In 1852 the United States of America was being torn apart by the issue of slavery. It was on July 5th of that year that a freed slave, Frederick Douglass, delivered a stirring speech on what Independence Day meant to a slave. In his speech he warned his listeners of the danger of so reveling in the past that they forget the challenges of the present. His words deserve our consideration today.
"My business, if I have any here to-day, is with the present. The accepted time with God and his cause is the ever-living now.
'Trust no future, however pleasant,
Let the dead past bury its dead;
Act, act in the living present,
Heart within, and God overhead.'
We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future. To all inspiring motives, to noble deeds which can be gained from the past, we are welcome. But now is the time, the important time. Your fathers have lived, died, and have done their work, and have done much of it well. You live and must die, and you must do your work. You have no right to enjoy a child's share in the labor of your fathers, unless your children are to be blest by your labors. You have no right to wear out and waste the hard-earned fame of your fathers to cover your indolence. Sydney Smith tells us that men seldom eulogize the wisdom and virtues of their fathers, but to excuse some folly or wickedness of their own. This truth is not a doubtful one. There are illustrations of it near and remote, ancient and modern. It was fashionable, hundreds of years ago, for the children of Jacob to boast, we have "Abraham as our father," when they had long lost Abraham's faith and spirit. That people contented themselves under the shadow of Abraham's great name, while they repudiated the deeds which made his name great. Need I remind you that a similar thing is being done all over this country to-day?"
For Americans living in the 21st century it would be easy to fall into the same trap Douglass spoke of so long ago. We have much to remember and cherish from the history of the United States of America. Great and powerful has this country's influence been on the world. And yet, for all of America's accomplishments, much still needs to be done. For Christian Americans the 4th of July needs to be so much more than a day off of work. It is an opportunity to thank God for giving us the incredible blessing of being a citizen of our great country. But even more so it is a call to commit ourselves to be a mighty witness for Christ among our fellow Americans.
"Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people." (Proverbs 14:34)