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The Voice of the Prophet: Our Sacred Honor

July 2, 2006

Psalm 33:12

I love the Fourth of July. It was my mother’s birthday. Every Fourth of July, our family would get together and have a parade, waving flags and playing in a kazoo band. At her funeral, we sang her favorite song, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” July 4 is a special time of year for those of us in America. For those of us who are Christians, today has another dimension. The title of this sermon, “Our Sacred Honor,” comes, of course, from a phrase used in the Declaration of Independence. The phrase also derives from the scriptural text today, Psalm 33:12, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.”

Several years ago, a group of sociology students at a major university printed a copy of the Declaration of Independence on their word processor. They omitted the title and changed some of the wording so that it read more like contemporary English rather than the English of 1776. The students took their revision of the Declaration to a shopping mall and asked people to sign it. Only a few people recognized it as the Declaration. Those who read the document thought it was radical and inflammatory, citing references to the rights of people to overthrow their government. Very few agreed to sign the document. Most people who are loyal to their country do not want to hear this type of seditious language.

With that in mind, listen to a part of the Declaration.

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. – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, – That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Just as people who read the revised Declaration at a shopping mall considered it radical, many who read the original version in 1776 regarded it as being radical. Fifty-six people, however, signed the document that year. John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress at the time, said that he was going to sign it so large that the king of England could read it without his spectacles. Ben Franklin, the oldest signer, was seventy years old. The South Carolinian Edward Rutledge, just twenty-six years old, was the youngest to sign it. These fifty-six men signed the Declaration with one of the most dramatic statements that I suppose any of our cherished documents contains. The last sentence declares, “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

When those men gathered in a very hot room that morning in July 1776, it was an uncomfortable day. Thomas Jefferson said that people were constantly slapping themselves because the horse flies were so terrible. Those long white stockings on their legs were no protection against the horse flies. The discussion went along rather well though disagreements did occur. The members of that group edited the document eighty-six times. Thomas Jefferson, who had waxed poetically in many areas, was a little disturbed that the Congress deleted 500 of his precious words. The Declaration contains just 1,037 words, but what a document it was! What a document it is!

Do you know what the men who signed the Declaration of Independence did after they signed this historical document? They continued with their agenda, discussing other matters of concern. Nobody stood up on a chair to cheer or shout. No one performed a drum roll or blasted a trumpet. They simply signed the document and went on about their business at hand. A few years later, the people of Old Salem, North Carolina, celebrated this event by marching around the town square with candles, singing, “Now Thank We All Our God.” The men who signed the Declaration did so with little fanfare, but they made an important promise, pledging, “our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

We know of course, what it means to pledge a life. We know what it means to pledge a fortune. Do you know what it means to pledge sacred honor? Few of us use that wording in our day and time. These men knew the risks they were taking. John Hancock already had a price on his head, 500 British pounds. He commented at the time he signed the Declaration that he had written his name so large, hoping maybe the king would double the reward. Ben Franklin said, “We must all hang together, or we will all hang separately.” They all knew that the punishment for treason was death by hanging. A large British fleet was already anchored in New York Harbor. The signers put everything on the line: their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.

Let us look at what happened to these men after they made this pledge by signing this document. Some became quite important. Two became presidents of the United States, seven became state governors, one became vice-president, and several became United States senators. William Ellery, a delegate from Rhode Island, watched as his comrades wrote their signature on the document. He said that he saw no fear, only supreme courage. Sixty-year-old Stephen Hopkins, Ellery’s counterpart from Rhode Island, had a physical problem that caused his hands to shake. He pointed out that his hand was trembling as he signed the document, but not his heart.

All of these men made a pledge that they took seriously, a pledge that could become for them a very risky proposition even before its publication. Once the British found out the identities of those present at this meeting, they immediately started a manhunt. Consider how the signers’ pledge altered their lives.

