Times that Try Men’s Soul

Written by: John Kenyon, Ch. Lt Col, USAF (ret.)

These are the times that try men’s souls.” In reading this, you may now be thinking back over the last few weeks trying to pin-point which news agency or politician was responsible for this quote. To accurately reference it, you need to look to 1776 and the pamphlet titled The Crisis, written by Thomas Paine in December of that year. There is no doubt this quote addressed the situation of 1776 but it also summarizes our present situation as well.

Today, America is observing its 244th anniversary. Yet, I would be in error if I said this day is being joyously celebrated across the land. Indeed, there are those that are seeking to redefine our history, who “no longer see America as the land of the free . . . but as a nation built on exploitation and slavery” (“A Dark Cloud for Democracy” by Carl Trueman). In fact, rampant chaos and disunity are the norm in 2020 some seeing this as an unprecedented time in our nation. Yet, a quick look across that span of time proves the thought to be false. The letter of John Adams to his wife Abigail penned on the 3rd of July shows a time of great uncertainty in the early days of the revolution surrounding the Declaration of Independence from England. 

John Adam’s letter revealed that military operations in the recent past directed toward Canada had ended in defeat. One of the reasons for this was due to an outbreak of Small Pox among the American expeditionary force. He would state, “this fatal Pestilence completed our Destruction. — It is a Frown of Providence upon Us, which We ought to lay to heart.” Notice that Adams is looking here to God in an epoch time of history. Here he speaks of dire consequences but following this he speaks of a positive impact for the nation. He said,

But on the other Hand, the Delay of this Declaration to this Time, has many great Advantages attending it. So that the whole People in every Colony of the 13, have now adopted it, as their own Act. — This will cement the Union, and avoid those Heats and perhaps Convulsions which might have been occasioned, by such a Declaration Six Months ago. But the Day is past. The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America.

I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.

It is safe to say Adams words were indeed prophetic but it is more important to notice Adams looked to God both in the calamity that came but also to the blessings he believed would also come. His proclamation that this day was “to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty” clearly speak to that fact. (Lest anyone is confused, the 2nd of July was the day independence was passed. The 4th of July was the adoption of the final draft of the Declaration of Independence which then was signed on the 2nd of August of 1776.)

Indeed, the founders as a whole looked to the Hand of Providence as they declared their independence in a time of great uncertainty. This is seen by God being mentioned four times in the Declaration of Independence. This is done first in the document by the resolution to separate from England based upon “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God [that] entitle them” to do so.  It goes on to speak of “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.” As it concludes it appeals “to the Supreme Judge of the world” to the validity of the nation’s declaration for independence. It then ends with the following prayer-like call to protection by God. “And in the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

It is at this point I am going to take you to another time in history. Recently in a meeting the topic of discussion brought my mind to another time of great calamity and uncertainty during World War II. On the 3rd of February 1943, the USAT Dorchester which carried 904 service members was torpedo by a German submarine; only 229 survived. The significance of this incident is found in the heroic efforts of four US Army chaplains who died in that attack.

These four chaplains confronted with the chaos and uncertainty stood in the gap as they first handed out life jackets to the soldiers who needed them and when there was no more to give, they gave up their own thus sealing their fate. The following is a summary of what happened.   

The story of these four chaplains, a Catholic, a Jew, and two Protestants, stands out among the countless stories of commitment and bravery that make up the pantheon of the U.S. Army, as one of the finest examples of courage to God, man, and country.  Each, John P. Washington, Alexander D. Goode, George L. Fox, and Clarke V. Poling, was drawn by the tragedy at Pearl Harbor to the armed forces.  Each wanted more than anything else to serve God by ministering to men on the battlefield.  Each felt great disappointment at being relegated to service in a rear area, in this case the airfields and installations of Greenland.  Yet, each, when the moment came, did not hesitate to put others before self, courageously offering a tenuous chance of survival with the full knowledge of the consequences.* 

The account given of the final 25 minutes (time of torpedo impact to the ship going under) of the lives of these chaplains speaks of the courage they garnered from God as they slipped into eternity.

(a postage stamp was created to commemorate their sacrifice)


What is the common element across these examples? It is the reliance upon God. Each looked to the Hand of Providence by which to stand in times of great uncertainty. Their outcome was unknown but their confidence was on God’s mercy and grace.

I end this blog with a confession and recommendation. I must admit that in the last couple of weeks I have been affected by the uncertainty of what tomorrow holds. Yesterday my sister sent me a link to the song “God Bless the USA.” The rendition of this song is done by the acappella group Home Free which features both Lee Greenwood (he wrote the song) and The United States Air Force Band (I served with the USAF Band during my time at Arlington Cemetery; amazing individuals). 

As I listened to this song, I was reminded that this nation is not perfect but it is a land of freedom and liberty. The First Amendment provides the freedom: of religion, of speech, of the press, to peaceably assemble, and “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” It is important to show the contrast; do we see an example of an opposite reality? We need only look to Hong Kong.  Here is the example of what happens when the government of the land rejects God and is based on ideology and not the “rule of law.” 

There is a danger that this nation is slipping into a similar fate. Listening to the song, reminded me freedom is never free and it requires each generation to stand for those freedoms. Yet, it is the last line that defines it all; “God bless the USA.” It is here that we truly experience change that goes beyond the feeble attempts of man, who will fail. It is only in God’s power that true freedom and liberty can thrive. Let us seek the face of God with all prayer and petition that we would stand on what is right and true.


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