By Krissah Thompson, Published: April 10
They are all in their 80s now — these former POWs during the Korean War.
One recalls in rapid-fire bursts how Father Emil Kapaun sneaked out of the barracks at night, risking his life to bring back morsels of food for his fellow prisoners.
Another remembers seeing the young American priest use a rock and a piece of metal to form a pan and then collect water to wash the hands and faces of the wounded.
A third chokes up when he tells of being injured and having an enemy soldier standing over him, rifle pointed; Kapaun walked up, pushed aside the muzzle and carried off the wounded man.
The military chaplain did not carry a gun or grenades. He did not storm hills or take beaches. He picked lice off of men too weak to do it themselves and stole grain from the Korean and Chinese guards who took the American soldiers as prisoners of war in late 1950.
Kapaun did not survive the prisoner camps, dying in Pyoktong in 1951. The man originally from tiny Pilsen, Kan., has been declared a “servant of God” — often a precursor to sainthood in the Catholic Church. And on Thursday, President Obama will posthumously award Kapaun a Medal of Honor. On hand will be Mike Dowe, 85; Robert Wood, 86; and Herbert Miller, 86.
“People had lost a great deal of their civility,” Wood says of life in the POW compound. “We were stacking the bodies outside where they were frozen like cordwood and here is this one man — in all of this chaos — who has kept . . . principles.”
Kapaun (pronounced Ka-PAWN) was so beloved that U.S. prisoners of war who knew him began calling for him to receive the military’s highest honor on the day they were released from their North Korean POW camp 60 years ago.
“The first prisoners out of that camp are carrying a wooden crucifix, and they tell the story at length,” says Roy Wenzel, a reporter at the Wichita Eagle who wrote an eight-part series
and a book about Kapaun
. “He was internationally famous and made the front page of newspapers.”
But Kapaun’s story soon faded from all but the memories of the men whom he served and the small church in rural Kansas that he had pastored.
“POWs come and tell stories of him,” said Father John Hotze, who serves in Wichita, an hour south of Kapaun’s home town. “They talked about how they would never have been able to survive had it not been for Father Kapaun, who gave them hope and the courage to live.” In the heart of the battle
In the memories of his comrades, the chaplain is stuck in time, 34 years old and slight, with an angular chin that jutted out from the helmet he wore pushed down over his ears. At the sound of gunfire, GIs saw Kapaun heading in the direction of front-line troops in the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry, on an old bicycle, his only form of transportation after his Jeep was lost.
He spoke with a Midwestern lilt and shared the lessons he learned on the 80-acre central Kansas farm where he was raised in a community of Czech immigrants. Family members recall a story Kapaun’s mother loved to tell involving her son, an old bonnet and a cow. It was usually her chore to milk the family’s only cow — but on this day it fell to young Emil. The cow kicked and fidgeted and wouldn’t let him get near. That is, until Emil went back into the farmhouse and put on one of his mother’s bonnets and a dress. He walked back to the barn, mimicking his mother’s walk. The cow obliged, and the chore got done.
Kapaun grew up to be a quiet man and was ordained a priest when he was 24.
Soon after the news broke in the summer of 1950 that North Korea had invaded the Republic of Korea, Kapaun was among the 300,000 U.S. servicemen called to war. He was initially sent to the fighting on the Pusan perimeter and marched north with the troops, celebrating Mass from the hood of his Jeep.
Two months after the war began, Kapaun was awarded a Bronze Star for running through enemy fire to drag wounded soldiers to safety. It was a brutal conflict with little information getting through to troops on the ground, some of whom did not know that the Chinese military had entered the war alongside North Korea.
“The Army was in terrible shape,” Wood said. “Our weapons didn’t work. Our men weren’t physically conditioned. We had malaria and dysentery. Father Kapaun was a constant example.”
On the front lines, the priest would “drop in a shallow hole beside a nervous rifleman, crack a joke or two, hand him a peach, say a little prayer with him and move on to the next hole,” Dowe recalled.
On Nov. 2, 1950, the 8th Cavalry was encircled by Chinese and North Korean troops at Unsan. The men had thought they would be home by Christmas. They did not have winter clothes, Wood said. Now they were prisoners.
On that day, Kapaun performed an act of heroism commemorated in a bronze sculpture that stands in front of the church in Pilsen. The other man in the statue, which depicts Kapaun helping a wounded soldier, is Herbert Miller.
Miller, a platoon leader, found himself standing under a small bridge in a dry creek encircled by enemy troops on a dark night.
“You could reach right out and touch them. The bullets was flying,” Miller recalled in an interview. “I moved 30 feet and I got hit with a hand grenade.”
The blast broke Miller’s ankle; he lay in the ditch until daylight, unable to escape. When he saw enemy troops coming up the nearby mountain, he tried to hide by pulling the body of a Korean soldier on top of him. But he was spotted and soon found himself being held at gunpoint.
“About that time, I saw this soldier coming across the road. He pushed that man’s rifle aside and he picked me up,” Miller said.
For a time, Kapaun carried Miller on his back.
That was the first time he met Kapaun. Both men began what would become known as the Tiger Death March, a trek of more than 80 miles to the North Korean POW camp. ‘The good thief’
Entering the camp in winter, when temperatures dipped below freezing, was brutal, Dowe, Miller and Wood recall. Each day, the men were fed a few grams of cracked grain that looked like birdseed. The soldiers were packed into such small quarters that they had to sleep on their sides so that everyone could lie down. There was more room by spring because so many did not survive the winter.
“We were at the point where if you decided you weren’t going to hack it anymore, the guys would say, ‘Don’t bother me in the morning.’ And you’d go to wake them up in the morning and they were dead,” Wood said. “You get your body reduced to a certain level and it doesn’t take much to snuff out the spark.”
