THE SPIRITUAL FOUNDATIONS OF AMERICA
Dr. W. A. Criswell
I would suppose, that by the assignment of this topic to me today, that we are sort of bringing our thoughts and our prayers in the conference to this bicentennial celebration, the 200th birthday of America. So the assigned title, as Dr. McCall said, is The Spiritual Foundations of America.
Many millions of us, with pride, look upon our American nation and remember our national history. I was brought up to love and to respect our flag and the country for which it stands. I was taught to reverence our godly traditions. There is still a poignant feeling in my heart, and there are still tears in my eyes when I see Old Glory unfurled over the Capitol building, or flying over a military cemetery, or carried by a soldier in a parade on a city street. As some of you know, I was pastor in Muskogee, Oklahoma, before being called to be undershepherd of the church in Dallas. There is a popular song about "The Okie from Muskogee" that I like; the rhythm, the lyric, the spirit of it, all of it.
We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee,
And we don’t take our trips on LSD
And we don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street;
And we like living right, and being free.
Leather boots are still in style if a man needs footwear;
Beads and Roman sandals won’t be seen.
Football’s still the roughest thing on campus,
And the kids here still like the college dean.
Yes I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee,
A place where even squares can have a ball
We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse,
While Sunday meetin’s still the biggest thrill of all.
[adapted from "Okie from Muskogee," Merle Haggard & Roy Edward Burns]
I came from that town! But whether an Okie or not, our bicentennial year affords us opportunity to praise our God for America and the American flag.
Along the street there comes
A blare of bugles, a ruffle of drums,
A flash of color beneath the sky:
Hats off! Our flag is passing by!
Sign of a nation, great and strong
To ward her people from foreign wrong:
Honor and courage and nobility, all
Live in the colors to stand or fall.
Along the street there comes
A blare of bugles, a ruffle of drums,
And loyal hearts are beating high:
Hats off! Our flag is passing by!
["The Flag Goes By"; Henry Holcomb Bennett]
Any time I go abroad – and Sunday leave for Europe – any time I go abroad it is still in prayer with deepest gratitude for America that I come back home. I remember one time returning from a four-month’s mission tour around the world. Late at night the plane was approaching the continent shores of our country. I cannot forget the thrill I felt with the pilot announced, "The next lights you see will be the shores of America." We share the patriotic sensitivity of Sir Walter Scott in his "Lay of the Last Minstrel":
Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my home, my native land!
Whose heart within him never burned,
As homeward his weary footsteps turned,
From wandering on a foreign strand!
This is our America, the land of our forefathers and the land of our love. It is a nation built around the church, and founded upon the Christian faith. There is not a schoolboy who but knows that the Spanish conquistadores came to the New World seeking gold, while the Pilgrims came to the shores of America seeking the will of God. Praying for freedom from oppression, they came here to build the Christian home, the Christian church, the Christian school, where the Bible was taught in all its meaning and glory. Can you believe how far we have departed from that first dedicated ideal? You could not teach the Bible in the American school system today, nor pray with its open page before the child.
Just by parenthesis, ninety percent of the McGuffey Reader, the first textbook of the first American schools, was biblical, scriptural, and moral. There’s not a vestigial remnant of that left in the modern textbook in the modern public school. That’s why – another parenthesis – we have our own school in the First Baptist Church in Dallas, starting at the kindergarten going through the twelfth grade. I wish every church in America had its own school, where we teach our children the Word of God, have revival meetings in the school, have chapel every day, pray with the youngsters, teach them the Holy Scriptures.
That was the way we started. In the founding of the great American nation, our Christian forefathers had a mighty and worthy part. One hundred forty-seven years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, one hundred fifty-three years before William Carey inaugurated the modern mission movement, two hundred six years before the Southwest became a part of the United States – I mention that because that’s where I live – our little churches and their faithful preachers began the evangelization of the frontier, facing the wild wilderness. Our churches grew apace. There were no missionary organizations; the incessant, unwearying evangelization was the work of men who were not sent forth, but who went forth to preach in obedience to a divine call. History and the historian recount the heavenly blessing of God upon their consecrated efforts.
