July 5, 2021

National Treasures

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,

Read from the steps of the State House in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, by Timothy Matlack, Clerk of the Second Continental Congress, on July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence still rings beautifully in our ears. Those words reflected Matlack’s own beliefs that God created every human being equal, giving each person rights which cannot be taken away, and that governments derive their powers from the governed, not vice versa. When Romans 13 says we must obey “the powers instituted of God,” Americans like Thomas Jefferson and Timothy Matlack understood constitutional government.

Matlack was a microcosm of America. Nearly 20 years before the Bill of Rights, he led Pennsylvania to declare our rights include religious liberty, freedom of speech, trial by jury, and “a right to bear Arms.” On July 19, 1776, he engrossed the official copy of the Declaration of Independence now in the National Archives. He wrote the congressional instrument appointing George Washington Commander-in-Chief. Colonel Matlack led the Philadelphia militia as the Army of the Potomac fought for survival. He warned Washington about Benedict Arnold long before that traitor was caught selling the fortification plans for West Point. An enlightened thinker, he was appointed to the American Philosophical Society by Benjamin Franklin. In 1780, Matlack prompted Pennsylvania to adopt a bill abolishing slavery gradually, the first such act. He served in Congress and supported his old radical friend, Thomas Jefferson, in his hotly contested election as President. Jefferson and Matlack maintained a friendly correspondence late into their long lives. Matlack is a national treasure.

Personally, however, Matlack was an intemperate and hypocritical man. He loved his wife, Ellen Yarnall, and they had two sons and three girls together. But after her death, this radical advocate of human equality violated both his own ideals and a fellow human being. He bought an African American girl, Hester, ostensibly to keep his house. He sold Hester to another white man upon his second marriage. He had once felt a call to ministry, but he later caned two Quaker ministers in the street. Ejected from his church, he subsequently found peace and planted a church. (You can visit the meeting house which Matlack designed and built as you walk from Independence Hall past the Liberty Bell to the National Constitution Center. The Free Quaker house is across the street from Benjamin Franklin’s grave.)

Matlack’s brother-in-law was just as bad. Son of a famous preacher named Mordecai Yarnall, Peter had a reputation for memory and mimicry. Known in both the Army and the Navy as “a singular character and degenerate son,” Peter would walk into Quaker churches and preach just for the fun of it. One fooled congregation even extended him a call to ministry. After hearing a prophetic sermon at his mother’s funeral, Peter made his way to a pub, where he regaled his army buddies. He repeated the sermon point by point, applying each to his drinking friends. “Now Tim,” he told Matlack, “this is for you.” They laughed heartily! 

But at the end of his mimicked message, Peter said, “Now this is for none of you, it is for myself.” The young surgeon’s demeanor changed immediately, and he left quietly. After traumatic dreams, he recalled the faith preached by his father, a faith which compelled his great grandfather to flee from England’s religious persecution in 1683. In this way, Peter converted to Christ, proclaiming to everyone who would listen that he had once “missed his way.” Dr. Yarnall ended his days as a widely regarded and true gospel preacher. The Word of God is so powerful that it can change even those who use it in mockery.

Our nation began with great ideals, but we have not always lived up to them. Our nation is full of hypocrites like Matlack and godless mockers like Yarnall. But God’s grace can extend even to hypocrites and mockers. The question is whether we will repent of our own hypocrisy and our own mockery. By all accounts, both Matlack and Yarnall ended their days in peace with God and reconciliation with their fellow human beings. Hester was also granted her freedom through Quaker intervention. These men repented of their hypocrisy and mockery, and they were made right through faith in Jesus Christ the God-Man. The question is whether we who dwell in a land which has religious freedom will be changed by the gospel we can so freely hear. You can be made right through the same faith these national treasures subsequently embraced.