Kapaun pressed on, trading his watch for a blanket, which he cut up to make socks for men whose feet were freezing. He told jokes and said prayers and gave his food away.
He earned the wartime nickname “the good thief” because of his ability to steal food for atrophic soldiers after he and others were captured.
“It was obvious, Father said, that we must either steal food or slowly starve. . . . So, standing before us all, he said a prayer to St. Dismas, the Good Thief, who was crucified at the right hand of Jesus, asking for his aid,” Dowe wrote in the Saturday Evening Post
59 years ago. “I’ll never doubt the power of prayer again. Father, it seemed, could not fail.”
Kapaun took ill himself, recovering from bouts of sickness before getting weak again. The camp guards noticed and ordered the chaplain to an isolated room they called “the hospital.” The U.S. servicemen called it the dying room.
“They said in no uncertain terms he was going,” Wood said, recalling the protests from the POWs. “They wanted volunteers to carry him up there. I was one of those who carried him up there.”
Unable to walk, Kapaun reassured the soldiers that he was going to a better place. Wood remembers that the priest then turned to the guards and said, “Forgive them, oh Lord, for they know not what they do.”
Kapaun died days later, on May 23, 1951, at age 35, one of the more than 40,000 U.S. servicemen who died or were declared missing in what some came to call “the Forgotten War.” Delayed recognition
Emil Kapaun’s nephew Ray Kapaun, 56, will accept the Medal of Honor on his uncle’s behalf. Ray has heard about the push to have his uncle awarded the medal since he was a child. It was in the past few years that the military’s leadership investigated the stories told by surviving POWs. Typically, medals must be awarded within two years of the acts of valor, but lawmakers from Kansas shepherded legislation that waived that requirement.
“It has taken a long time, but the flame of the Korean War just can’t be extinguished, and this is an outstanding example of that,” said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), one of the lawmakers involved in the decades-long effort. Obama, who has relatives from Kansas, signed the legislation this year.
Ray Kapaun has watched aged men’s eyes fill with tears as they spoke of his uncle’s role in their lives. Ray’s middle name is Emil, and he sometimes wonders whether he’s worthy of it.
“I look at my life and then you look and see what Father Emil did by just being who he was,” Kapaun said. “The reality of it is so hard to put your hands around, just hard to describe.”
December 22, 2012
One Nation Under God?
By MOLLY WORTHEN
THIS week millions of “Chreasters” — Americans who attend church only on Christmas and Easter — will crowd into pews to sing carols and renew their vague relationship with the Christian God. This year, there may be fewer Chreasters than ever. A growing number of “nones” live in our midst: those who say they have no religious affiliation at all. An October Pew Research Center poll revealed that they now account for 20 percent of the population, up from 16 percent in 2008.
Avoiding church does not excuse Americans from marking the birth of Jesus, however. Most of us have no choice but to stay home from work or school — and if you complain about this glaring exception to the separation between church and state, you must be a scrooge with no heart for tradition. Christmas has been a federal holiday for 142 years
Yet Christianity’s preferential place in our culture and civil law came under fire this year, and not simply because more Americans reject institutional religion. The Obama administration subtly worked to expand the scope of protected civil rights to include access to legal marriage and birth control. Catholic bishops and evangelical activists declared that Washington was running roughshod over religious liberty and abandoning the country’s founding values, while their opponents accused them of imposing one set of religious prejudices on an increasingly pluralistic population. The Christian consensus that long governed our public square is disintegrating. American secularism is at a crossroads.
The narrative on the right is this: Once upon a time, Americans honored the Lord, and he commissioned their nation to welcome all faiths while commanding them to uphold Christian values. But in recent decades, the Supreme Court ruled against prayer in public schools, and legalized abortion, while politicians declared “war on Christmas” and kowtowed to the “homosexual lobby.” Conservative activists insist that they protest these developments not to defend special privileges for Christianity, but to respect the founders’ desire for universal religious liberty — rooted, they say, in the Christian tradition.
The controversial activist David Barton has devoted his career to popularizing this “forgotten history” through lectures, books and home-school curriculums. Mr. Barton insists
that “biblical Christianity in America produced many of the cherished traditions still enjoyed today,” including “protection for religious toleration and the rights of conscience.”
Bryan Fischer, spokesman for the American Family Association, told me that he saw the “nones” as proof that “the foundations of our culture are crumbling.” The Pew poll, he said, “is one of the signs.” A couple of weeks after we spoke, he told
a radio audience that God did not protect the children killed in the Newtown, Conn., massacre because of the Supreme Court decisions banning prayer and Bible reading in public schools. “God is not going to go where he is not wanted,” Mr. Fischer said.
How accurate is this story of decline into godlessness? Is America, supposedly God’s last bastion in the Western world, rejecting faith and endangering religious liberty?
The truth is that “nones” are nothing new. Religion has been a feature of human society since Neanderthal
times, but so has religious indifference. Our illusions of the past as a golden age of faith tend to cloud our assessment of today’s religious landscape. We think of atheism and religious apathy as uniquely modern spiritual options, ideas that Voltaire and Hume devised in a coffee house one rainy afternoon sometime in the 18th century. Before the Enlightenment, legend has it, peasants hurried to church every week and princes bowed and scraped before priests.
Historians have yet to unearth Pew studies from the 13th century, but it is safe to say that we frequently overestimate medieval piety. Ordinary people often skipped church and had a feeble grasp of basic Christian dogma. Many priests barely understood the Latin they chanted — and many parishes lacked any priest at all. Bishops complained about towns that used their cathedrals mainly as indoor markets or granaries. Lest Protestants blame this irreverence on Catholic corruption, the evidence suggests that it continued after Martin Luther nailed his theses to the Wittenberg church door. In 1584, census takers in Antwerp discovered that the city had a larger proportion
of “nones” than 21st-century America: a full third of residents claimed no religious affiliation.
