The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. James 5:16 KJV
1776: the year our country was born. We all know that. But do we remember it wasn’t fife and drums and fireworks and picnics back then? Far from it.
Our country had a difficult birth.
True, General Clinton and his beleaguered troops had left Boston for Halifax in March and the Declaration to which the signers famously pledged their “lives, fortunes and sacred honor” had been signed in July. And then George Washington and his untrained ill-equipped army of volunteers had to get down to the ugly business of war: fighting the best professional army in the world. The results were sadly predictable. In Brooklyn, New York City, in Westchester County and White Plains, where I grew up, the army suffered defeat after defeat after defeat. Many died in battle; many more of diseases rampant in the filthy camps. Prisoners thrown into rotting ships in New York harbor succumbed to yet more disease and deliberate malnutrition.
This was not the glory these men signed on for. They began walking away. Historian David McCullough recounts it in his prize-winning book, 1776.
“American soldiers were deserting as if leaving a sinking ship, thirty or forty at a time, many defecting to the enemy. Disobedience and theft were epidemic. It was far from an army of heroes only. ‘A spirit of desertion, cowardice, plunder and shrinking from duty when attended with fatigue or danger, prevailed but too generally,’ wrote Joseph Reed (Washington’s secretary), who had become so demoralized that even he was on the verge of quitting.”
Several signers of the Declaration took the King’s offer of amnesty and recanted.
It seemed all would be lost.
But then came Christmas night and the Battle of Trenton. The battered army could finally catch a breath. And another. Somehow, they survived the brutal winter camp at Valley Forge and the nine long years which followed. A new nation, born in blood and suffering and loss, came forth into the world.
That is what we celebrate this weekend.
Not all the Founders were people of faith; I know that. But the ones who were wore out their knees praying. I’d like to believe their prayers “availed much,” as the old King James puts it, that they brought our fragile country through.
Now we face another moment of darkness and decision. On this, our nation’s birthday weekend, could we join our faithful ancestors in seeking the face of God for the country who bore and nurtured us? For I believe those fervent and effectual prayers can bring us through.
FATHER GOD: We need you desperately. Help us; guide us; strengthen us. Amen.
First published in “Bozeman Daily Chronicle,” July 3, 2022.