– Francis Lewis, a New York delegate, saw his estate plundered and destroyed. His wife, captured and treated with great brutality, died soon after her release from the effects of the abuse.

– William Floyd, another delegate from New York, was able to escape with his wife and children across Long Island Sound into Connecticut where they lived as refugees with no income for seven years. When they returned to New York, they found their home had been destroyed.

– Philip Livingston, also from New York, had his possessions confiscated. His family was driven from their home. He died in 1778, still a member of Congress.

– Lewis Morris, the fourth New York delegate, saw all of his timber crops and livestock taken. For seven years, he was unable to see his home or his family.

– John Hart of Trenton, New Jersey, returned home to see his dying wife; but when Hessian soldiers rode out after him, he escaped into the woods and hid in caves. While his wife lay on her deathbed, the soldiers burned their home. Finally emancipated, he returned to find that his wife’s body had already been buried and that his thirteen children had been taken away. He never saw them again.

– Richard Stockton, a judge from New Jersey, rushed back to his estate in an effort to evacuate his wife and children. The children had found refuge with friends, but a Tory betrayed him. Captors pulled Judge Stockton from his bed in the middle of the night, brutally beat him, arrested him, and threw him into the common jail where they deliberately starved him. Congress finally arranged for his release, but his health was ruined. He did not live long enough to see the victory of the Revolutionary War.

– Robert Morris, a wealthy Philadelphia merchant, lost everything because he continued to give his wealth to support the cause, the Revolutionary army. In the process, he lost everything he had and died penniless.

– A Pennsylvania signer, though he escaped with his family, witnessed the complete destruction of his property.

– Four came from South Carolina. Thomas Lynch, Jr., returned home to serve as a leader in the militia. His health was so poor from exposure that his doctor recommended that he go to the West Indies. He and his young bride got on board a ship but later drowned at sea. The other three signers of the Declaration of the Independence (Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Jr., and Arthur Middleton) became prisoners when the British occupied Charleston. They were all imprisoned in St. Augustine, Florida, throughout the war.

– Thomas Nelson, Jr., a courageous Virginia signer, returned to Virginia and skillfully served as a militia leader. He finally became governor of that state, but he almost ran Virginia as a dictatorship for a while because the Virginia Parliament had given him so much power. When he and his militia were engaged in a battle with the British at one point, he noticed that the men under his command avoided aiming the cannons at a certain building, his own home, where British officers were housed. He personally took command of the artillery, leveled the cannons at his home, and blew it to smithereens.

Pledging allegiance to this document cost some of the signers their life and/or fortune. Of these fifty-six signers, nine died during the war. The five captured and imprisoned were treated brutally. Several lost their wives, some their entire families. The homes of twelve signers were completely burned. Their pledge was serious. They lost their lives. They lost their fortunes. What about their sacred honor? What does it mean to pledge your sacred honor? The word honor has numerous definitions; but in this application, we should think of honor as reputation, personal integrity, a person’s word. These men pledged their lives and their fortunes, but they also pledged something more important than that. They pledged their integrity as human beings, their reputation, their word of honor.

Abraham Clark, a signer from New Jersey, had two sons that served as officers in the Revolutionary army. The British captured these sons and imprisoned them on a ship in New York Harbor known as the “Hell Ship.” They received especially cruel treatment because of their relationship to this signer. The younger son, put into solitary confinement, received no food, only water. With the end of the war almost in sight, British officers approached Abraham Clark, informing him that if he would pledge his allegiance to the king of England, they would release his sons. Can you imagine that father’s dilemma? Abraham Clark refused, so the British executed both sons. Eleven thousand American captives died on that floating prison known as the “Hell Ship.” Those men who signed the Declaration of Independence gave their word. They pledged their reputation. They pledged their integrity.

