Forgetting the Little That Divides

 In Culture, Faith, Fred's Blog, Fred's Blog, Gratitude, People, Politics, Theology, Vocation

Two devoted friends and brilliant minds — John Adams and Thomas Jefferson — fell out with each other over politics, personal slights and both feeling betrayed by the other. The feud not only embittered both, causing them to abandon all correspondence and relationship of any kind for many years, but it troubled their closest companions who could not imagine these giants of the Revolution becoming estranged for the rest of their lives.

In 1809 a mutual signer of the Declaration of Independence, Dr. Benjamin Rush, had a dream about the two former Presidents, wrote it down, and sent it to both men. In the dream he saw the alienated statesmen renew their friendship and begin corresponding with each other. John Adams, again in the dream, addressed a short letter to Thomas Jefferson, and Jefferson responded. These two brief letters were “followed by a correspondence of several years in which they mutually reviewed the scenes of business in which they had been engaged, and candidly acknowledged to each other all the errors of opinion and conduct into which they had fallen during the time they filled the same station in the service of their country.” Both Jefferson and Adams politely but separately acknowledged their friend’s account of the dream and thought no more about it.

Three years later, at Rush’s urging, Thomas Jefferson sent a very tentative letter to John Adams who responded with a guarded reply. One letter followed another until John Adams wrote to Jefferson on July 15, 1813: “Never mind it, my dear Sir, if I write four letters to your one; your one is worth more than my four…You and I ought not to die, before we have explained ourselves to each other.”

I am still moved when I read those lines. Bitter enemies prodded by a friend’s dream are brought back together for the last several years of their lives until they die ¬— both on the same day and only three hours apart: July 4th, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

Reverend Edward Everett, the president of Harvard, delivered an oration in remembrance of the two in which he noted the great impact on America of their influence, both before and after their reconciliation: “Forgetting the little that had divided them and cherishing the communion of service and peril and success which had united, they walked with honorable friendship the declining pathway of age; and now they have sunk down together in peace into the bosom of a redeemed and grateful country…They were useful, honored, prosperous, and lovely in their lives, and in their deaths they were not divided.”

The most moving communion scene I know is the closing of Robert Benton’s “Places in the Heart.” Set in rural Texas during the Depression, the film ends with people passing bread cubes and tiny cups of grape juice down the pews. Following the sermon on 1 Corinthians 13 and then accompanied by the hymn “In the Garden” a woman passes the elements to her cheating husband. Ku Klux Klan members share bread and juice with a black man they assaulted. A sheriff, killed at the start of the film, quietly passes the bread and cup to the young black man who shot him, saying, “The peace of Christ.”

“In that understated scene, the living and the dead, black and white, young and old, those who have sinned and those who have been sinned against, all sit together in the same dusty whitewashed sanctuary to share the Lord’s Supper,” says Martha Moore-Keish, assistant professor of theology at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.

Two weeks ago, I attended the funeral of a man deeply respected and loved by everyone in our community. I realized something similar was happening in that congregation. Maybe it is the nature of a small town, but we all sat there together in spite of our differences, racial divisions, histories of broken relationships, years of political rancor and falling out over trivial and serious misunderstandings. There were people in the same pew who had not spoken to each other in decades. Former partners and ex-spouses. Disgraced leaders and pillars of the community there together. In that moment I thought perhaps reconciliation and redemption is possible, if only for a short time. Maybe there is something to the power of a dream and the necessary hope to wait and prod and believe as Dr. Rush did that there is still a chance to “discover the magnanimity known only to great minds” that will heal our wounds so that in our deaths we will not be divided. Maybe there is someone for each of us to whom we might say, “You and I ought not to die, before we have explained ourselves to each other.”

More Posts
Showing 18 comments
  • Avatar
    G Smith
    Reply

    Thanks Fred. Great pictures and connections to forgiveness and the power of the gospel. It brings to mind when we had the opportunity to visit the area in Ecuador where Nate Saint and other missionaries were killed by natives. I will never forget having one of the groups killers come and pray for me and my family. There we were with a murderer, who had killed many beyond even the group of missionaries, and because of the gospel were united without fear. It was a powerful experience of the effects of the gospel and forgiveness. I just finished McCullogh’s book on John Adams, a really great read, but from the quotes I am guessing you may have already read it!

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you! Yes, sometimes we have to work our way into it over a period of time. Absolutely on the book on John Adams. That whole period of history is remarkable. It was the American Renaissance.

  • Avatar
    JohnKelly
    Reply

    Beautiful, Fred.

    I’m reminded of Tolkien and Lewis’s friendship that had something of the same trajectory. After Jack died, Tolkien wrote to his one of his children, saying “…We were separated…but we owed a great debt to the other, and that tie, with the deep affection it begot, remained.”

    Thanks for the reminder that friendship can carry the flag of hope, regardless of what life throws at us.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      You are so right, John. I like to think there is redemption in time even if it is invisible to others.

  • Avatar
    Tim Winn
    Reply

    Thanks, Fred, for your words reflecting thoughts that zero in on what ails so many of us, me first. You touched me deeply regarding some relationships that have gone amiss over some very petty differences of opinion over things that don’t really matter. The next question is whether I will do what needs to be done to make the dream a reality.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Tim – I told a friend that I did not want to leave people feeling they needed to do anything at all! I didn’t want to preach or invoke guilt. I don’t like writing that ends with “this is what you should do.” However, this blog came out of an experience not unlike the one with Adams and Jefferson for me personally and the restoration of that relationship has been a blessings.

  • Avatar
    Gary L. Selman
    Reply

    Thank you

  • Avatar
    Mark Petersen
    Reply

    Thank you Fred for sharing this today.

  • Fred Smith
    Fred Smith
    Reply

    Thank you, Mark. I always love seeing your name on the comments screen. I never know what I am going to read!

  • Avatar
    Todd
    Reply

    Fred the paragraph on “the most moving communion scene” and Benton’s film screams “grace” to me……that ideal or notion of “undeserved favor”……and who is it I need to extend grace to…..or receive grace from…..

    Thanks for the challenge!

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Yes. I love that scene and the way it sneaks up on you!

  • Avatar
    Gabriela Peterson
    Reply

    What a beautiful and touching essay….I weeped, and weeped.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Gabriela. How can a piece of dry history affect us so? I don’t know but it does.

  • Avatar
    Justin Narducci
    Reply

    This is a helpful reminder for our individual and organizational relationships, alike. Thank you, Fred.

  • Avatar
    Steve Steele
    Reply

    What a great image of heaven – the ultimate reconciliation.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Steve. Welcome to the community of subscribers!

Leave a Comment