All photographs by Scot Facer Proctor
Not many months ago, President M. Russell Ballard said, “I invite you to join in a new movement. Invite your neighbors, your colleagues, your friends on social media to pray for this country. We must stand boldly for righteousness and truth, and must defend the cause of honor, decency, and personal freedom.”
This plea to be a part of a new movement to pray for our country was not driven by a particular moment—like the novel coronavirus pandemic. It seemed even more foundational. Prayers for a nation at a crossroads, for an America with all its strengths that is more fragile than we want to believe.
Prayer and God’s support have been crucial since the beginning of this nation and devotion to God has been the bulwark upon which this nation stands. Though many seem bent on writing it out of history, we wouldn’t have this nation without the deeply-held religious impulses of the American colonists who stood against one of earth’s formidable powers.
That’s why today, we take you to a sacred place and time.
Lexington and Concord
Sacred places speak to Latter-day Saints, and we have many of them. One that can’t be ignored, though it is sometimes forgotten, is the road from Lexington to Concord on April 19, 1775. The spirit of what happened that day still lingers.
My husband, Scot and I, who lead a church history tour every year, have found that the Spirit is as strong along this road that links Lexington Green to the Old North Bridge in Concord as it is in any of the other sacred sites of the Restoration. It is because this first battle of the Revolutionary War that made America free has simply reverberated through our lives and became the setting from which the things we value most—including the gospel—have sprung.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said it this way, “The thunderbolt falls on an inch of ground, but the light of it fills the horizon.”
Those of us fed mostly a secular brand of American history may not know how deeply religion—an unshakeable belief in God and that this was His cause—motivated, inspired and shaped the Revolution.
Minutemen Called Out
Minutemen were called out suddenly when Paul Revere, William Dawes and others rode along moonlit roads to alert the countryside with the dreaded word, “The Regulars are out.”
The situation between the British and the Americans had grown increasingly intense over many years as the colonists had watched one right after another stripped from them. As part of the Intolerable Acts, the port of Boston was closed, virtually shearing the colonists’ opportunity for commerce. It was a move designed to starve them and strip them of wealth, making them utterly submit to their British overloads.
Add to that tipping point the near dissolution of representative government in Massachusetts, so the appointees of the crown would select the officers, judges and council members in Massachusetts and their legislature was dissolved and the die was cast.
The crown was seeking to punish Massachusetts as a warning to other colonies.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow immortalized Paul Revere’s ride that has galloped right into history.
“Listen my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April of Seventy-Five
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.”
It is, of course, the eighteenth in this poem because Revere left the night before, urgently riding through the countryside with his alarms. The colonists had gotten word through their own spies that this night the British would be on the move and, with their arms, march into the countryside. They had two aims. They hoped to capture revolutionary leaders John Hancock and Sam Adams who were staying in Lexington and they hoped to destroy the munitions, gunpowder, and several cannons that were stored in Concord.
The control of munitions was crucial for both sides—the Americans for making war and the British for avoiding it. The people of the countryside had to be warned that the British redcoats, called the regulars, were coming. Which direction the British would come, they weren’t sure, but Paul Revere would be given a sign, a lantern that was held aloft in the Old North Church. As Longfellow wrote,
“One if by land and two if by sea
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country-folk to be up and to arm.””
As it turns out, the British came by sea, crossing the Charles River, landing in Cambridge and following the road from there. This is the stuff of legend, but what speaks deeply to us is the humanity of the story. Though some of them had experience in the French and Indian War, and the British had highly underestimated them, these minutemen who came rushing to defend themselves that morning were many farmers and mechanics with families, and often their young sons, holding muskets they were still learning to shoot well.
They didn’t know that their sacrifice that morning would bless generations to come and alter the entire course of the world. They couldn’t see into the future to give context for their suffering.
But there was a spirit of liberty that ran among them like wildfire, and the sense that to fight for liberty was to fight for God. Among other places, they had been learning this from their pulpits, ministers who taught them in fiery, passionate language. As one scholar said, “It was religion which told the colonists that the English government was not merely adopting unwise policy; rather, the King and Parliament were trampling the God-given rights of the Americans, and were in effect warring against God. It was religion which convinced the Americans that they had a sacred duty to start a revolution.”
Their sense of what it meant to be human came from God and that is why they were so sensitive to watching the British seek to reduce them to slaves. “Liberty,” as one said, was the “daughter of God, and excepting his Son, the first born of heaven.”
Rev. William Emerson preached to the Concord militia that “their victory against the larger British army was guaranteed, just as God had protected little Judah from a larger army. He challenged the British: ‘It will be your unspeakable Damage to meddle with us, for we have an unconquered Leader that carried his people to Victory and Triumph.’ The coming war would bring many tribulations, he acknowledged, but American victory had been ordained by God since the beginning of time.‘”
This spirit which fired the souls of the Middlesex folks who came rushing the morning of April 19 to fight the British, sounds very much like what Nephi said when he saw his grand vision that swept across the history of the promised land. He beheld what he called the “mother Gentiles were gathered together upon the waters, and upon the land also, to battle against them. And I beheld that the power of God was with them” (1 Nephi 13: 17, 18).
The 80-member militia in Lexington, headed by John Parker, assembled in the night on the green, but after waiting most of the night, they saw no British. Then at 4:15, a scout reported that not only were the British coming, but coming in force and they were close.
The militia stood in ranks on the village common with between 40 and 100 spectators watching them. Who were these spectators? Certainly, among them were wives, watching their husbands and sons at the ready. Family members looking out of windows or standing at doors who hoped this would be like other expeditions the British had taken out into the countryside looking for munitions and, finding nothing, had returned to Boston without a skirmish.