I love the Fourth of July. It was my mother’s birthday. A patriotic service like this one though makes me a little bit uncomfortable. The reason why is because I do not believe Christian people should slip into a civil religion. We must be cautious. I can wave the flag with the best of them. I am a good Boy Scout, and I can pledge my honor to do my duty to God and my country. I can repeat the “Pledge of Allegiance” to the flag. I love to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the national anthem. I love the Fourth of July; but as Christians, we must remember that we have a higher allegiance. We have a higher anthem, the anthem we pledge to God.

You know that honor can be so easily tarnished. One of the greatest heroes in the first part of the American Revolution was Benedict Arnold, the commandant of West Point. He won the victory with Ethan Allen at Ticonderoga, but he was a man of great pride. Feeling that he did not get the recognition he deserved and that the Congress of the United States did not pay him what they should for his service in the Revolution, he became embittered. The British, however, were able to use this bitterness to their advantage. They paid him enough money so that he became a traitor and sold out West Point. Consider other signers of the Declaration. You know, as I do from history classes, that Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson tarnished their honor.

When I was working on this sermon, I pulled a wonderful book from the shelf in my study at home, Our Sacred Honor, written by William J. Bennett, the former Secretary of Education. Dr. Bennett’s gambling habits have tarnished his honor. Searching on the internet for stirring stories about what happened to the signers of the Declaration of Independence, I found a newsletter by Rush Limbaugh. That individual also has a tarnished honor, maybe because of his addiction to prescriptive medications, maybe because of his caustic attitude. As far as I know, every political administration, including the presidency, has been tarnished. Honor is so easily tarnished, including yours and mine.

Somewhere in your home, you have a copy of the Declaration of Independence. I encourage you to find it and read it before the sun sets Tuesday night. Say “The Pledge of Allegiance.” Sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Wave the flag, but remember the wisdom of the Bible. The book of Proverbs says in two places, “Humility comes before honor” (Proverbs 15:33; 18:12). Pride, lack of humility, tarnishes honor most.

The scripture reminds us, “If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and confess their sins and seek my face, I will hear their prayer. I will forgive their sin, and I will heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14). That scripture is so important because we need humility more than anything else to have honor as a nation. The Fourth of July is a time when we tend to celebrate national pride. Doing so is important, but please let me just remind you, dear people of God, that humility, not pride, is the way to honor.

Would you like to have sacred honor? You can have it, but it will probably become tarnished. That is true of every human being I know. If you would like to have sacred honor, humble yourself before God. Remember that His way, not yours, is more important. Seeking and doing His will, not ours, is crucial. When I sing that wonderful prayer “God Bless America,” I want God to bless America, not so much because it is the land that I love, though it is, but because America can be a blessing to God and to the world He loves. God is not the God of America. He is the God of the whole world. Let me put it succinctly: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16). God loves the whole world; and because He has blessed us, He wants us to be a blessing. I pray for our troops, for the men and women in uniform. When they commit atrocities though, the honor of America is tarnished. The only way we can have sacred honor is to humble ourselves before God and to determine in our hearts that our highest allegiance is to Him. We must remember that it is not our will as individuals, not our will as a nation, but His will that brings us honor.

The beginning step for Christian people is to make a decision to acknowledge Jesus Christ as the Son of God, to confess sins, to ask His forgiveness, and to commit ourselves to be the people He has called us to be. Then we begin to grow; and God shapes us, forms us, and helps us become the people He wants us to be. Every single one of us is a work in progress. He wants to restore the honor, to do a little polishing. He does that by His grace.

If you have never accepted Christ as your Savior, we extend an invitation to you to make that decision today. If it is time for you to make a renewal of your faith, to rededicate your life, we invite you to make that decision. Some of you know that God has led you to this church. This church is not perfect. We have some tarnish, but this is a good church. If you feel God is leading you to become a part of this fellowship, I can promise that we will welcome you. We extend these invitations to you on behalf of our God as we stand together and sing our hymn of invitation, “Where He Leads, I Will Follow.”

© 2006 Kirk H. Neely


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