The Work of Freedom and the Seneca Falls Convention
Each year on the Sunday nearest Independence Day, the congregation of the White Plains Presbyterian Church gathers in our cemetery to read the Declaration of Independence, to memorialize those who made the revolution, and to consider the long and ongoing work of realizing its promise. The following was spoken by The Rev. Noelle Damico at the conclusion of our service on Sunday, July 5, 2015.
The events of this past month have challenged our nation to reflect on who we are and what we yet can be. We were reminded that America is a project, yet unfinished, ever evolving. Even as the Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage propelled equality for all Americans forward the horrific shooting of nine African American church leaders in Charleston and the burning of black churches exposed both how far we have yet to go as well as the enormous resources we are for one another and that we have as a nation for charting a better course for America and all its people.
In his eulogy at the Rev. Clementa Pinckney’s memorial service, President Obama reminded America that, “History must be a manual for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. How to break the cycle. A roadway toward a better world.”
The church has always been at the heart of this nation. It has been an organizing ground for revolution, a sanctuary against oppression, and sometimes, we must admit, a barrier or a bystander when history and God demanded better of us.
And so we listen to these words from the Seneca Falls Convention not simply as a nod to the past, but as a call to us now, in this congregation’s 300th year, to incline our ear to what God is urging us still to do and to be in our time, in this place, with our hands and with our hearts. For the work of freedom is ongoing; and it takes all of us. So we listen that we might ourselves help form that “more perfect union” and show forth God’s boundless love to all.
In July 1848 the first women’s rights convention in US history was held in Seneca Falls, New York. Organized by Lucretia Mott, Martha Coffin Wright, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mary Ann M’Clintock and Jane C. Hunt, it brought together women and men to discuss the social, civil and religious condition and rights of women. While it was a convention focused on the rights of women, the organizers designed it such that men could also participate – indeed saw their participation as necessary if these rights were to be secured for women
What emerged from that august convention was a document called the Seneca Falls Declaration where a series of resolutions first articulated rights that justly belonged to the women of this nation but which had been unjustly denied them. Central among them was the right to vote.
That right almost didn’t make it into the Seneca Falls Declaration. But on day two, the great abolitionist, newspaper owner, orator and former slave Frederick Douglass rose to address the convention. Douglass had long advocated not only for women’s equality but for the necessity of women’s leadership in making that equality a reality once saying, “Woman, however, like the colored man, will never be taken by her brother and lifted to a position. What she desires, she must fight for.” After he gave an ardent speech the resolution to insist that women must have the vote passed unanimously.
Listen now to these words from the Seneca Falls Declaration:
When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of man to assume among the people of the earth a position different from that which they have hitherto occupied, but one to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes that impel them to such a course.
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of those who suffer from it to refuse allegiance to it, and to insist upon the institution of a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.
But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their duty to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.
Such has been the patient sufferance of the women under this government, and such is now the necessity which constrains them to demand the equal station to which they are entitled. The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her…
Now, in view of this entire disfranchisement of one-half the people of this country, their social and religious degradation, in view of the unjust laws above mentioned, and because women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights, we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of the United States.
Read the full declaration at http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/documents/1826-1850/the-seneca-falls-declaration-1848.php.