The Spirit of the Liberty Bell

The Spirit of the Liberty Bell



When two commandeered 757’s plunged into and incinerated the lofty twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center, and a third breached the seemingly impregnable walls of the Pentagon, the world gasped collectively. September 11, 2001 will long be remembered as the day when the “American way of life” stopped, tacked, and embarked on a new course. The catastrophic loss of life, the mountain of dust filled with melted, twisted steel and glass, the unrelenting search for survivors, and the unrelenting search for meaning prompted by this malevolent terrorist act, altered the self-reflection of all Americans. 

From Manhattan to Montana, from the City that Never Sleeps to the sleepiest hamlet tucked away in the morning shades of the Appalachian Mountains, people are asking, “What makes Americans so different, so unusual, so hated that there are those who would willingly destroy themselves to destroy our society and its values?” The answer is suggested by, but is deeper than, the renewed spirit of unity visible in the proud flying of the American flag and the patriotic heart that stirs afresh at the National Anthem. 

The true answer to America’s uniqueness is found in another piece of broken metal that has withstood every explosion of her many national crises. The Liberty Bell, its unchanging message still ringing loudly through the cacophony of cultural collisions and standing boldly through the deadening dust of history, represents the ancient call for worldwide liberty. Quoting the words of Holy Scripture, the Liberty Bell’s message from Leviticus 25:10 says, “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” 

It is our nation’s belief in this message and the commitment to sharing it with a world in the chains of tyranny that have made America and Americans different. Our unswerving loyalty to liberty, however, has also made our citizens and our values the objects of hate and contempt. But just as the broken Bell has not been silenced, so our wounded nation will not be silenced in its clarion call for liberty. As the new millennium now dramatically ushers in a new chapter in the history of America, reflect upon the uniqueness of America in this milestone year of three centuries of religious liberty in America, 250 years of the life of our Liberty Bell and 225 years of our nation’s independence.

The Liberty Bell, recognized worldwide as the symbol of America’s national independence, has also become the symbol around the globe for mankind’s deepest longing-freedom. America’s national freedom, born on July 4th, 1776 and first publicly proclaimed on July 8, 1776, was given birth by a courageous band of colonists assembled in Philadelphia. They had a vision for a nation with a new form of government, free from tyranny. The new millennium marks the 225th anniversary of their Declaration that gave us our legacy of American liberty and independence. 

But, this great event in the annals of human freedom had an important historical context. The Liberty Bell, which announced the arrival of American independence, had itself been ordered in 1751 to commemorate a milestone on the path to liberty. This was a charter crafted three hundred years ago on October 28, 1701, seventy-five years before our Declaration of Independence was written. It was then that William Penn ( 1644-1718), the sole proprietor of a vast land grant from King Charles II of England (1630-1685), gave to the New World one of the greatest liberties mankind has ever known-the freedom to worship God according to the dictates of one’s own conscience. In our age of religious diversity and political pluralism, we can easily slip into complacency regarding this freedom that Penn put first in his Charter of Privileges. William Penn wrote:

I do hereby Grant and Declare that no person or persons inhabiting in this Province or Territories who shall Confess and Acknowledge one Almighty God the Creator upholder and Ruler of the world and profess him or themselves Obliged to live quietly under the Civil/ Government . shall be in any case molested or prejudiced in his or their person or Estate because of his or their Conscientious persuasion or practice nor be compelled to frequent or maintain any Religious Worship place or Ministry contrary to his or their mind or do or Suffer any other act or thing contrary to their Religious persuasion

Religious liberty is today understood to be a right of every American citizen as guaranteed in our Bill of Rights. The First Amendment declares, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Yet this right of religious liberty was not easy to attain, nor has it been simple to maintain. Indeed, Penn’s vision for a free society with freedom of religious conscience was conceived in the Tower of London, where Penn was imprisoned for his Quaker convictions. This cardinal principle of religious liberty granted by Penn’s Charter established a most important constitutional precedent. When this principle was later encoded in the Constitution of the United States, it made America unique among the nations of the earth. Indeed, millions of people around the globe still do not have this most basic freedom.

Thus, 2001 is a milestone in the history of America, a triple anniversary year for liberty: 300 years since the declaration of the principle of religious liberty in Penn’s Charter of Privileges; 250 years since the conception of the Liberty Bell to commemorate and underscore the importance of Penn’s statement on religious liberty; and 225 years since the birth of a new Republic called America, our “sweet land of liberty.”

As we shall see, the spirit of the Liberty Bell embodies the story of our nation. America’s Liberty Bell unites in a seamless whole the gift and ongoing legacy of religious liberty; the realization of civil liberty in an independent nation, the cessation of the tragedy of slavery as seen in the abolitionists’ use of the Bell in their anti-slavery activities, the reconciliation of a nation fractured by civil war, and the collapse of both Nazi tyranny and the Communist Wall of totalitarianism. 

While one might be tempted to celebrate primarily the political implications of 300 years of the history of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, this would neglect Penn’s passion for the spiritual mission of his “holy experiment.” His prayer for the “City of Brotherly Love” is on a plaque that still hangs in City Hall. 

In order that Philadelphia and all of America may “stand in the day of trial,” we must be mindful that the priceless gift of religious liberty that we enjoy today is both costly and fragile. This gift was not free for those who longed for it, and fought for it. Nor is it free for those of us who continue to enjoy its benefits. William Penn, a great promoter of education for all members of society, would have agreed with Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) when he said, “A nation has never been ignorant and free, that has never been and will never be.” Thus, we as Americans must reacquaint ourselves with our heritage of religious liberty. If we do not understand what we have today, we will not notice that it is being taken away until it is too late. 

Please take this moment to reflect on our nation’s history and God’s Providence in the granting of the liberties we now enjoy. Consider again the American story of liberty-a story that makes your daily American experience the aspiration and the longing of “all the lands” and of “all the inhabitants thereof.”

This was taken from the book, Proclaim Liberty: … a Broken Bell Rings Freedom to the World, written by The Providence Forum president in 2001. It is taken from pages 1-3.

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