The British had 700 troops with them thus, when they arrived in Lexington the colonials were badly outnumbered. John Parker had his group just stand back in parade-ground formation because they had no intention of engaging the British. War had not been declared and their numbers were so few. They weren’t hiding behind walls or making any effort to prevent the Regulars from marching on, but a shot rang out.
History has been unclear which side originated that shot, but chaos followed. There is some question if this is what John Parker actually said, but at the battle site engraved in stone are these words: “Stand your ground; don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.” Tensions were high.
The British, without any orders to do so, rushed upon the colonial militia, fired upon them and put them to flight. At the end of this skirmish, only one redcoat had been wounded, but 8 of the militia lay dead on their village green and 10 more were wounded.
When I have visited here, which is often, I cannot help but think about those spectators, weeping as they see their loved ones cut down before them. This is not just a battle in a history book that seems so abstract and far away, but real, beating hearts stopped, not ever knowing for sure for what they died and how it would all come out while their loved ones watched. Was it worth their giving their lives?
In a small village like Lexington, all the people would have known each other and the names of the dead reflect that: John Brown, Samuel Hadley, Caleb Harrington, Jonathan Harrington, Robert Munroe, Isaac Muzzey, Asahel Porter, and Jonas Parker. Jonas was John Parker’s cousin. It is suggested that John Parker was related to a third of the militia.
On to Concord
The British marched another 7 miles to Concord where a much bigger battle was fought. Here was the immortalized “shot heard round the world”. But again, to give some faces to our players, the first American killed at the Old North Bridge was Isaac Davis, the head of the minutemen from nearby Acton.
He was a gunsmith by trade, known for his inner spiritual force. In fact, his spirituality was considered his cardinal trait. With his trade, his troops were fully equipped with guns, cartridge boxes and bayonets. He had no question of the righteousness of the cause.
At his church stood an hour glass that marked when the sermon should end, and the Rev. John Swift who preached there would not have had the confidence to let the hour glass run out. On one occasion, however, he gave such “a masterly discourse” on the state of the colonies and “Davis’s sensibilities had been so deeply stirred that he applauded and boldly requested that the pastor turn the glass and repeat the sermon.”
When his men were making jokes as they got ready for battle that morning he admonished them to stop, reminding them that that the day had brought “a most eventful crisis for the colonies. Blood would be split, that was certain; the crimson fountain would be opened; none could tell when it would close, now with whose blood it would overflow. Let every man gird himself for battle and be not afraid, for God is on our side.”
What Davis carried with him into battle that April 19 was not just a sense that God would fight this fight with them, but also a strong premonition that he would not be coming home and would lose his life in the battle.
As he left for Concord that morning, when he reached the road, he halted his men, turned back toward his wife, who was watching from the doorway where their four children lay sick and said, “Take good care of the children.” Then he turned toward the Old North Bridge.
Belief that God was with Them
Historian Rod Gragg, who wrote By the Hand of Providence said that it was their understanding of God that was the motivation that propelled American patriots into the revolution and sustained them in its darkest days. Preached from American pulpits and reprinted in pamphlets and newspapers was the slogan “Resistance to Tyrants is Obedience to God.”
Gragg wrote, “George Washington hoped that Americans would never forget God’s role in the American Revolution, ‘I am sure there never was a people who had more reason to acknowledge a divine interposition in their affairs, than those of the United States,’ he stated during his first term as president, ‘and I should be pained to believe that they have forgotten that agency, which was so often manifested during our Revolution or that they failed to consider the omnipotence of that God who is alone able to protect them.’ It was a theme that Washington stressed frequently during and after the Revolutionary War. Repeatedly, He believed that God had intervened to rescue the American cause–what he called ‘the sacred Cause of Freedom’ from disaster and defeat. American liberty and independence, he believed deeply and stated often, had been achieved ‘by the hand of Providence.’”
Gragg noted, “When the Continental Congress received the news of the British surrender at Yorktown, which signaled an end to the war, they responded by assembling in a Philadelphia church for a worship service. Soon afterward, Congress officially recommended that Americans everywhere observe a nationwide day of ‘public thanksgiving and prayer.”
The resolution declared: “Whereas it hath pleased Almighty God, father of mercies, remarkably to assist and support the United States of America in their important struggle for liberty against the long continued efforts of a powerful nation; it is the duty of all ranks to observe and thankfully acknowledge the interpositions of his Providence in their behalf. Through the whole of this contest, from its first rise to this time, the influence of divine Providence may be clearly perceived in many signal instances…”
Gragg continued: “Congress expressed the same faith-centered heart when in an open letter to the American people it expressed the revolution in Biblical terms:
“’America, without arms, ammunition, discipline, revenue, government or ally, almost totally striped of commerce, and in the weakness of youth, as it were with a “staff and a sling” only dared “in the name of the Lord of Hosts,” to engage a gigantic adversary, prepared at all points, boasting of his strength, and of whom even mighty warriors were greatly afraid.’”
From these comments, so animated with the thread that God was with them, and they with Him, one would almost think they had read Nephi. Because we have, what we can be certain of is that they felt this overarching spirit that changed everything for them.
Thus, when President Ballard asked us to start a movement to pray for our country, he was speaking of a promised land that has been born out of prayers and the very real sacrifice of those whose vision was, that to stand for liberty was always to stand with God. It harks back to something we fought for and prayed for before this world was.