"In the beginning of the contest with G. Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayer in this room for the Divine protection — Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. … I have lived, Sir, a long time; and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth, that God governs the affairs of men!"
—Benjamin Franklin, 1787
"There is no overwhelming proof, but deep inside we know. And to those who believe, it also seems clear that these events took place with the direction and purpose. Despite our weaknesses, which are many, and our failings, which have existed since our inception, God has been willing to intervene so that this nation might survive."
– Chris and Ted Stewart, 2009
The Founding Fathers regularly wrote that they considered themselves to be doing God's work in establishing the United States. This habit was not just confined to the conspicuously devout, such as Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams but also to such secular saints as Jefferson and Franklin, the so-called Deists. More to the point, they fervently believed — and often asserted — that God in his Providence actively intervened in events to make their efforts successful.
Today, we often dismiss such rhetoric as "just the way people talked back then" and explain how politicians of a certain era used it to rally an overwhelmingly religious populace behind them.
In their terrific new book, Seven Miracles that Saved America: Why they Matter, Why We Should Have Hope, former Air Force officer Chris Stewart and his brother, U.S. District Court Judge Ted Stewart, argue forcefully that the Founders not only meant what they said, but they were right.
The Stewarts look at seven instances in which overwhelming odds had to be beaten for the United States to exist in its current form. While some might argue over their meaning or the significance of some of their "miracles," the unlikely circumstances that saved the day in several cases will have even a hardcore secularist taking a second look:
The extraordinary unlikelihood that America was colonized due to the efforts of an ambitious navigator with humble beginnings – rather than perhaps the greatest fleet ever assembled for just such a purpose– which "discovered" North America about 70 years before Columbus.
The million-to-one odds that saved the English colonization of America as a fleet crossing the Atlantic arrives in Jamestown minutes before it was to be abandoned.
The fortuitous fog that saved Washington's army that was as well-timed — and accurate — as any artillery smokescreen.
The discovery of the Japanese fleet heading toward Midway in the vastness of the Pacific during World War II by an American reconnaissance airplane extending its search well beyond its operational range.
While this book makes a theological and political point, the emphasis in Seven Miracles that Saved America is on storytelling. The Stewarts employ an unusual device — novelizing part of each chapter, much like the Shaaras or Alan Eckert — while sticking to known facts and actual quotes. This makes for an extremely engaging, if rather quirky, narrative.
The authors open with the fascinating — and not well known account — of how America should have been colonized by the Chinese, rather than by Western Europeans. Even if the Chinese did not discover the American continents, though it seems likely they should have, with their massive fleet and more advanced technology.
However, the glorious fleet that was sent on a mission of discovery, returned to a China that had changed and become inward-focused and xenophobic. The records of the exploration were burned, and the fabled fleet was left to rot, along with China's expansionist ambitions. (For more on this, check out last year's interesting, if flawed, book, 1421.)
The next chapter, The Miracle at Jamestown, continues the discussion of the religious and cultural nature of those who colonized America and why it was important. While the Stewarts propose the obvious, that those who followed Columbus were culturally very different than the navy of Zheng He, the authors assert it was also very important that a Protestant presence be established in America. They contend the competition among Christian sects led to the religious diversity and tolerance that formed the basis of the United States.
Their story of how close Jamestown came to failure and abandonment is gripping reading. How it was saved is one of the more convincing cases for the word "miracle" in the book—along with the "mysterious fog" that saved Washington's army in New York in the Revolutionary War, allowing him to pull off a Dunkirk-like evacuation and live to fight another day.
Many might put the circumstances of extraordinary events down to the American character that results from free men, for the first time in history, being allowed to operate on principles of liberty. It's not unusual, for instance, to hear the term "the miracle of the Constitution." It's just unusual — today, at least — for it to be meant as literally as the Stewarts' assert.
This is particularly true in the chapters in which the authors see the hand of God in the timing of Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan assuming the presidency in times of crisis.
Easily the most controversial chapter — and the most likely to raise the ire of some country club Republicans, much less Democrats — is the chapter saying that Ronald Reagan not only won the Cold War but also saved America.
The Stewarts, however, point out that George H.W. Bush, while a good man, didcall the Reagan economic agenda "voodoo economics" during the Republican primaries. Even if Bush 41 truly was aboard, he would not have had the political oomph to push it through a Democrat-controlled Congress.
More importantly, Bush was from the "realist" foreign policy tradition, which would have looked for "stability" and détente over real change. The most persuasive point the authors make here is to remind us that, after all of Reagan's successes in putting the USSR on the ropes, Bush ordered a "reassessment" of U.S. relations with the Soviets upon taking office.
While the first Bush administration was "reassessing," communism collapsed, and 41 was too surprised to even celebrate the Berlin Wall coming down, as Reagan had predicted.
Of course, such pivotal battles as Gettysburg and Midway had hundreds of little moments that one could argue "changed the course of history." In the case of Midway, for example, the authors are persuasive in their argument that nearly every one of those moments miraculously went the Americans' way.
In the case of Gettysburg, for instance, they could easily have titled the chapter, "The Miracle of Friendly Fire." Had Stonewall Jackson, the South's best tactician and Lee's greatest commander been with him at Gettysburg … who knows? Jackson was easily the most important figure in American military history to be mistakenly shot by his own troops.
Those of a determinedly secular mindset may be apt to dismiss this book too quickly. Even if you reject the premise out of hand and prefer to think of it as "Seven Statistically Wildly Improbable Coincidences that Saved America ," this book is worth your time.
In each case, the Stewarts do a masterful job of setting the stage of not only why the odds were stacked against the outcome we take for granted but also in reminding us of what was at stake. Each chapter, it could be argued, is as good a one-chapter treatment of a momentous time as you are likely to find anywhere—particularly setting the stage for the Civil War, and demolishing the notion that slavery was a side issue.
Which brings us to the authors' ultimate point. As bad as things seem now, America has been much closer to the precipice in its history. The Stewarts write that if God did not let the nation fail, or fall to its enemies then, there is no reason to suppose he is done with America yet.
The end may not be near after all.