Today, after Sunday worship, I opened the news to an interesting headline honoring the 230th anniversary of an act committed by a man named Robert Carter III. A quick Google search about this person whose name I had never heard revealed that he lived from 1728 to 1804 and was one of the wealthiest individuals in Virginia. He was remarkable beyond his impressive wealth because he freed the five-hundred slaves his family owned and helped position them for successful lives as freed men, women, and children.
Carter had a spiritual experience that resulted in his conversion in 1780’s. He began taking steps on August 1, 1791, that resulted in the legal paperwork he entitled “Deed of Gift” which outlined his plan for freeing his five-hundred slaves. This liberation was the largest freeing of slaves in the United States until Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation decades later. Robert Carter III realized that freedom was not enough, so he deeded the newly free pieces of his own land and helped them build their own houses on it. He wanted them to prosper and succeed in society.
One interesting fact is that Carter outlined his plan for the successful liberation of the enslaved for both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Both were too cowardly to follow Carter’s advice. Jefferson proclaimed that self-preservation should be given weight, while Washington waited until after his death to free his slaves. Washington and Jefferson were both only concerned for their own well-being, and many lives were lost to their selfishness. National arguments usually justified enslavement as being necessary for the preservation of the U.S. economy. After all, how would the wealthy elite be able to continue their lives of luxury if all people were suddenly afforded the same opportunities at success? Why take a risk at being uncomfortable? The answer is clear: Two of the USA’s most esteemed Founding Fathers were cowards. Washington fought for independence, but he enjoyed the life of comfort that resulted from taking it away from others.
It was Carter, not Washington or Jefferson, who modeled the Christian concept of repentance. Repentance means that we not only stop doing what is wrong when we realize it is wrong, but it often means we do what is possible to correct the damage caused by our action or behavior. A good example of this may be seen in the story of Jesus’ encounter with a fraudulent tax collector named Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus realized that the demonstration of his repentance of scamming people was in action to make things right for the people who were hurt: “Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount!” (Luke 19:8)
Jesus replied by saying, “Today salvation has come to this house.” (Luke 19:9)
Carter’s story can help us better understand how repentance works. What would our nation look like today if all Christians decided to take seriously the sins of our past as Carter did, rather than passing it on to the next generation… like the example of George Washington?
What if we accepted that our nation’s recent past of slavery, prejudice, discrimination, racism, and segregation has resulted in the impoverishment of our neighbors in the present? Today, we still wrestle with those same arguments of Washington and Jefferson ringing in our ears, telling us that the economy, heritage, principles, or personal comfort is more important than addressing the wrongs of our nation’s past. Let’s identify those voices for what they are: Cowards.