As the population extended over the Alleghenies into the new regions of the great West, the missionary zeal of the churches kept step with the colonizing enterprise of the people. Men of God went forth into the wilderness, not knowing where they should find a night’s lodging, or their next meal, willing to suffer untold privations if they might only point some to the Lamb of God. It is impossible to estimate too highly or to praise too warmly these men of strong faith and good works.
Their hardships were such as we of the present day can hardly imagine. They travelled from little settlement to settlement on horseback, with no road, save an Indian trail or blazed trees; fording streams over which no bridges had been built. They were exposed to storms, frequently sleeping where night found them; often prostrated by fevers or wasted by malaria, but indomitable still. If they did not wander in sheepskins and goatskins like ancient heroes of faith, they wore deerskins: homespun took the place of sackcloth. Their dwelling was all out-of-doors, living in the plainest manner, sharing all the hardships of a pioneer people. The pioneer preacher labored in a parish that, as one of them said, "took in one-half of creation," for it had no boundary on the West. One of them writes, in 1806, quote:
Every day I travel, I have to swim through creeks or swamps. I am wet from head to foot. And some days, from morning to night, I am dripping with water. I have rheumatism in all my joints. What I have suffered in body and mind my pen is not able to communicate to you. But this I can say: while my body is wet with water and chilled with cold, my soul is filled with heavenly fire. And I can say with Paul, ‘But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy’ [Acts 20:24].
For the most part, the preacher was kindly received, often with tears of joy. The people, who were facing death by starvation or freezing, had not much to give the itinerant minister; even to offer him food and shelter meant sacrifice. But in nearly every case, he was welcome to share of whatever comforts the pioneer family possessed. In the wilderness, like Paul, he passed through perils, many perils by the way, perils from savage beasts, perils from godless and degraded men; but God, who closed the mouths of the lions [Daniel 7:22], was with His servant, the pioneer preacher.
The houses of worship in which these preachers held their services were generally God’s own temples: the woods and the prairies. Their libraries consisted of a Bible and a hymnbook, carried in their saddlebags. The preaching was a rough and ready sort; not always scrupulous of the King’s English; but strongly tinged with the good old doctrines of grace, eminently evangelistic and richly blessed of God to the conversion of their hearers. These men uncouth as they would seem now, unwelcomed as they would be to the pulpit of any fashionable church, led multitudes to the cross of Christ, founded churches in all the new communities of the West, laid the foundations the denominational institutions on which a magnificent superstructure has since been built. We who have entered into the labors of such men are noble indeed if we are worthy to unloose the latchet of their shoes. The nation that they built is the greatest, noblest, freest, richest on earth.
What makes a nation great? If continental expanse made a nation great, Siberia would be the mightiest country on the face of the globe. If population concentrated made a nation great, India would be the greatest nation in the world. If ancient culture made a nation great, China would be the leader of all the families of men. What makes a nation great? It is the character of her people! A nation is made great not by its fruitful acres, but by the men who till them; not by its great forests, but by the men who use them; not by its rich mines, but by the men who work them; not by the vast systems of transportation, but by the men who build them. As Lyman Abbott said, "America was a great land before Columbus discovered it. Americans have made of it a great nation."
Stretching from side to side, wide as the continent is wide, from ocean to ocean, America is not only a land of charm, of beauty, of wealth and resources, of emerald forests, of mighty mountains, of broad plains, of teeming cities and winding rivers, but it is also a land of freedom, of churches, of schools, and of godly homes.
God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!
["America the Beautiful"; Katharine Lee Bates]
America is worth winning. It is worth saving. It is worth evangelizing. It is worth preaching to. It is worth dying for. Who will possess her? It will be we of the Christian faith or someone else. When Alexander the Great lay dying, his generals asked him, "Sir, whose is the kingdom?" The world conqueror replied, "It is for him who can take it."
Walking with one of the executives in the American Board of Missions to the Jews, I asked him about New York City and of about the three million and more Jews who live in that city, about as many as would live in Palestine, in Israel itself. And I said, "How many of them belong to a synagogue?" He said, "Apparently, roughly forty-seven percent;" which means fifty-three percent don’t even belong. I said, "How many of them will go to a synagogue service?" He said that has been statistically reported, and maybe of that group of the forty percent who nominally would say they belong to some kind of a synagogue, maybe two or three percent or less would ever be in a service," which means that fifty-three percent have no religious affiliation whatsoever; they have no remembrance of why it is that they are called Jews, and they have no dedication to any religious faith whatsoever. For us to overlook and to forget that great segment of God’s people in the earth is unthinkable and unimaginable on our part. That’s why my heart has always been in deepest and profoundest sympathy with this group of dedicated men who try to bring to Israel a knowledge of their true God, these who first taught Him to us.
