Forgetting the Little That Divides
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.”