For the last several years, I have made a personal “tradition” of reading David McCullough’s book, 1776 on the 4th of July. (Hey, you choose your holiday fun and I’ll choose mine!) The book is a marvelous retelling of that pivotal year 1776 in the story of America. But as I read this book, a repeated theme that impressed me was the number of “miracles” that contributed to the birth of the United States — or to be more accurate, maybe not “miracles” as such, but what theologians would call works of “The Providence of God” — a number of circumstances, which, had these “circumstances” gone the other way in one or more of these cases, our country may have never come to pass.
So what is this “Providence of God”? I want us first of all to look at the Biblical concept of the Providence of God, and then see how it was evident in God’s raising up our our country — and some ways we should apply our knowledge of God’s Providence today.
I. THE BIBLICAL CONCEPT OF PROVIDENCE
The word “providence” literally means, “before, to see” — (think of “pro/video”) to see to something beforehand. It refers to how God “sees to” our needs, and plans for them beforehand. Some say a good literal translation would be “see to it.” God will “see to it.” That is His “Providence.” It is like when He arranges beforehand for just the right person to be there, at just the right time, to meet just the right need. Sometimes when something like that happens for us we refer to it as a “miracle” — but it’s not really a “miracle,” as such; no laws of nature were suspended or anything like that — but in a sense it’s an almost BIGGER miracle; it’s a miracle of PROVIDENCE, that God, before time began, put all the right pieces in all the right places to bring about His will and to meet our needs at just the right time.
The Bible is full of verses which teach the Providence of God, including:
— Psalm 103:19 “The Lord has established His throne in the heavens, and His sovereignty rules over all.” That verse teaches us that God is in heaven, orchestrating everything that happens here on earth by HIS providential plan.
— Romans 8:28 famously says that “God causes ALL things to work together for good …”. “ALL THINGS”: the weather, circumstances, what appear to us as “chance meetings” are all part of God’s providential plan which He has “seen to beforehand” in His Providence.
— His providence applies to nations: In Isaiah 46 God says: “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, ‘My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure’; calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of My purpose from a far country. Truly I have spoken, truly I will bring it to pass.”
God says, there is no one like Me; He says, I am working out MY will in the world — the kings that are raised up; the armies that coming; the nations that arise — they are from ME. He says they are fulfilling MY purpose, in MY providence!
— And His Providence applies not only to “big” groups like nations but to each of us as individuals as well:
In Genesis 22, Abraham was being tested by God, as to whether he would offer his son Isaac on the altar. He was about to do it, when he saw a ram, caught in some bushes. And God told him to sacrifice that ram instead of his son. (Of course this is a picture of how God “provided a Lamb” for the sacrifice our sins: Jesus, who took our place on the cross.) But this is also an example of God’s “providence;” He “saw to it beforehand” that that ram would be there — in fact the literal translation of the word “provide” there in Genesis 22 is “see;” “see to it” — the exact meaning of the word “Providence”: God would “see to it” that the ram was there, caught at just the right place, at just the right time, for Abraham to find him there. He “saw to it.” It was God’s Providence.
There are all kinds of examples of God’s Providence, both throughout scripture, and in the personal experiences of the people of God throughout history, and to this day.
A few years ago C.S. Lewis received a letter from a woman named Vera Gibbert, who had a Bible on her desk one day, and the wind blew it open to Isaiah 66, and she walked by and saw it on her desk, and read it, and God really spoke to her heart about something very important in her life. She asked Lewis if that was that a “miracle”? Well, Lewis, and I too, would call it God’s “Providence”: He “saw to it” that just the right wind, came at just the right time, to open that Bible to just the right place, to speak to just the right person. God’s planning of all of this beforehand (to “see to it before”, as the word means) is His “Providence.”
So “Providence” isn’t a “miracle” the way that many of us would think of a miracle, in suspending the laws of creation, but it is the working of God through His created order, to “see to” the needs of His people, and to bring about His plans and purposes in the world
II. EXAMPLES OF GOD’S PROVIDENCE IN AMERICA:
So, having a better idea of what Providence IS, let’s look specifically at some specific instances of God’s Providence in the birth of our country, in 1776. What we will see is that time and time again, God in His Providence “saw to it beforehand” for the needs of our new country, that led to our establishment as a nation. What we need to understand, is that we would not be here today as a nation, without the Providence of God!
