I love the 4th of July! It’s coming around again quickly, and I’m seriously deciding where I’m going to be based on which city has the best fireworks. I know. It’s a little crazy for someone who preaches about peace to yearn for a celebration attached to a war. But there’s something about the 4th that reminds me of the sacrifice that freedom requires in our fallen world.
Growing up our family would pack up the van (or minivan as we got older) and make the pilgrimage to the beach in Cape May, N.J. They knew how to do fireworks. Spectacular! Later, in college, while on summer mission project in New York City, I watched the Macy’s celebration from a rooftop on Roosevelt Island — choreographed fireworks as they played the Star Spangled Banner on the radio! I wept. To this day, I shed a tear when I imagine the moment when the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there. It gets me every time.
But, recently I stopped and thought for a minute: “Why is it that, when I think of the founding of our nation, the faces I see in my mind’s eye are all men (with the exception of Betsy Ross)?”
I mean, when you think about it, what does it mean to be a founder? It means to lay the foundations upon which future generations stand.
But then a deeper question emerges: from which point in time do we count “the laying of foundations?”
In high school history classes across the United States, the Revolutionary War is counted as our nation’s “founding” moment. But undergrad history courses might challenge that notion, identifying the Civil War and the subsequent establishment of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments as the founding moments. Graduate level coursework might challenge that further, asking why we limit our understanding of what it means to lay the foundations for a nation to the moment when bullets begin to penetrate flesh?”
Could it be that foundations for our current national reality were laid by Elizabeth Key Grinstead, who only lived to the ripe age of 35 in the colony of Virginia, but on July 21, 1656 became the first black person in American history to petition for her freedom in the court of law and win?
And could it be that the foundations for our current national reality were laid by the women who applied pressure to the economic system of the Antebellum South by refusing to buy silk and other slave-produced goods and organized bake sales to raise money for the cause of abolition?
And could it be that the foundations for our nation were laid by the likes of Pheobe Palmer, a Methodist woman who laid the case that according to Acts 2, women have equal calling to preach and prophesy and should be equally able to use their spiritual gifts to further the abolitionist movement? Her book Promises of the Father won the argument in her day and landed her a spot alongside Charles Finney on the abolitionist revival circuit during the Second Great Awakening. Palmer’s faith laid the foundations for women’s suffrage, which makes it possible for me to vote today.
And could it be that the foundations for the United States of America come from the likes of women who took worked alongside Pheobe Palmer, like Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony, and others decades later who called men and women to unite in the ballot box? What about Inez Milholland, Alice Paul, and Lucy Burns?
And could it be women like Daisy Bates, who covered the Little Rock Nine as they broke the color barrier in segregated public schools after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. The Board of Education?
I could go on, but I don’t need to.
The answer is an unequivocal, “Yes!”
These women are founders of the nation we enjoy today. Many of them could even be called forebears of the faith God is calling us to exercise today. Their lives bear witness to the power of God to break through and move mountains. Their faith calls all of us to believe.
So, as you watch the fireworks fly this 4th of July, remember the women.
Lisa Sharon Harper is Senior Director of Mobilizing for Sojourners and co-author of Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith – forthcoming September 2014, Zondervan.
Image: Spectacular fireworks over Downtown Manhattan. Via Saurabh13/Shutterstock.