Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, Charlottesville, VA

“[The 4th of July] ought to be commemorated as the Day of Deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to Almighty God. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade…from one end of the continent to the other.” –John Adams

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA.  Visiting the new Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at the University of Virginia this week— a site that recognizes and honors the slaves who built and maintained the university that was designed and founded by Thomas Jefferson—one cannot help but observe the disconnect between Jefferson’s role in writing “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence and the means by which he brought the University to fruition.  

Detailing the names and work of the slaves at the University, the memorial ends with these sobering words: “Forced labor, incalculable suffering, and the struggle to live with dignity were the daily experience of the enslaved African Americans who shaped the institution’s first half century. This memorial is erected as a permanent tribute to them.”

The UVA memorial provides a stark reminder of how the Fourth of July was hardly a “Day of Deliverance” for all Americans in 1776—with 1 in 5 being slaves (some 500,000 men, women, and children). As Samuel Johnson observed at the time, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?”

Although there were signers of the Declaration who opposed the evil institution of slavery (i.e. John Adams, Samuel Adams, etc.), many others were unwilling to compromise a lifestyle built and founded on slavery in order to uphold the tenants of the Declaration for all people.  Given this problematic history, how should we approach a holiday that can be a painful reminder of racial injustice for so many of our fellow Americans?

Consider Frederick Douglass.

In his powerful address on July 5th, 1852, in Rochester, New York, the great orator, statesman and former slave, declared, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn… Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will…dare to call in question and to denounce…slavery…the great sin and shame of America!”

Douglass acknowledged the hypocrisy of the United States’ proclamation of liberty in light of the gross reality of slavery—especially the Church denominations that attempted to defend slavery biblically. Their stances led to a split not only among individual believers but the Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian denominations as well—a divide from which some historians believe the U.S. Church has never fully recovered.

Nevertheless, in spite of these painful divisions, amazingly, Douglass did not reject either his Christian faith or America.

“I do not despair of this country…‘The arm of the Lord is not shortened,’ and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from ‘the Declaration of Independence,’ the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is…cheered.”

With the coming Civil War and the resulting emancipation, African Americans would glimpse a hopeful future and liberty.

Tragically, the short-lived freedom many experienced would quickly give way to Jim Crow laws, lynchings, convict leasing, voter disenfranchisement, and untold discrimination over the next 100 years—no doubt corrupting the celebration of July 4th.

Nevertheless, this did not deter Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from calling upon the ideals of the Declaration of Independence in his inspiring 1965 Fourth of July sermon entitled, “The American Dream.”

Like Douglass, Dr. King defined the dream in what he deemed to be the “majestic words” of the Declaration: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Where did these rights come from? Dr. King made it clear: “They are God-given, gifts from His hands.”

Reminiscent of his 1963 speech delivered at “The March on Washington,” Dr. King’s dream echoed the words of the Apostle Paul—”There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

As Dr. King proclaimed, “Never before in the history of the world has a sociopolitical document expressed in such profound, eloquent, and unequivocal language the dignity and the worth of human personality.”

The intrinsic worth described in the Declaration was ultimately not given by government but by God, who created humanity in His image. And being equal before God, all men and women deserved the justice of being treated with fairness and dignity—regardless of race, class, or gender.

That is why new monuments such as UVA’s Memorial to Enslaved Laborers are so important and redemptive.  As Cornell University’s Dean of Architecture Meejin Yoon notes, “The [UVA] memorial has the responsibility to acknowledge history, to honor the lives of the enslaved, and bring them the dignity and humanity that was taken away from them by the dehumanizing act of slavery, but also to be a space that acknowledges that the work of addressing the issues of race in America is not finished.”

As we continue to uncover and address the wrongs in our nation’s history, we can celebrate moving closer to the core ideal of the Declaration by recognizing the unity in diversity brought about by the imago Dei in all humanity.

For as Dr. King concluded, “The whole concept of the imago Dei, as it is expressed in Latin, the ‘image of God,’ is the idea that all men have something within them that God injected…And this gives him a uniqueness, it gives him worth, it gives him dignity. And we must never forget this as a nation: there are no gradations in the image of God…One day we will learn that.”

A true cause for seeking justice and a reason worth commemorating this Fourth of July.

NOTE TO READERS: After seeing the Memorial To Enslaved Laborers in Charlottesville this week and reading David McCullough’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel John Adams during COVID, I decided to revise/update my July 4 blog from 2020.

5 thoughts on “The Imago Dei and the Fourth of July

  1. You make me proud, John, in your thoughtful, comprehensive writing. Every American should have opportunity to read what you have written here. I will certainly share it.
    —Sara Beth Blair
    Birmingham AL

  2. Hello. I just watched an ACSI webinar and learned of your work and this site. For so many reasons, this blog made my heart sing. I look forward to keeping up with your work, and championing your wisdom. An informed and accurate historical memory for all of us will pave the way for a confessional and redeemed future within the American church. May we be brave to seek it.

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