For example, in November, 1775, things looked bleak for General Washington, as barely a tenth of his army had agreed to re-enlist. Supplies were non-existent. Washington wrote that “Our situation is truly alarming.” McCullough writes: “For six long months there had hardly been a shred of good news … no sign to suggest better days ahead.
The NEXT DAY, amazingly, came ‘glad tidings.’ A privateer, the schooner Lee, under the command of Captain John Manley, had captured an enemy supply ship … north of Boston. The ship was LOADED with military treasure — a supply of war material such as Congress could not be expected to supply for months … arms, cannon, mortars, flints, some forty tons of shot, and 2,000 bayonets ….’. It was exactly what they needed, at just the crucial time. And Washington recognized it. He wrote: “It was an ‘instance of divine favor, for nothing surely ever came more apropos.’” (p. 64)
Just when they were at their lowest, no supplies, everyone about to quit, they capture this ship LOADED with more supplies than they could have hoped for. Was that just “luck”? No, it was “the Providence of God”!
Then early in 1776, the American troops had actually trapped the British army in to the port of Boston, but unbeknownst to the redcoats, the colonists themselves were actually in a crisis: “On January 14, two weeks into the new year George Washington wrote one of the most forlorn, despairing letters of his life: ’Few people know the predicament we are in.’ … So many of the troops (had) given up and gone home … the supply of arms was depleted to the point that there were not enough for the new recruits. … That the British were so ‘blind’ to what was going on and the true state of his situation he considered nearly miraculous. Washington wrote: ’If I shall be able to rise superior to these, and many other difficulties which might be enumerated, I shall most religiously believe that the finger of Providence is in it, to blind the eyes of our enemies …’” (pp. 78-79)
Later, on the night of Washington’s bold move up Dorchester Heights with canon, which surprised the British and forced them out of Boston, McCullough writes: “The night was unseasonably mild — indeed, perfectly beautiful with a full moon — ideal conditions for the work, as if the hand of the Almighty were directing things.” Perfect weather just when they needed it: “The Providence of God”!
But then, on the other hand, when British General Howe decided to attack Washington’s men on Dorchester Heights, McCullough writes: “By nightfall, a storm raged … ‘the worst storm I was ever exposed to.’ Clearly there could be no British assault that night! The morning after, the winds continued to blow with a fury. The snow and sleet had changed to driving rain. … And so … Howe called off the attack and gave orders to prepare to evacuate Boston.” (p. 96). It seemed that God would not LET the British attack that night; again He had provided just the right weather (this time BAD!) at just the right time, in “the Providence of God”!
Following the American defeat in Brooklyn later that year, Washington’s army had their backs to the East River, with a superior British force right in front of them. The English had a huge fleet which could have trapped the American army and kept them from evacuating, but again, “providentially,” the winds were contrary to the British fleet, and kept the ships away. Then suddenly:
“It was about eleven o’clock when, AS IF BY DESIGN, the northeast wind died down. Then the wind shifted to the southwest and a small armada of American boats manned by more of John Glover’s Massachusetts sailors and fishermen started over the River from New York (to evacuate Washington’s army). …
But the exodus was not moving fast enough. … Time was running out. Though nearly morning, a large part of the (Continental) army still waited to embark, and without the curtain of night to conceal them, their escape was doomed.”
David McCullough writes: “Incredibly, yet again, circumstances — fate, luck, Providence, the hand of God, as would be said so often — intervened. Just at daybreak a heavy fog settled in over the whole of Brooklyn, concealing everything no less than had the night. It was a fog so thick, remembered one soldier, that one ‘could scarcely discern a man at six yards distance.’ Even with the sun up, the fog remained as dense as ever, while over on the New York side of the river there was no fog at all. … In a single night, 9,000 (American) troops had escaped across the river. Not a life was lost.” (pp. 188-191)
An unseasonable fog that appeared at just the right time to keep the whole American army from being destroyed — the whole War for Independence would have been over right then – except for “the Providence of God”!
