The Fourth of July: “What do these American stones mean?”

The Signing of the Declaration of Independence

As I walked around the base of Capitol Hill this past Friday and I looked down the national lawn, I thought about the significance of the 4th of July. Thinking about the monuments that line the city itself, my mind wandered to a story about the Hebrew leader Joshua.

In the book of Joshua, we read the story of how God miraculously intervened on behalf of the Hebrews and brought them success. Afterwards, God spoke to Joshua and told him to have men pile stones in the place of the miracle. The book of Joshua goes on to say that these stones would “serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.

Just like those stones, the marble monuments of Washington speak to us about our past and calls to us to ask the question, “What do these stones mean?” Unlike the stones of Israel, many of our white stone monuments answer this question directly with the words inscribed on them. Bold and prominent in the Jefferson memorial, we read, “God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?” The peak of the Washington monument proclaims from the highest point in the city, “Laus Deo” or “Praise be to God.”

Working in Washington for the summer, I see often the statutes throughout the Capitol building representing the lives of many key revolutionary figures. As they stand silent, they too prompt us to ask the question, “What do these stones mean?” If we asked this question of the statute of John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg, not only would we find a Major General of the American Revolution, but a pastor who called out to his church congregation to take up arms in defense of their God-given liberties. The statue of Jonathan Trumbell would tell of a colonial governor who gave official proclamations calling his colony to days of fasting and praying unto God.

If I had any question as to whether these American stones still speak out to us, I found that question resolved the other day when I led of group of Germans on a tour through the Capitol. Having concluded the tour, one noted to me all of the religious mottos and symbols throughout the Capitol. And sure enough, they prompted him to ask me a question. The stones spoke out to him.

These American stones continually point us back to a faith in God’s providential hand and His principles. President Calvin Coolidge on a Fourth of July once remarked:

“[The Founders] preached equality because they believed in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. They justified freedom by the text that we are all created in the divine image, all partakers of the divine spirit. …Equality, liberty, popular sovereignty, the rights of man . . . are ideals. They have their source and their roots in the religious convictions.  …Unless the faith of the American people in these religious convictions is to endure, the principles of our Declaration will perish. …We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things. These did not create our Declaration. Our Declaration created them. The things of the spirit come first. . . . If we are to maintain the great heritage which has been bequeathed to us, we must be like-minded as the fathers who created it. We must not sink into a pagan materialism. We must cultivate the reverence which they had for the things which are holy. We must follow the spiritual and moral leadership which they showed. We must keep replenished, that they may glow with a more compelling flame, the altar fires before which they worshipped.”

As we spend this 4th of July reflecting on the freedoms we enjoy, let us think about the words the Founding Fathers approved 235 years ago today. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Those men risked all to approve and later sign our founding document, the Declaration of Independence. And some of those men gave all to to preserve that document. The least we can do today is know what their lives stood for and to ask the question, “What do these stones mean?

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