In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, there is a scene where Alice and Humpty-Dumpty are having a conversation about words.
“’When I use a word,’ Humpty-Dumpty says, in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ says Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ says Humpty-Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that’s all.’”
This is clearly the question for our time–Which is to be master? Who gets to decide what the words mean?
It makes a difference. Words are how we build our world and how we tear it down. Words make our laws and our lawlessness. Words form our blessings and our curses. Words matter, but which is to be master? Who decides what our words will mean?
Let me give you example of what I am talking about. A few years back an original letter from President Thomas Jefferson was discovered in Elkton, Maryland.
The letter was written to the Delaware Baptist Association thanking Baptist groups who had congratulated him on his election as president. Baptists were particularly pleased that Jefferson was elected because they supported his stand on the separation of church and state.
However, in the course of the letter, Jefferson credits “the Almighty ruler’ for the “happy consequences of our revolution.”
Conservatives immediately leaped upon Jefferson’s use of “Almighty ruler” as proof that our second president was not an ardent supporter of separation of church and state, but was in fact a proponent of America as a Christian nation.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said at the time that the letter gives new insight into Jefferson’s thinking. Noting Jefferson’s tone toward the Delaware Baptists and his reference to God, Land wrote, “That is not a secular vision.”
But what did Jefferson mean by “Almighty ruler?” Was he referring to God in the same way Christians do when they say “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ?” If so then maybe conservative Christians are right and the language of the U.S. Constitution is rooted in Christian doctrine.
But suppose Jefferson meant something else. According to the best historians, Jefferson’s use of terms such as “Almighty ruler” and “Creator” refer not to the specific God of the Old and New Testament, but rather to what we might call a generic understanding of God.
Jefferson’s view of God was that of a watchmaker who set the world in motion then left it to run on its own. Jefferson believed miracles were impossible and that God had no dealings with creation other than empowering human beings to live in it.
Is that the God we want to affirm during our Sunday morning worship?
We make a mistake when we take the words of others and fill them with our meaning. If we are to understand the words of our Constitution or even our Bibles, we must make an effort to determine what the words meant to the people who originally spoke them.
At least that’s what we need to do if we want to know what the words really mean. If we only care that the words only mean what we want them to mean, all we have to do is figure out a way to be in charge of the words.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Alabama. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.