even sell the oil or coal underneath it. Clearly, He means for His people to have a sense of ownership of the land.
In I Samuel 8, the children of Israel demand of the prophet Samuel to give them a king. God replies in verse 7, “Heed the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them.” He then tells Samuel to warn the people about what they could expect when they installed a king to rule over them. God prophesies that he would take their sons for his army, their daughters to be his servants, and their food for his table. Not satisfied with those things, “he will take the best of your fields, your vineyards, and your olive groves and give them to his servants” (verse 14). The king—the government—will take the land. This is what happens when people reject God’s rule.
Most people are not aware that the U.S. government owns 650 million acres or nearly 30% of the land in the United States. The federal government owns 84.5% of Nevada, 69.1% of Alaska, 57.4% of Utah, 53.1% of Oregon, 50.2% of Idaho. 48.1% of Arizona, and 45.3% of California. These staggering numbers do not even include state holdings. These percentages include National Parks, forests, military bases, etc., but mostly what the government owns is just empty land. In the last decade, my wife and I have driven thousands of miles all over the American West, and the amount of unused, underused, or simply empty land out there is astounding.
God says the land belongs to Him, but in effect, Satan says it belongs to the government. Not just the 30% of land that they own outright, but the government can condemn a person’s land and take it, for instance, under the right of eminent domain. In the U.S., an individual can pay off his mortgage, but if he does not pay the real estate tax each year, he can lose his land. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can claim that a person lives in a wetlands, and he cannot build on or even touch his holdings. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) can say drugs were trafficked on one’s property and seize it. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) can claim the same about guns.
If a person dies and leaves property to his heirs, the inheritance taxes can be so high that his survivors may be forced to sell land and homes to pay the taxes. The recently deceased actor, James Gandolfini, had an estate valued at $70 million, and it is projected that his heirs will owe $30 million in inheritance taxes. Since they must pay this tax within nine months of his death, they will most likely have to sell the “family farm,” as it were.
We understand that under God’s plan, all is His, but He has given His people the use of the land for perpetuity. His terms even cover their mistakes. If they make bad decisions and have to sell the family property, it comes back to the family at the Jubilee. Yet, under man’s rule, we never really own anything.
The U.S. federal government ended homesteading in 1976 because those in power felt that “public” ownership was better than private ownership. We have all seen how well the government runs the Postal Service and Amtrak, and we will soon experience its ability to run healthcare. Government obviously knows what it is doing. If individuals owned plots of land, they would just mess it up. I am being facetious, of course.
This difference between God’s way and man’s way brings personal responsibility into the mix. God gives us laws and parameters and allows us to obey or not. Certainly, if we disobey, there are penalties. Man has his own laws and consequences, but citizens are denied the opportunity to exercise personal responsibility. Layers of laws are added to earlier layers until people are suffocated with constraints. In Georgia, where I live, 116 new laws went into effect July 1, 2013. No laws were deleted, just new ones added.
In Genesis 2:15, God instructs Adam and Eve to “tend and keep” the Garden. As nice as the Garden of Eden was, they were to “dress” it (KJV), which means to improve it, to make it better, to embellish it. Its partner, to “keep” it, means to work at maintaining it, to secure it. They were not just to cut the grass and trim the bushes, but also to beautify and develop the Garden.
Under the various Homestead Acts, the government required of the potential landowner that he cultivate the land and build improvements on it, which is right and proper. But what happens under government ownership? Pick anything the government “owns,” and it is in a state of decay. A visit to a national park reveals plenty of park police and park rangers standing around, but no dressing and keeping seems to take place.
An article, “How Adam Smith Revived America’s Oil Patch,” appeared on the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal on June 20, 2013. Adam Smith was an eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher who is considered to be the father of modern economics. He spent ten years writing The Wealth of Nations, the seminal treatise on economics (if one does not count the Bible), which is still widely read today. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once commented that she carried a copy in her handbag. In a few words, he believed in capitalism, free markets, and a laissez-faire economy. He warned that the heavy hand of government prevents people from competing and achieving, and we see great evidence of that today.
The thrust of the article is about how a Texan, George P. Mitchell, perfected the technology of hydraulic fracturing, a process called “fracking,” so that natural gas and oil previously trapped can now be recovered. This invention, done by an individual and not sponsored in any way by government, has increased America’s oil and gas production.
With natural gas now more abundant and cheaper than oil, Cummins Incorporated built two new truck engines that run on natural gas, not diesel. Free enterprise developed those engines that Joel Kurtzman, the writer, believes will help solve our dependence on foreign oil—not government-supported wind power or solar power or electric cars.
In terms of land, many American landowners will be able to sell their own oil and gas rights on the free market. They will only be able to take advantage of this because they own the land. As far as I know, the United States is the only country in the world that allows an individual to own what is under the ground. In the rest of the world, the government owns the minerals, the oil and gas, the gold and silver, the gemstones, etc.
A great many people are upset these days that individuals will rise to solve problems, improve products in response to changing market conditions, and utilize their own land for gain. They are upset because government, by and large, was not involved in any of this, and its own attempts failed. To them, this is bad and not fair. In America, we have sadly devolved to the point that about half the nation seems to think that only the government can supply our needs. There are now 79 “means tested” federal welfare programs.
But under God’s way, people own land and work it. And when God’s way is the rule and not the exception, such principles will return. Consider the Millennial prophecy in Micah 4:
Now it shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it. Many nations shall come and say, “Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths.” For out of Zion the law shall go forth, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples, and rebuke strong nations afar off; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Micah 4:1-3)
But everyone shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken. For all people walk each in the name of his god [in our time], but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever and ever.
Everyone, not just a few, will have land to tend and keep, and their families will continue to live on it. God does not lie; this is the way it will be. Old J. Pierce was on the right track.