As the War for Independence drew to a close in 1783, leaving so much death and destruction in its wake, it gave pause to many thinkers of the time as to the role of God in such affairs: was God’s providence active or a figment of the imagination?
The correspondence of two Christian Enlightenment thinkers of the time, Jeremy Belknap and Ebenezer Hazard, sheds light on the grand questions that faced all Americans at the end of the war. Whence is God? Where is God’s love on the battlefield, in the prison ships, in the sick room, on the death bed?
These questions were uppermost in Ebenezer Hazard’s mind at the end of the war when he ended his bachelor days and married. He had been on the road for a good part of the war, a postal official ensuring good communications for the American Patriots. With war’s end, the cautious Hazard decided it was time to marry and begin a family. But when his wife became pregnant, and she gave birth to a boy, the haunting fear of death, which had been so familiar to him during the war, began to interfere with the joy he felt at the presence of his newborn son. These fears became excruciating when during the summer and fall months of 1784 his son became dangerously ill.
Jeremy Belknap, a clergyman living in New Hampshire, tried to advise Hazard about his fears. Writing at the end of November, particularly in response to Hazard’s mixed feelings of the past months of fear for his son’s life, tremendous love for the boy, and a sense that a more distant attachment to children is best, Belknap had to disagree. Speaking as a friend and pastor, he counseled: “I have no fondness for encouraging parents in making themselves uneasy because they love their children, as if they were in danger of idolizing them. It is natural to love them, it is necessary we should. Reason, prudence, and time will teach us how to set bounds to this fondness; but where is the harm of indulging it, especially at first, when the thing is new? How much more rational to play with a darling child than with a lapdog, or parrot, or squirrel! Let Nature have vent. ‘Enjoy the present, nor with needless cares, Of what may spring from blind misfortune’s womb, Appal the surest hour that life bestows’.”
“I have administered,” Belknap continued, “the same wholesome advice to our good friend the Metropolitan [Joseph Buckminster of Portsmouth], who has the same fears respecting his child. For my part, I think it is an exercise of gratitude to Heaven for its blessings, to enjoy them. As they are sent to sweeten the bitter cup of life, let us taste the sweet, and thank the Giver.”
Hazard, unconvinced, responded laconically three weeks later: “Your advice about loving children is natural, but not prudent; for, in case of their being taken away, the pangs of separation must be in proportion to the strength of the attachment, and that must be very, very, very great.”
For Belknap, the suffering and violence of war taught him to have complete faith in God, to accept all experiences, pain, suffering, even death, with piety and happiness, allowing God’s love to extend even in life’s most bitter moments. Belknap realized during the war that the love of God is limitless, found even during war, even during death. The love of God is ubiquitous, if mysterious.
For Hazard, however, the light of God’s love was dimmed by the experiences of the world, the pain and fears respecting the prospective loss of loved ones: for all of those whom one loves will eventually suffer and die. Hazard had seen the suffering of war during his travels, and it overwhelmed his sense of God’s love. There were too many orphans, too many widows. Sorrow is too much. How can one live life happily when in the next moment, or in the next year, or even in a decade, those whom one has lived life for become ill and die?
The disciple John wrote in his first letter, “perfect love knows no fear.” Hazard, who admitted to Belknap that he often focused on God’s wrath rather than his love, could find little solace in this passage of Scripture. Yet for Belknap the words of John meant everything. Total and complete love vanquishes all fear. Yet who has total and complete love? No one, of course. But it is a goal, a pursuit, and one must make the attempt at such love. To deny love because of the fear of death is to fail in life, and goes against the ways of God, who requires his creation to procreate, to spread love, to enjoy each other.
Belknap eventually was tested in his words and faith, when in 1789 one of his sons became terminally ill and died. Belknap cared for him at the death bed and asked him to commit himself to the love of Christ. He buried his son content that God’s love had triumphed over death: how? This is the mystery of God’s love. How can love allow pain and death? Christ Himself experienced pain and death, yet became triumphant in love. Belknap believed that God was an efficient Creator who would not lose any of His Creation, but all Creation would be embraced in the unrestrained love of God. Death is the moment at which the perfect love of God overwhelms and vanquishes all fear: for the one who passes if not the one who stays, who has to wait, be patient, accept God’s love, and know that in time the transcendent love of God will embrace all the living—at the end.