When conservative activists claim that America stands apart from godless Europe, they are not entirely wrong. The colonies were relatively unchurched, but European visitors to the early republic marveled at Americans’ fervent piety. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote
in 1840 that the absence of an established state church nurtured a society in which “Christian sects are infinitely diversified and perpetually modified; but Christianity itself is a fact so irresistibly established that no one undertakes either to attack or to defend it.”
De Tocqueville visited during a wave of religious revival, but he underestimated the degree to which some Americans held Christianity at arm’s length: the “infidel”
Abraham Lincoln declined to join a church, and his wife invited
spiritualists to hold séances in the White House.
Nevertheless, America’s rates of church affiliation have long been higher than those of Europe — perhaps because of the First Amendment, which permitted a religious “free market” that encouraged innovation and competition between spiritual entrepreneurs. Yet membership, as every exasperated parson knows, is not the same as showing up on Sunday morning. Rates of church attendance have never been as sterling as the Christian Right’s fable of national decline suggests. Before the Civil War, regular attendance probably never exceeded 30 percent, rising to a high of 40 percent around 1965 and declining to under 30 percent in recent years — even as 77 percent still identify as Christians and 69 percent say they are “very” or “moderately” religious, according to a 2012 Gallup
We know, then, that the good old days were not so good after all, even in God’s New Israel. Today’s spiritual independents are not unprecedented. What is new is their increasing visibility. “I like the fact that we’re getting more ‘nones’ because it helps Christians realize that they’re different,” Stanley Hauerwas, a Protestant theologian at Duke Divinity School, said when I asked for his thoughts on the Pew poll. “That’s a crucial development. America produces people that say, ‘I believe Jesus is Lord, but that’s just my personal opinion.’ ”
The temple of “my personal opinion” may be the real “established church” in modern America. Three decades ago, one “none” named Sheila Larson told the sociologist Robert Bellah and his collaborators that she called her faith “Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.” Americans are drifting out of the grip of institutionalized religion, just as they are drifting from institutional authority in general.
THIS trend, made famous by books like Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone
,” has encouraged both the theological mushiness of those who say they are “spiritual, not religious” as well as the unfiltered fury that has come to characterize both ends of the political spectrum. “It seems like we live in a Manichaean universe, with vitriolic extremes,” said Kathryn Lofton, associate professor of American studies and religious studies at Yale. “That’s not unrelated to the lack of tempering authority. ‘Religious authority’ is no longer clergy in the pulpit saying ‘Vote for Eisenhower,’ but forwarded URL links or gossip exchanges in chat rooms. There is no referee.”
For a very long time, Protestant leaders were those referees. If individual impiety flourished in centuries past, churches still wielded significant control over civic culture: the symbols, standards and sexual mores that most of the populace respected in public, if not always in private. Today, more and more Americans openly accept extramarital sex, homosexuality and other outrages to traditional Christian morality. They question the Protestant civil religion that has undergirded our common life for so long.
The idea of Protestant civil religion sounds strange in a country that prides itself on secularism and religious tolerance. However, America’s religious free market has never been entirely free. The founding fathers prized freedom of conscience, but they did not intend to purge society of Protestant influence (they had deep suspicions of Catholicism). Most believed that churches helped to restrain the excesses of mob democracy. Since then, theology has shaped American laws regarding marriage, public oaths and the bounds of free speech. For most of our history, the loudest defenders of the separation of church and state were not rogue atheists, but Protestants worried about Catholics seeking financing for parochial schools or scheming their way into public office to take orders only from mitered masters in Rome.
Activists on both the left and the right tend to forget this irony of the First Amendment: it has been as much a weapon of religious oppression as a safeguard for liberty. In the 19th and early 20th century, when public school teachers read from a Protestant translation of the Bible in class, many Americans saw benign reinforcement of American values. If Catholic parents complained, officials told them that their Roman dogma was their own private concern. The underlying logic here was not religious neutrality.
The Protestant bias of the American public sphere has mellowed over time, but it still depends on “Christian secularism,” said Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, a political scientist at Northwestern University. This is a “political stance” premised on a “chiefly Protestant notion of religion understood as private assent to a set of propositional beliefs,” she told me. Other traditions, such as Judaism and Islam and to some degree Catholicism, do not frame faith in such rationalist terms, or accept the same distinction between internal conviction and public argument. The very idea that it is possible to cordon off personal religious beliefs from a secular town square depends on Protestant assumptions about what counts as “religion,” even if we now mask these sectarian foundations with labels like “Judeo-Christian.”
Conservative Christian activists hold those sectarian foundations more dearly than they admit, and they are challenging the Obama administration’s efforts to frame access to contraception and same-sex marriage as civil rights immune to the veto of “private” conscience. Alan Sears, president of the legal advocacy organization Alliance Defending Freedom, sees an unprecedented threat to religious liberty in the harsh fines facing employers who refuse to cover contraception in their insurance programs. “It is a death penalty. It is a radical change,” he told me. “It’s one thing when you’re debating about public space, but it’s another when you say, if you don’t surrender your conscience, you’re out of business.”
Barry Lynn, the director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (an organization that until 1972 was named, tellingly, Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State), sees things differently. He worries about what might happen if an unpredictable Supreme Court agrees to hear conservative Christians’ challenges to the contraception mandate, or their pleas for exemptions
for charities that accept federal grants but discriminate on the basis of religion in hiring. “The court could create something vastly more dangerous than corporate free speech: a ‘corporate conscience’ claim,” Mr. Lynn, a lawyer and an ordained minister, told me. “These cases could become as significant for the redefinition of religious liberty as Roe v. Wade was a rearticulation of the right to privacy.”