During Christmas of 1776, with his army in tatters and the British — and many colonists — believing the war was about over, Washington made a bold move across the frozen Delaware River to attack Trenton: “Incredibly, in a battle of such extreme savagery (street to street fighting with bayonets), only four Americans had been wounded … and not one American had been killed.” (p. 281) NOT ONE!
Summarizing the second half of the year, McCullough writes:
“From the last week of August to the last week of December, the year 1776 had been as dark a time as those devoted to the American cause had ever known — indeed, as dark a time as any in the history of the country. And suddenly, miraculously it seemed, that had changed …” (p. 291)
Appropriately, McCullough concludes his book with this paragraph:
“Especially for those who had been with Washington and who knew what a close call it was at the beginning — how often circumstance, storms, contrary winds, the oddities or strengths of individual character had made the difference — the outcome seemed little short of a miracle”!
We need to note here that David McCullough, who wrote the book 1776, is not a preacher, or a “religious writer” of any kind; rather he is one of the premier writers of history in our generation. But any responsible historian must take note of the unusual providences which took place in 1776, which allowed our nation to be created.
The birth of the United States was indeed, in McCullough’s words, “little short of a miracle.” It came into being through overarching plan of the Providence of God, as well as countless individual acts of His Providence.
(If you’d like to read in print these stories I just shared, or print them out, they are available on my blog, www.shawnethomas.com. The text of this sermon will be printed there this afternoon, and there is also an article I wrote called: “The Providences of 1776” and you can read/print them from there.) But the point is, the creation of the United States, is without a doubt, a result of the repeated activity of the Providence of God.
III. SOME APPLICATIONS OF GOD’S PROVIDENCE:
A. What His Providence in America does NOT mean:
— It does NOT mean that we “worship” our country, or put it above God. We are not here today to worship “God & country;” we are here to worship GOD — and to THANK Him for the country He graciously blessed us with. But it is all from HIM. It’s like the old song says: “My country, ’tis of THEE.” GOD gave America to us, in His providence, and we need to thank Him for it, and worship Him for it.
— It does NOT mean that America is somehow “God’s new chosen people”. (There are people who believe that) When I was in Seminary, a friend of ours talked with a guy who said that America was now “God’s chosen people, and his proof was this: “How do you spell ‘Jerusalem’?” j-e-r-U-S-A-l-e-m! SEE: ‘USA’ — right in the middle of the word “Jerusalem” — Implying that proved “America was somehow the “new Jerusalem.” (Never mind that the word “Jerusalem” was not originally spelled in English at all, but Hebrew!). The British thought the same thing about themselves, by the way, at one point. They thought THEY were God’s new chosen people. Folks, God had ONE chosen people, Israel, whom Romans says He used to bring us the scriptures and the Messiah. He doesn’t need another “chosen people.” He USES peoples, and He uses America, but we are not somehow “God’s new chosen people.”
— And that God’s Providence has been at work in our nation does not mean that America is perfect in every way, or that God gave us Hs providence because all of our people were so good. (If you read McCullough’s book, you’ll see the officers and men of our army broke pretty much all of the 10 Commandments along the way. No, our country HAS had, and still DOES have, many problems and failures. For almost a hundred years, our country kept a whole race of people in slavery; which was horrendous — and we paid for it in the blood of the Civil War — the bloodiest war in America’s history still to this day: more than Vietnam, more than World War II. We paid for that sin with a massive shedding of blood, and sadly it seems we are still paying for it in many ways today. And America has many other shortcomings today as well: we are still allowing the mass killing of babies in their mothers’ wombs by the hundreds of thousands every year. We are increasingly allowing sexual perversion to be protected by law. If America does not repent of these things and change its direction, this land will soon face the Judgmental Providence of God!
That God’s Providence has been active in our country does not mean that our nation deserved it, or is perfect — just like the men God has used throughout history were never perfect: Abraham wasn’t; Moses wasn’t; David wasn’t; Peter wasn’t — yet God used them all in His Providence. And the United States is not perfect either — but that does not mean that He has not used us in His providential plan in the world.
B. So although we are not perfect, God’s Providence DOES mean this country came about for His purposes:
It’s not hard to see at least some of God’s purposes for America:
— At least twice, in the two World Wars, if not more often, God has used the United States to preserve freedom in the world.
— AND He has used America as perhaps no other nation in history, to spread His gospel around the world.
