My son will take a test on the Civil War today. On Sunday, he and I watched Gettysburg as partial preparation for this test.
I love Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain as portrayed by Jeff Daniels in that film. He reminds me of my husband. Chamberlain was a professor of rhetoric who became a great soldier. In the most famous scene of Gettysburg, he leads his men in a seemingly impossible bayonet charge down Little Big Top Mountain, and the Union’s flank is preserved. As Daniels portrays him, Chamberlain trots a bit uncertainly down the hill, while the more seasoned soldiers lope. I do see my sweet husband in such a role—sometimes uncertain but determined nonetheless, and drawing up his courage in a way he had never imagined he could. I think most parents find themselves in some metaphorical charge against their own selfishness, against forces which would divide our families, against all the ills that torment man. Bruce and I do this rather ineptly, but we do it and we keep doing it. One battle call after another.
For Family Home Evening, we watched a scene from the film, and I talked not just about our duties in our family, but about the missionaries Bruce and I get to see in their brand new suits several Wednesdays a month as they arrive at the MTC. We know that those suits will become torn and probably unwearable over the next two years, and those shiny shoes will be gradually shredded by miles of walking. We also know that most (though not all) of these missionaries will become courageous beyond what they had imagined, and that they will learn to focus on the real core of the gospel. No longer will the religion they preach be divided into various activities aimed at getting a “Young Woman of Recognition” or a merit badge or an Eagle Scout certificate; they are called to help set other men and women free. Newly ordained to the Melchizedek priesthood, the young men will be asked to bless others. They will, as one of our missionaries put it, be “broken” by the Lord. Regardless of why they chose to serve a mission—to please their parents, to appease a girlfriend, to have an adventure, or to truly become disciples, their mission will provide a daunting battle ground—and offer a life change. One of our elders said in a recent letter: “I have absolutely no control of my surroundings and life here. This is all so new and really forces me to rely on the Lord, which I still do not think I have done fully yet. I am not quite sure how to just let myself be carried by him. I find myself trying to carry myself and I get very exhausted and sometimes discouraged. The Lord has broken me before, and I will be broken again (in a good way). ”
With that, I turn to the words of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, as scripted by Michael Shaara:
This regiment was formed last summer in Maine. There were a thousand of us then. There are less than three hundred of us now. All of us volunteered to fight for the union, just as you did. Some came mainly because we were bored at home — thought this looked like it might be fun. Some came because we were ashamed not to. Many of us came because it was the right thing to do. And all of us have seen men die.
This is a different kind of army. If you look back through history, you will see men fighting for pay, for women, for some other kind of loot. They fight for land, power, because a king leads them or — or just because they like killing. But we are here for something new. This has not happened much in the history of the world. We are an army out to set other men free.
America should be free ground — all of it. Not divided by a line between slave state and free — all the way, from here to the Pacific Ocean. No man has to bow. No man born to royalty. Here, we judge you by what you do, not by who your father was. Here, you can be something. Here is the place to build a home.
But it’s not the land. There’s always more land. It’s the idea that we all have value — you and me.