These legal efforts are less an attempt to redefine religious liberty than a campaign to preserve Christians’ historic right to police the boundary between secular principles and religious beliefs. Only now that conservative Christians have less control over organs of public power, they cannot rely on the political process. Now that the “nones” are declaring themselves, and more Americans — including many Christians — see birth control as a medical necessity rather than a sin, Mr. Sears sees a stark course of action for the Catholic and evangelical business owners he represents: “Litigation is all that our clients have.” Their problem, however, is more fundamental than legal precedent. Their problem is that America’s Christian consensus is fragmenting. We are left groping for something far messier: an evolving, this-worldly, compromise.
Molly Worthen is an assistant professor
of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
America's Religious Past Fades in a Secular Age
Unthinkable to the Founders: One in five Americans today has no religious affiliation.
By DAVID AIKMAN
A hypothetical Martian with a deep interest in America's political and cultural history would be surprised and perhaps amused at the religious composition of those running in the current presidential campaign.
The incumbent president is an adult convert to Christianity after being raised by a mother he has described as agnostic but interested in many faiths. His opponent is a Mormon, a faith tradition entirely indigenous to America and less than two centuries old. As for the two vice-presidential candidates, both are Catholic. This is the first presidential election in American history in which neither of the two presidential candidates or vice-presidential candidates was brought up as a Protestant.
According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, American Protestants recently became a minority of the country (48%) for the first time—not just since the American Revolution, but since the establishment of the first English colonies on American soil. Even more notably, the same Pew research revealed that 20% of all Americans now say they are not affiliated with any religion.
At one level, this is a victory for religious pluralism—or, to use the politically correct term, diversity. At another, when one in five Americans has no religious affiliation, it is a commentary on the diminished importance of the moral underpinnings that characterized the United States for most of its existence.
At the country's founding, even skeptics and Deists like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin paid great respect to the morality and values that the vast majority of Americans accepted as God-given standards by which to live. These were standards rooted in Christian belief and teachings. Jefferson, as is well known, was a man of the Enlightenment who was genuinely skeptical about the supernatural claims of Christianity. Even he, however, believed in the need for virtue in national life as an essential ingredient for the safe continuation of the republic.
The Founders shared a conviction about the necessity for national virtue, and most equated this directly with Christianity. Benjamin Rush (1745-1813) said that Christianity was "the strong ground of republicanism. Many of its concepts have for their objects republican liberty and equality, as well as simplicity, integrity and economy in government."
Happily for all of us since then, the Founders rejected the folly of the state's promoting any denominational brand of Christianity. After much early and often noisy opposition from Protestants at the popular level, Catholics came first to be tolerated and then eventually to be welcomed into the national tapestry of faiths. Just as the leaven of the Gospel message of love pricked Protestant Christian consciences to accept Catholics, so did the Gospel's message move Americans to address, and at last erase, the wicked national stain of slavery.
Meanwhile, at the popular level, individual lives were being changed and entire communities swept clean of corruption and squalor through the phenomenal social effect of the Second Great Awakening (from approximately 1800 to 1850), a Christian revival movement that swept the country. A teacher traveling through Kentucky in 1802 at the height of the revivals there reported that "it was the most moral place" he had ever visited. In South Carolina, after similar revivals, he observed: "Drunkards have become more sober and orderly—bruisers, bullies and blackguards meek, inoffensive, and peaceable."
It is hard to believe today, when a secular orthodoxy clanks its way peevishly through academe, the media and popular culture, that it was broadly accepted by most Americans throughout the 19th century that America was at heart Christian—not in any formal or legal sense, but in the values and morality that most people wanted to observe.
The German-trained historian George Bancroft, in his magisterial "History of the United States of America," said that he thought America was a Christian nation established and sustained by God for the purpose of spreading liberty and democracy in the world, an idea that lies at the heart of American exceptionalism. In fact, the belief that America was called by God to be "a new Israel" and a blessing to the world goes right back to the Puritan preacher John Winthrop. In his famous shipboard sermon, "A Model of Christian Charity," on the Arabella in 1631, Winthrop made the much-quoted statement about America: "We must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us."
The eyes of all are still upon America, but it is a markedly different place. As the secularization of that city upon a hill continues, it is not hard to imagine a presidential race one day that involves candidates who practice no religion at all. Mr. Aikman, a former Beijing bureau chief for Time magazine, is the author of "One Nation Without God: The Battle for Christianity in an Age of Unbelief" (Baker Books, 2012).
A version of this article appeared October 26, 2012, on page A11 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: America's Religious Past Fades in a Secular Age.
October 23, 2012, 12:30 pm
And God Spoke to Abraham (Lincoln)
By EDWARD J. BLUM
and PAUL HARVEY
In early October 1862, Abraham Lincoln received a letter from God.
"I am your Heavenly Father and the God of all Nations," it began. God had particular explanations and instructions for the president, whose entire term of office had been defined by war. "I am the cause for the disruption between the North and the South," he continued, and the point was to destroy the "horrible state of affairs" that man's "selfish nature" had brought. "I am not partial and have no respect of persons." Coming just weeks after the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, the letter made it clear that God wanted to destroy slavery. For further instructions, God told Lincoln to gather six of his best men and meet in person "my instrument the Messenger of Peace the Christ of this day."
Conveniently, the "Christ of this day" was not only staying in Washington, but lived just a few miles from the White House, at 476 Pennsylvania Avenue. At the meeting and through the medium, God would explain "what to do that will speedily terminate this Devilish war."
