commentary: Simple Gifts: American Reflection
Given 04-Jul-20; Sermon #1552c; 14 minutes
The special music we just had the pleasure of hearing is from one of the most notable American classical music composers, Aaron Copeland.
The arrangement of the “Doppio movimento,” from Aaron Copeland’s Appalachian Spring ballet, is built on a very modest American folk song entitled “Simple Gifts.” The very short song that became the foundation for Aaron Copeland’s grand arrangement was written by a sect of Quakers that were known as Shakers in 1848 and was a reflection of early nineteenth century America. It was an expression of the hope and dreams of an imperfect people, living in an imperfect country that was searching for a better path of life within freedoms that had yet to be fully realized for all men.
'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be
Just like so many others, the Quaker group responsible for the tune had been part of a flood of people that had fled oppressive regimes around the world. Unfortunately, as with all things of men, they created a far-from perfect system that still allowed for a number of evils that haunt us to this day.
But the point is that it was still better than hardly anything men had ever known because of God’s hand in it, although the struggle of good and evil would always be there and the dire consequences of actions apart from God would be there, too.
So for a couple of minutes this afternoon, I would like us to consider the America that others saw as a blessing, even though they did not know why it worked as well as it did.
In 1831, within the same period of time that "Simple Gifts" was written, two young Frenchmen arrived in New York after a 40-day trip on the Atlantic Ocean from the port of La Harve. Their names were Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont. Life-long friends, they had come to the United States ostensibly to study the American prison system. But they had a far more extensive aim in mind, as Tocqueville wrote:
. . . we are leaving with the intention of examining in detail and as scientifically, as possible, all the mechanism of that vast American society which everyone talks of . . . and no one knows . . . . [W]e are counting on bringing back the elements of a fine work.
Over time that “fine work” became Tocqueville’s classic two volume tome, On Democracy in America.
In order to accomplish this task, they traveled the length and breadth of the relatively new nation. In this, they experienced the first of God’s simple gifts to America by traveling freely through the republics of states that made union a reality in the United States, something we see being taken away at this time as states are not allowing the freedom to travel unimpeded from state to state because of fear.
We in this time should not forget the simple gifts God has given all who have had the privilege to live in this magnificent gift from God and its former unity. We are living in a time of dissolution of that unity. But we need to keep in mind that what once worked only worked because it was a gift from God.
Tocqueville recognized the gifts, but was perplexed and did not quite understand how such a complex undertaking could succeed. Although this was far from a righteous nation, there was something here that many could not put their finger on that made it special. But we of all people should understand what that was and be very thankful, especially during these fiery days, for the simple gifts God had given to do His Work in freedom in preparation for the return of Jesus Christ.
Through all the noise and confusion of these days, we can never lose sight of, nor neglect, an active attitude of gratitude for the simple gifts God blesses His people with to fulfill His purpose.
After arriving in New York on May 11, 1831, the French aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville, found America to be, as he put it, “vulgar and uncultivated”! But everywhere he looked was one kind of business or another, and he noted, “the whole society seems to have melted into a middle class.”
To this he added,
Before my eyes is none the less an immense spectacle . . . . Never before has a people found for itself such a happy and fruitful basis of life. Here freedom is unrestrained and subsists by being useful to everyone without injuring anybody. There is undeniably something feverish in the activity and what it imparts to industry and to the human spirit.
Over the course of nine months, Tocqueville and Beaumont traveled more than 4,000 miles, and they saw something of all 24 states and explored the edge of the western frontier. They traveled down the Ohio and the Mississippi, from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, and visited almost all the nation's major cities.
Although they freely traveled from state republic to state republic, travel by stagecoach was extremely difficult. But Tocqueville wrote, “The stage road might be infernal and the carriage without springs—yet the tranquility of Americans over all these inconveniences is there. They seem to bear them as necessary evils.”
He added sometime later,
The roads, the canals, the mails, play a prodigious part in the prosperity of the union . . . . In the Michigan forest there is not a cabin so isolated, not a valley so wild, that does not receive letters and newspapers at least once a week . . . . America has undertaken and is finishing some immense canals. It already has more railroads than France. Of all the countries in the world, America is the one where the movement of thought and human industry is the most continuous and the most swift.
Tocqueville found Americans to be a single-minded people in spite of the distances. He wrote, “The man you left in New York, you find again in almost impenetrable solitudes . . . . [T]hey have come with the customs, the ideas, and the needs of civilization.”
However, Tocqueville also noted, “The settlers seemed to be trying to shape the frontier in the image of the civilization they left behind—but the frontier was also putting its own stamp on the American character . . . ."
How could the American be anything but an optimist? . . . The same man has given his name to a wilderness which none before him had traversed, . . . has seen the first forest tree fall and the first planters house rise in the solitude where a community came to group itself—there a village grew, . . . and today a vast city stretches.
Despite seeing slavery as America’s greatest evil, its Achilles' heel and the greatest threat to preserving the Union, he became convinced that equality, both social and political, was the guiding principle of American life. “The greatest advantage of the Americans,” he wrote, “is that they are born equal instead of becoming so!”
To him, no institution provided proof of this assertion as convincingly as the family he observed in America. As soon as the first years of childhood were past, equality, and with it freedom and independence, were given the young, male and female, first-born and last-born alike.
To Tocqueville, such treatment not only produced the rapid maturing of self-confident men and women, ready to extend the frontier, but also led to the growth of strong ties between father and son, mother and daughter, brother and brother.
Tocqueville also made another very important observation of American life. He wrote,
In France, I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom marching in opposite directions. But in America I found they were intimately united. . . . [His conclusion was that:] While the law permits Americans to do what they please, religion prevents them from conceiving and forbids them to commit what is rash or unjust.
Finally, during most of his tour, Tocqueville wrestled with the question: Could a democratic society achieve stable government? Finally, halfway down the Ohio River, he decided that indeed it could. Tocqueville wrote,
The American learns to know the laws by participating in the act of legislation and he takes a lesson in the forms of government from governing. The great work of society is ever going on before his eyes, and as it were under his hands.
All in all, Tocqueville was immensely impressed, and concluded,
The mass of those possessing an understanding of public affairs, a knowledge of laws and precedents, a feeling for the best interests of the nation, and the faculty of understanding them, is greater in America than anyplace else in the world.
But Tocqueville also wrote a number of warnings regarding what could be the downfall of such a wonderful blessing to the whole world, and today I am going to leave you with two of his most famous predictions that we unfortunately are witnessing today. First, he wrote, "Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith."
Second, to quote directly from On Democracy in America,
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 forests and it was not there . . . in her rich mines and her vast world commerce - and it was not there . . . in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution - and it was not there. Not until I went into 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, she will cease to be great.
But brethren, you and I should still be searching for, and gratefully using, the simple gifts that God still mercifully makes available in this nation, in spite of itself, as we and others use His magnificent gifts for His glory and honor.
The American Nation—a History of the United States by John A Garaty
On Democracy in America by Alexis De Tocqueville