What of the future of our beloved country? "Watchmen, what of the night?" [Isaiah 21:11]. Whether we live or die as a nation lies in the imponderables of Almighty God. America cannot survive in wickedness, in drunkenness, in debauchery and open shame. If the forces of violence and blasphemy and darkness win our nation, we are lost eternally, tragically, forever lost as a nation. Long ago the ancient prophet said, "The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God" [Psalm 9:17]. And as a modern prophet added – and he did it upon the occasion of the most glorious pageantry the world has ever seen, and I think ever will see; it was the occasion of the Diamond Jubilee of the reign of Queen Victoria, when the British Empire was at its height – and there was present in England the pomp and power and majesty of the whole British world on which the sun never set, they were there from every continent and practically every nation under the sun; and when the days of pageantry and glory were over, celebrating the sixtieth year of the reign of Queen Victoria, Rudyard Kipling wrote his "Recessional":
Far-called our navies melt away–
On dune and headland sinks the fire–
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!
If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that hold not Thee in awe –
Such boasting as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the law –
Lord God of hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!
And England forgot. And England today is a tenth, a fifteenth, a twentieth-rate power, and faces spiritual and economic bankruptcy.
The forces of evil and the powers of darkness are riding hard to seduce our nation into secularism and materialism, leaving God out of human life. If they succeed, if they win, we have lost our country. Secularism is the same all over the world, whether here or in communist Russia. Godliness is the same whether here or in Hanoi. Blasphemy and impiety and sacrilege are the same whether here or in Red China. The difference, ultimate and final, between the slavery of the communist world and the freedom of the Western world is God! If we lose His presence and blessing, we have lost all we hold dear to the conquest of a merciless and ruthless enemy. Our homes, our families, our churches, our nation shall have fallen prey to the cruel captivity of darkening forces that are anti-God, anti-church, anti-Christ, anti-religion, anti-Semitic. The only compelling and intense power and force that stands between us and the loss of our souls and of our nation is that represented by the church of the living God, the Lord Jesus Christ.
This is the tragedy of all tragedies: at a time when the church ought to be at her best, she is at her worst; in a day when she ought to confront the world in strength, she is herself decimated in anemia. Look at these two newspaper articles that were published about the same time, a few months ago. One concerns a service in a Dallas church; it reads by way of announcement. The headline: "Stripper will do own thing at such-and-such church." Then the article:
It will be the stripper and then the sermon this morning at such and such church. Exotic dancer so and so has been invited to dance during the eleven o’clock service at the church. "It will be very similar to her nightclub act," the minister said. "We are a very open church. We believe in people doing their own thing. We do not accept the Victorian taboos prevalent in this area. I do not consider it immoral to dance nude. The body is a beautiful thing, a part of our being. Our service centers on the celebration of life more than the traditional worship of God. It’s a celebration of what’s happening in the world today."
And that was the little article. Then the newspaper reported the service. They headlined it, "Exotic Dancer Strips in Church." Then the article:
Some churches have hellfire and brimstone, others have raffles, bazaars and bingo; the first church of such and such has a stripper. "But I can’t promise that every Sunday," said the pastor. Exotic dancer so-and-so performed for the congregation last Sunday. When she was through, she had nothing left on but a g-string. "I haven’t had one complaint," the pastor said – not one soul lifted a voice. "I feel like exotic dancing is a part of life. It fit very well into our service. She was expressing herself, and I think she got that over to the congregation."
No doubt about that.
Now let us look in sorrow at the second article. The cold brutal fact was editorialized by the editor of the Georgia Christian Index in these words, quote:
One year ago we editorially told you about a national magazine survey which rated organized religion as the last on the list of the eighteen most influential institutions in the United States. Many of you wrote your shock at such a finding. Well, that same magazine, the United States News and World Report, published a new survey in its April 21 issue this year. It listed the twenty-four most powerful institutions in the United States; and organized religion had dropped to twenty-three on the tally. Not a single religious leader was listed among the ten most influential Americans in 1975. Such a survey speaks volumes to Christians. There’s a big world outside the walls of our churches. Other people are shaking the world because Christians are forsaking that world. What will the 1976 survey reveal?