Lincoln did not believe the letter was from God, of course; as he suspected, it came from a local religious devotee named Lydia Smith, who believed herself to be God's medium. For Lincoln, this kind of supernatural penetration was lunacy, not prophecy. He didn't believe that God walked the earth, inserting himself into the affairs of men. He told one group of ministers who had earlier pressed him for emancipation that these were not "the days of miracles," and that "I suppose it will be granted that I am not to expect a direct revelation."
Yet for as much as Lincoln disclaimed the possibilities of "direct revelation," writers to him thought otherwise. This was, after all, the mid-19th century, when religious fervor ran deep in the country's psyche, not to mention the middle of the Civil War. The possibility of overturning slavery had so fired spiritual sentiments across the North that self-proclaimed mediums and prophets believed that God was on the move in the nation. Throughout the war, and especially when it came to emancipation, people sent the president missives on what God was doing, where Jesus was and how the sacred could win the war for the Union.
Perhaps the most interesting spiritual letter Lincoln received was from a man named George F. Kelly. A month after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect in 1863, Kelly warned the president that he was "surrounded by Spies and men of evil intentions." Perhaps, he wrote, Lincoln wondered now "if God has forsaken us." But, Kelly insisted, this was not the case. Instead, God had further demands for the president.
Kelly, claiming to be channeling God, called on the president to "adopt the plans called, Radical," which would emancipate the slaves and bring full racial equality to the nation. "I have Seen in visions," Kelly went on. The son of God, he reported, had returned and was ready to lead Lincoln's military to overthrow the South. "Have not the honest hearted been longing for the Second 'Jesus' to Save this nation and the world," Kelly asked, and then answered, "Have ye not heard that in one of the New England States 'God has raised him up in humble life'?" Did he not, Kelly asked, "do even So with His former Servant; who toiled with the people more than thirty years?" Kelly's prophetic vision concluded that in two weeks, Jesus would reveal himself and win the war for the Union.
Although Lincoln considered Kelly a "Crazy Man," as the president wrote on one envelope from him, the letter was telling. In the midst of a war where white men were killing white men in epic numbers over, in part, the institution of slavery, Kelly now envisioned Jesus to be a New Englander who would fight to free the black captives. In Kelly's eyes, Jesus looked and sounded awfully similar to John Brown. The man who had been executed for treason only a few years earlier, but who had fired spiritual sentiments himself with comparisons to Christ, seemed to be reincarnated and ready to fight.
There were other letters Lincoln received from other spiritual guides, and there were other claims about Christ's power in America at the time. Some demanded money, as was the case where one writer requested half a billion dollars to "Reveale, Christ, Jesus."
At first glance, such letters, and the millenarian spirituality they articulated, sound like vestiges of the culture modern men and women left behind. We would expect talk of revelations and prophecies from colonial Puritans, who executed one another with threats of witchcraft. But the mid-19th century was hardly the modern secular society we sometimes imagine it to be. Firsthand encounters with the sacred were commonplace claims by even respected, "modern" Americans.
Lincoln may have considered George Kelly and the others "crazy" for their visions, but their experiences were little different from those of the abolitionist and feminist Sojourner Truth, who met with Lincoln in October 1864 and bonded with him over one of his favorite Bibles. Years earlier, Truth believed that God spoke to her. According to one of Truth's friends, she said that "God revealed himself to her, with all the suddenness of flash of lightning."
Experiences like this one led Truth to join the growing Millerite movement of the 1830s, which followed the biblical calculus of William Miller toward the conclusion that Jesus was going to return in the early 1840s. When the Second Coming failed to materialize in 1844, the "Great Disappointment" left many confused. But Truth continued to believe that God and Christ could and would intervene in this world; when her fellow abolitionist Frederick Douglass spoke despairingly about the chances for justice, she interrupted him with a rebuke in the form of a question, "Frederick, is God dead?"
There was no disappointment for Joseph Smith, for whom Jesus and God were very much alive. He met with them in upstate New York around the same time Sojourner Truth was earning her freedom, and Smith's "first vision" became a central element of Mormon theology and belief. Indeed, the notion that God still intervened in this world was critical to the emergence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and during the Civil War, many Mormons believed that the carnage was evidence of Smith's prophetic powers. In 1832, he had prophesied that "war will be poured out." It would begin with South Carolina and envelop the entire nation. "For behold, the Southern States shall be divided against the Northern States." Nat Turner's spirit would take over, and "after many days, slaves shall rise up against their masters, who shall be marshaled and disciplined for war." At the time of Lincoln's election, one Mormon diarist wrote excitedly, "The south is angry; the North is no better and from what I can see they are both hastening to fulfill the Prophecy of Joseph Smith Jr."
If we broaden our scope even further, we see that during the Civil War, more and more Northerners were searching for God's voice amid the chaos and carnage. Almost as quickly as the war began, some Northerners were pushing for the phrase "In God We Trust" to be placed on coinage. In 1864, a group of Protestant clergy formed the National Reform Association to petition Lincoln and Congress to amend the Constitution to acknowledge "Almighty God" and "the Lord Jesus Christ as the Ruler among nations."
Perhaps most famously, Julia Ward Howe imagined the spirit of Christ (who was "born across the sea") inspiring soldiers in this country. "As he died to make men holy," the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" versed, "let us die to make men free." In the decades after the war and into the 20th century, the song became a staple of American religious culture. Its most famous vocalists, in fact, have been the members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
And of course, by the war's end it was Abraham Lincoln himself who was ruminating on the spiritual meaning of the war and slavery, almost as much as the prophets and mediums who had previously written to him. During his now famous Second Inaugural on March 4, 1865, Lincoln made public his private wonders about what God was doing. He asked his audience, what caused the war? What were God's purposes for the future? Lincoln was uncertain on much of it, but he knew this: slavery was somehow the cause of the war; God hates injustice; and the nation must now bring "charity" and "right" to heal the land. Beyond that, he concluded, "The Almighty has His own purposes."