Take our Southern Baptist Convention alone: since 1845, when the women of our Convention began to raise money to send 2 more female missionaries to help Lottie Moon in China, the Southern Baptist Convention has sent a total of 25,000 missionaries, to 189 countries all around the world; the largest evangelical mission force in the history of the world!
– Southern Baptists alone right now have over 3,600 missionaries in 120 countries all around the globe.
– Southern Baptists ALONE sent one BILLION dollars to missions last year. 2021 saw a great milestone: the Lottie Moon offering for foreign missions passed a cumulative total of FIVE BILLION dollars for foreign missions since 1845!
And this is just what we as Baptists are doing: that’s not to speak of all the other missionaries from all the other denominations, Bibles going all around the world from the American Bible society, hunger gifts, humanitarian help, that goes out to the world from America every year. God’s Providence raised America up for a PURPOSE: to be a blessing to the world.
Truly Psalm 67 applies to our country as well as it does to us as a church and as a people: It says: “God our God blesses us; God blesses us — THAT all the ends of the earth may fear Him.” God has blessed us as individuals; God has blessed us as a church; and God has blessed us as a NATION — WHY? (there’s that “purpose clause”!) The purposes of all of God’s providences is “THAT” the ends of the earth may fear Him. Reaching the world with the gospel — that’s the purpose of God’s providence in our country.
C. His Providence also calls for OUR responsibility.
The fact that God has blessed America in His providence means that you & I have a special responsibility to be stewards of that providence. As the old saying goes: “With great privilege always comes great responsibility.” God has privileged us to live in this land. He has blessed us with His Providence. That means we have some responsibilities:
— First, we are responsible to give THANKS for what God has providentially given us. I don’t think too many of us wish we had been born somewhere else. As we celebrate today, be sure to THANK GOD for the blessings He’s given you through His Providence to live in America.
— In God’s Providence, He has blessed our country, and many of us, financially. So we need to be careful to USE the financial blessings God has given us, to spread the gospel in America and all over the world. Psalm 67 says that’s the purpose for it. So we need to be good stewards of God’s Providence: TITHE the money God’s blessed you with; give above & beyond to Lottie Moon and “Acts 1:8” and other mission offerings. Be faithful with the blessings God has given you in His providence.
— And in His providence, God has given us the ability to travel like no other people in the history of the world. So we need to USE that freedom and prosperity God gave in His Providence, to GO on mission trips and share the gospel!
— Another responsibility we have is to pray for our rulers and authorities. The Bible says in Romans 13 that it is God’s Providence that has put every ruler and authority in his or her place. So we have a responsibility to pray for them. I Timothy 2 emphasizes this: “Pray for kings and all who are in authority.” Don’t complain about your authorities; they are there by God’s providential hand — so PRAY for them!
— And especially, let’s PRAY for our country’s needs. Let’s be the kind of people God speaks about in II Chronicles 7:14, who “humble themselves, and pray, and seek His face, and turn from our wicked ways.” Let’s repent of OUR sins. Let’s be part of the solution, not the problem, in our country! Pray for repentance of YOUR sins first — and then pray for the sins of our nation. As much as I love our country, and thank God for His Providence in it; I fear that in His Providence, we will not remain here long, if we do not repent.
It’s like the father I heard one time, who said to his disobedient son, “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out of it.” He was half-jesting, but there’s some real truth in that for us today: God’s Providence means that He ‘brought us into this world’ as a nation. But it also means He can ‘take us back out.’ And if we don’t get serious about turning back to God in our country, then in His Providence He WILL take us back out.
We have so much to be thankful for today, for God’s providence in America — but we also have a lot to pray about. So let’s bow our heads together and seek Him for our country …
— Let’s pray for our country today … right now, this morning, let’s humble ourselves, and pray, and seek His face, for our country, that we will turn from our wicked ways, and seek Him.
— Maybe you’d say, “I’m part of the problem; I’ve not been living right, and God is calling me to repent of a specific sin in my life.”
— Maybe there’s some specific area of your life in which you as a Christian need to trust the Providence of God. Believe that God will “see to” that thing you are worrying about today. Give that to Him this morning!
— Maybe you’d say you need to follow Jesus as your Savior for the very first time … be baptized … join the church …