When the Lord Jesus said, "When the Son of Man cometh, will He find faith in the earth?" [Luke 18:8] was He talking about us?
We need a call to arms. We need a rebirth of the sacred purposes inculcated within us when we were looking in saving faith to the Lord Jesus Christ. It was His intent that the world would be evangelized through His church. To her was given the Great Commission; there was no other agency in His mind, nor in the mind of the apostles, when the heavenly mandate was laid upon us [Matthew 28:18-20]. We cease to be the church of the living Lord when we cease to obey the injunction to evangelize.
When I wrote the book, Why I Preach that the Bible is Literally True, some bitter critics avowed that I had set back the churches more than twenty years. I would to God I could have set it back a hundred twenty years, to the days of the great revivals under Finney and Moody. I would to God I could have set it back two hundred twenty years to the Great Awakening under Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, who preached in this place, and John Wesley. I would to God I could have set it back two thousand years to the day of the great Pentecostal revival under Simon Peter and John, the son of Zebedee [Acts 2-3]. I would to God I could have set it back two thousand thirty years to the first showing of John the son of Zechariah, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, "Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" [Matthew 3:1-2].
When I was a boy, we lived on a farm just beyond the far West Texas line in New Mexico. We lost everything we had in the drought of the Dust Bowl. I have seen the sky turn to brass and the earth to iron. I have heard the cattle lowing for water. I have seen the pastures from horizon to horizon filled with barren waste and empty sand. I have seen families, my own among them, suffer in penury and want. One day, as a little, little boy, I was standing in the back door of our farm house with my father. To my amazement he began to shout to the top of his voice. My father by nature was quiet and reserved; to see him shout to the top of his voice was an amazement to me! I looked up to him and said, "Daddy, what are you shouting for? What are you shouting for?" My father replied, "Son, the rain, the rain, the rain. God has given us rain!" The falling rain meant bread to our hungry mouths and clothes to our naked backs; it meant life to our family.
We need that falling, heavenly, life-giving visitation from above today.
Oh, for the floods on the thirsting land!
Oh, for a mighty revival!
Oh, for a fearless, sanctified band,
Ready to hail its arrival!
[ from "Under the Burdens of Guilt and Care"; William Leslie]
The need of the church is revival
A freshen of grace from above
Repentance toward God and forgiveness
More trusting in Christ and His love.
The need of the land is revival
More praying for those who are lost
More fullness of Spirit and witness,
More zeal without counting the cost.
[from "Abundant Life," William Leslie]
Are you the pastor of a church? Are you a leader in a church? Are you a denominational servant of an association of churches? Are you a member of a church? The urgency of the mandate of Christ to make known the gospel to every creature is addressed to you. There is no discharge from even the least of us from that assignment. Every one of us who calls on the name of Christ is summoned to duty. We all have been called to this soul-winning dedication. The total mobilization of the total church for the total task of winning America to Christ is our God-given goal. This is the purpose of our salvation.
Evangelism comes out of the heart of our people and out of the health of our churches. We cannot give what we ourselves do not possess. When there is life and health in the church, growth and evangelism inevitably follow. When the root of the tree is strong in doctrine, in faith, and in commitment, the fruit of the branch is abundant in life-giving salvation. The soul-winning revival must begin in us! Judgment always begins at the house of the Lord [1 Peter 4:17]. The stinging rebuke of one of our Christian leaders is all too true: "Too long we have been in the position of wanting to enjoy something without enduring something, of wanting to possess something without being something, of wanting to have something without doing something."
When our fellowship is real with the touch of God upon it, when our hearts are filled with the love of the Lord and of the people for whom He died, when it is a concern to us whether men are saved or lost, then it is that the Almighty will hear our prayers from heaven, and will heal our land from evil, and will save our souls from death. Then, if it be as Jesus reported from heaven, that there is rejoicing over the repentance of one sinner [Luke 15:7], how much more shall we rejoice over a whole nation that turns to God!