When Lincoln invoked the Almighty during his Second Inaugural, he tapped into the widespread sense in the North that something spiritual was happening during the war. For as much as he differed from people like George Kelly and Lydia Smith, he shared with them the focus on trying to discern what God had in store for the land. Some believed that the events of the war were so momentous that they were themselves evidence of the work of Jesus and God on earth. Others hoped that by invoking the sacred - either through song or in the Constitution - they could gain the Almighty's favor or empower men to continue to fight.
The songs, the letters, the prophecies, the experiences spoke to another layer of how deeply the Civil War and emancipation touched hearts, minds, and spirits of Americans in the North. Deluged in blood, but hopeful for a peaceful nation shorn of enslavement, these mystics, mediums, prophets, politicians, writers and clergy believed that the events of 150 years ago had ushered in God's intervention. They demonstrate most clearly how war changes people not only in body, but in soul, too.Follow Disunion at twitter.com/NYTcivilwar or join us on Facebook.Edward J. Blum, a historian at San Diego State University, and Paul Harvey, a professor of history at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, are the co-authors of "The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America."
By MICHAEL I. MEYERSON
Americans of all political stripes invoked the Declaration of Independence this Fourth of July week. Some read the document and found, as Harvard Prof. Alan Dershowitz has, that it "rejected Christianity, along with other organized religions, as a basis for governance." Others saw the same language proving the opposite, that our nation was founded on "Judeo- Christian values." Such definitive statements do not tell the full story. The American Framers, in their desire to unite a nation, were theologically bilingual—not only in the Declaration of Independence but beyond.
That document was the work of many hands. As is well known, the first draft was written by Thomas Jefferson. That version began with a religious reference that largely remained in the final version, stating that the United States were assuming the independent status, "to which the laws of nature and of nature's god entitle them."
The phrase "Nature's God" is not a product of traditional religious denominations, but is generally associated with 18th-century Deism. That philosophy centered on what has been called "natural theology," a belief that while a "Creator" started the universe and established the laws of nature, the modern world saw no divine intervention or miracles.
The most famous religious phrase in the Declaration—that people are "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights"—was not included in Jefferson's original draft. He had written that people derive inherent rights form their "equal Creation." The iconic language was added by a small committee, including Benjamin Franklin and John Adams.
"Creator" was a theologically ambiguous word. Most Deists used it, but it was also commonly spoken by the most orthodox religions of the day. Timothy Dwight, a Congregational minister who served as president of Yale College from 1795-1817, delivered a sermon stating that the Bible contained "as full a proof, that Christ is the Creator, as that . . . the Creator is God."
Often overlooked in discussing the Declaration of Independence are two more religious references, both added to its closing paragraph by other delegates in the Continental Congress. The delegates described themselves as "appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions," and they affirmed their "firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence."
These phrases were widely regarded as being far more traditionally religious than the earlier language. Ashbel Green, a Presbyterian minister and Jefferson critic who served as chaplain of the House of Representatives in the 1790s, cited these sections to assert that had they not been added, Jefferson would have permitted the American call for independence to be "made without any recognition of the superintending and all disposing providence of God."
But even after the congressional editing, the language of the Declaration wasn't limited to a particular faith. Deliberately designed to be as inclusive as possible, it was a quintessentially American achievement—specific enough to be embraceable by those with orthodox religious views but broad enough to permit each American to feel fully included and equally respected.
George Washington maintained this adroit balance when he became president. In his first inaugural address, written with the assistance of James Madison, Washington declared that it would be "peculiarly improper to omit in this first official Act, my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the Universe."
Even Jefferson and Madison, often described as believing in a total separation of religion and government, continued the practice of using inclusive religious language. Jefferson urged in his first inaugural, "May that infinite power, which rules the destinies of the universe, lead our councils to what is best," while Madison stated that, "my confidence will under every difficulty be best placed . . . in the guardianship and guidance of that Almighty Being whose power regulates the destiny of nations."
The Framers didn't see such nondenominational language as divisive. They believed it was possible—in fact desirable—to have a public expression of religion that is devout, as long as it recognizes and affirms the variety of belief systems that exist in our pluralistic nation. Mr. Meyerson, a professor of law at the University of Baltimore School of Law, is author of "Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America," recently published by Yale University Press.
By DAVID GELERNTER
Presidential elections are America's season for serious chats around the national dinner table. The sick economy, health care and the scope of government are the main issues. But another is even more important. Who are we? What is the United States? Recently Gov. Mitt Romney urged us to return to "the principles that made America, America." But too many of us don't know what those are, or think they can't work.
Yes, Americanism evolves, and by all means let's change our minds when we ought to. We should always be marching toward the American ideals of freedom, equality and democracy, as we did when we ended slavery, granted women the right to vote, and finally buried Jim Crow. But if we forget our basic ideals or shrug them off, as we are doing today, we no longer deserve to be great. Without our history and culture, we have no identity.
Almost no one believes that our public schools are doing a passable job of teaching American and Western civilization. Modern humanities education starts from the bizarre premise that students must be cured of the Europe-centered, misogynist, bigoted ideas of the past. Many American children have never heard a good word for the United States, the West, Judaism or Christianity their whole lives.
