Some years back I traveled to Virginia for a speaking engagement. While I was there I wanted to take time to visit St. John’s Church in Richmond. That was the place where Patrick Henry gave his famous “Liberty or Death” speech. Now I had read a lot of books about Patrick Henry in which they described the scene on that fateful 23rd day of March 1775. But I had to see it for myself.
During a conference break I had a few hours to kill. So I decided, “Now’s my chance.” So off I went on an adventure to stand where giants once stood. I drove for over an hour. I couldn’t find it. I stopped to ask the locals where the church was; nobody knew. I was becoming very discouraged as I went from street to street with nothing in sight. I was expecting to see signs everywhere pointing me in the right direction, especially since it was such an important place in American History. Nothing!
I pulled over, discouraged and tired. I gave up. I decided to take a rest. I adjusted my seat back and closed my eyes for a while. After a good power nap I woke up. My eyes were blurry. You have to get your bearings when you wake up in a strange town. There I was, my eyes opened, adjusting to the light after a nap. I bring my car seat back to the upright position. I look to my right and see the neighborhood houses; then I look left. I see something out of place. I roll down my window to get a better look. What do I see? A small white building on a hill surrounded by a black iron fence. I look closer. It was St. John’s Church! I had passed it by a numerous times without even knowing it! I just so happened to give up my search right across the street!
My emotions peaked. I got out of my car. I walked to the gate, it was closed. As I stared at the building moisture filled my eyes. I was standing in the middle of history! I recalled the many accounts I had read about this place; the scenes surrounding the day Henry gave his speech – I could visualize the whole thing playing out as it did in 1775. Here I stood, 233 years later, on the spot where Peyton Randolph, Edmund Randolph, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, George Washington, and Patrick Henry stood. I could see them congregating outside the Church, then making their way inside. Currently the Church is surrounded by a neighborhood; houses in all directions, the city down the hill. I wondered if the people living here knew the significance of this place. I wondered if they knew how one speech in this building determined the lives of those living here today.
I connected with history in that moment. It wasn’t just something I read in a book, it seemed real to me, alive, relevant! A story that was relegated to the dry bones of history was resurrected!
Patrick’s speech was about freedom. Freedom is something we all love. Let’s promote it with our words and deeds. Patrick Henry said,
“When the American spirit was in its youth, the language of America was different: Liberty…was the primary object.” May that youthful vigor inspire us today.
Contributed by Daniel W. Sheridan