Who are we? Dawdling time is over. We have failed a whole generation of children. As of fall 2012, let all public schools be charter schools, competing for each tax dollar and student with every other school in the country. Of course this is a local issue—but a president's or would-be president's job is to lead. There are wonderful teachers, principals and schools out there, and a new public-school system based on the American ideal of achievement will know how to value them.
No principle is more American than equality. Every generation has strained closer to the ideal. We have seen the near eradication of race prejudice in a mere two generations—an astounding achievement. We are a nation of equal citizens, not of races or privileged cliques. Affirmative action has always been a misfit in this country. A system that elevates individuals because of the color of their skin, their race or their sex has no place in America.
Yet a boy born yesterday is destined to atone (if he happens to be the wrong color) for prejudice against black women 50 years ago. Modern America is a world where a future Supreme Court justice, Sonia Sotomayor, can say publicly in 2001, "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion [on the bench] than a white male who hasn't lived that life."
Once a justice has intuited, by dint of sheer racial brilliance, which party to a lawsuit is more simpatico and deserving, what then? Invite him to lunch? Friend him on Facebook? This is not justice as America knows it.
Next Independence Day let's celebrate the long-overdue end of affirmative action, and our triumphant return to the American ideal of equality.
Modern American culture is in the hands of intellectuals—unfortunates born with high IQ and low common sense. Witness ObamaCare, a health-care policy, now somehow deemed constitutional, that forces millions of Americans to buy something they don't want.
Bilingualism was the intellectuals' response to one of the best breaks America ever got, a common language to unite its uncommon people. Resolved: The federal government will henceforth conduct its business and publish its statements in English, period. There is plenty of room in this country for new immigrants of all races and religions who want to learn America's culture and be part of this people; none for those who dislike all things American except dollars. Resolved: The federal government will henceforth enforce its own immigration laws.
America's creed is blessedly simple. Freedom, equality, democracy and America as the promised land, the new Jerusalem. What Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he invoked "the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life."
President Obama rejects this creed. He doesn't buy the city-on-a-hill stuff. He sees particular nations as a blur; only the global community is big enough for him. He is at home on the exalted level of whole races and peoples and the vast, paternal power of central governments.
The president has revealed no sense of America's mission to move constantly forward "with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right." Lincoln's sublime biblical English uses the parallel stanzas of ancient Hebrew poetry. That is who we are: a biblical republic, striving to live up to its creed. The dominion of ignorance will pass away like smoke and we will know and be ourselves again the moment we choose to be. Why not now? Mr. Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale, is the author of "America-Lite," out on July 4 by Encounter Books.
A version of this article appeared July 2, 2012, on page A11 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: What Is the American Creed?.
By RAYMOND ZHONG
The Calvinist pilgrims who founded the New England colonies had rebelled against England by leaving it, but they were certainly not rebels against a firm social order or against the idea of authority itself. In England, laws against adultery were not enforced; in New England, adulterers might be executed, or whipped and forced to wear scarlet letters. The town of Hartford required its residents to rise from bed at the same hour in the morning. Massachusetts spurned "heathenish" practices to such a degree that it stopped using names for the days of the week, referring to them only by numbers.
Roger Williams, an early resident of Massachusetts who would go on to found the colony of Rhode Island, was uneasy about forced conformity to the Puritan mold, though not because he didn't like the mold. Williams agreed with the Massachusetts governors on most points of theology. He objected to the way in which the colonial government legislated what he felt was properly God's to dictate. Forced worship "stinks in God's nostrils," he wrote.
Williams felt that a society based on free religious exercise, uncompelled by earthly law, was truer to the vision of society in Scripture. As he clashed with the magistrates of Massachusetts, it became clear to him that, for such a society to exist, he would have to create it.
John Barry's "Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul" establishes Williams as a brave thinker and also a deft political actor—not a rare type in early American history but one we usually associate with the American Revolution, not the Puritan colonies.
Roger Williams was born in London around 1603. His suspicion of the excesses of political power was formed early on. He apprenticed with Sir Edward Coke, the jurist who told King James I that a monarch could make laws only through Parliament, not by royal prerogative. Williams left England for the New World in 1631, equipped with a Cambridge degree and, Mr. Barry writes, "the charm of great promise."
Williams was banished from Boston almost immediately. Gov. John Winthrop had offered him the position of assistant minister, but Williams turned it down, believing the Massachusetts church to be corrupt and insufficiently pious. Cast out, Williams spent time with New England's Indian tribes, learning their languages and befriending their chiefs. He took the peace he made with the Narragansetts and the Wampanoags as a sign that God had shown "merciful providence" to him in his distress.
By the time Williams co-founded Providence Plantation, in 1636, it had become clear to him that any sort of manmade stricture on worship was untenable, amounting to an unreasonable infringement on man's God-given conscience. The argument for religious toleration was not new, but it had mostly been made by persecuted sects, for the sake of self-preservation. Williams transformed toleration into a matter of principle.
Providence Plantation came into existence at a difficult period in New England history, when the colonists were waging a war against the Pequot tribe and England itself was lurching toward civil war. Still, Williams's convictions endured. When at last, in 1644, he secured a land patent to unite the separate colonies of Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island had been firmly established as a haven for religious outcasts, for those "troubled by conscience."
This vision of the New Jerusalem was at odds with the one on which previous English colonies had been founded. Winthrop had imagined America as a "city upon a hill," where men could flourish in God's image. But Winthrop's idea of liberty was "liberty to that only which is good," requiring individuals to "quietly and cheerfully submit, unto that Authority which is set over you." The "natural liberty" that Williams advocated was, to Winthrop's mind, a recipe for anarchy.
But Williams did not desire total permissiveness in his experimental society. Using words that Thomas Jefferson would echo more than a century later, Williams argued merely for a "hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the world." Williams saw God's garden as too precious to be contaminated by the profanity of human politics. Williams's "wall of Separation" was meant to protect the church from the state, not the other way around. Even so, Mr. Barry puts Williams squarely among our great political thinkers, crediting him with bringing liberal democracy to the American colonies.
Why, then, does Williams languish in history's margins? The Rhode Island attitude toward religion did not catch fire right away, Mr. Barry notes. When Williams died in 1683, he was mourned in Rhode Island but not in the rest of New England. Jefferson and Madison got their liberalism mostly through Locke and the Enlightenment, though historians consider Williams to have influenced Locke's work to some degree.
There is another reason why Williams's place in the public imagination is small. Despite his forward-thinking ideas, his conception of the state was still by no means a modern, secular one. He assumed that public life required a religious core. For better or worse, neither Williams nor Winthrop would recognize his vision of a New Jerusalem in the United States today.
—Mr. Zhong is an editorial-page writer for The Wall Street Journal Europe.
An English Thanksgiving, 1942 American soldiers followed in the footsteps of 17th-century Pilgrims and sat in the pew of Miles Standish.
By THOMAS FLEMING
With Americans in uniform serving all over the world today, the idea of them celebrating Thanksgiving abroad does not strike anyone as unusual. With Americans locked in a world war in 1942, it certainly was.
The hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops fighting the Axis powers in North Africa, the South Pacific and Europe celebrated the first global Thanksgiving as best they could, in the steel bulkheads of a warship's mess or the canvas of a jungle tent. England—teeming with American soldiers and sailors and airmen, ready to defend our ally against a possible German invasion and beginning preparations for an assault on Nazi-conquered Europe—was another matter. In those dark days, Americans took special pleasure in displaying their homegrown holiday to the Mother Country. The English were dubious at first but slowly realized they were being invited to share in something very special.
Helping to win them over was an extraordinary act of generosity very much in keeping with the spirit of the holiday. Merchant ships had carried tons of frozen turkey across the submarine-infested Atlantic for the big day. Then the Yanks announced they would donate all of it to the thousands of British war wounded in hospitals. Instead they would dine on roast pork and eat plum pudding for desert, alas without the standard rum sauce. "The quartermaster failed to deliver the rum," a newsman reported.
Americans also took advantage of their holiday abroad to walk in the footsteps of the Pilgrims who created the first Thanksgiving in the New England wilderness in 1621. One officer sat in the pew once occupied by the legendary Miles Standish, the Pilgrim's military leader, in the small parish church at Chorley, in the county of Lancashire. The Chorley town hall flew an American flag on Thanksgiving Day—the first time in their long history that the citizens had ever honored the flag of another nation.
Getty Images U.S. Army Cpl. Heinz Arnold warms up the pipes in London's Westminster Abbey.
The Lord Mayor of Boston, in Lincolnshire, invited 100 American servicemen to be his guests for a modest wartime dinner. Afterward, a senior officer laid a wreath on a memorial to five pre-Revolutionary War royal governors who had been born in the historic city. An American private laid another wreath in the cold dark cells where some Pilgrims were confined in 1607 while trying to escape to religious freedom in Holland.
Even more thrilling to those with a sense of history was a visit to Southhampton, where a U.S. Army detachment stood at attention before the pier where the old freighter, Mayflower, was fitted out for her trans-Atlantic voyage. At Plymouth they visited the quay from which the Pilgrims boarded. Not far away, the Archbishop of Canterbury conducted a service in the ruins of St. Andrew's Church, where some of the Mayflower's passengers prayed before they began their 3,000-mile voyage. Virginia-born Lady Astor was on hand for these ceremonies, calling Americans "my compatriots" and joking with a Southerner from Georgia, Private Billy Harrison, about their superiority to "damn Yankees" from New York.
The most dramatic ceremony was in London's Westminster Abbey, where English kings and queens have been crowned for centuries. No British government had ever permitted any ritual on its altar except the prescribed devotions of the Church of England. But on Nov. 26, 1942, they made an exception for their American cousins.
No orders were issued to guarantee a large audience. There was only a brief announcement in the newspapers. But when the Abbey's doors opened, 3,000 uniformed men and women poured down the aisles. In 10 minutes there was not a single empty seat and crowds were standing in the side aisles. One reporter said there was a veritable "hedge of khaki" around the tomb of Britain's unknown soldier of World War I.
Cpl. Heinz Arnold of Patchogue, N.Y., played "Onward Christian Soldiers" on the mighty coronation organ. With stately strides, Sgt. Francis Bohannan of Philadelphia advanced up the center aisle carrying a huge American flag. Behind him came three chaplains, the dean of the Abbey, and a Who's Who of top American admirals, generals and diplomats. On the high altar, other soldiers draped an even larger American flag.
Their faces "plainly reflected what lay in their heart," one reporter noted, as the visitors sang "America the Beautiful" and "Lead On O King Eternal." The U.S. ambassador to Britain, John G. Winant, read a brief message from President Franklin D. Roosevelt: "It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord. Across the uncertain ways of space and time our hearts echo those words." The Dean of Westminster and one of the Abbey's chaplains also spoke. "God has dealt mercifully and bountifully with us," the chaplain said. "True, we have had our difficulties . . . but all of these trials have made us stronger to do the great tasks which have fallen to us."
Throughout Britain, the first global Thanksgiving gave men and women from the New World and the Old World a much-needed feeling of spiritual solidarity. Let us hope that today's overseas service men and women can have a similar impact on a troubled and divided world. Happy Thanksgiving—and our nation's sincerest thanks— to them all, wherever they may be deployed. Mr. Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians. This article was adapted from his ebook, "An American Feast: Six Memorable Thanksgivings," just out from New Word City.