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Watch 2022 online sermons » John Bradshaw » John Bradshaw - Free Indeed

John Bradshaw - Free Indeed

John Bradshaw - Free Indeed
John Bradshaw - Free Indeed
TOPICS: Freedom, Slavery

Hey, thanks for stopping by. In 1882, 19 men and boys drowned in a river on the other side of this tunnel. They were on their way to work. Where were they going? What were they doing? What did they have to do with this tunnel? And why did they die? You're about to find out.

This is It Is Written. I'm John Bradshaw. Thanks for joining me. I'm going to ask you a question, and you're gonna need to reflect on your answer because the answer to the question I'm about to ask you might not be entirely straightforward. I'm also gonna tell you a story and recount a little history. You might be surprised by the story, and the history, for that matter. But both the story, which is very well-known in these parts, and the history are very important, as they relate to the question I'm going to ask you. And that question is a very important question.

So what am I doing here in western North Carolina? First, to orient you, the town of Sylva is about two miles in that direction, Cherokee about eight miles over there, and Gatlinburg, Tennessee, 25 miles away in roughly that direction. There's a story behind the train tracks that run through this town, in fact, a story behind how these tracks got here. Follow these tracks and they take you to the Cowee Tunnel, and really, that's where our story begins.

In 1882, on December the 30th, it was cold right here. It was the dead of winter, and 30 men were headed to work. It would have looked a lot different back then. Along the river banks were trees with trunks that, according to historians, were 12 to 14 feet in diameter. There were no roads, of course, precious few buildings. The area was young and growing, growing fast. Lumber and minerals were becoming the foundation of the economy here. So there was a need for infrastructure, for things like railroads, which meant there was a lot of work, and a lot of workers were needed.

Those 30 men never made it to their destination because of what happened right here in the Tuckasegee River. They were in a boat that was being pulled across the river by a, a line to take them to their, to their job digging out the tunnel. But evidently there was a leak in the boat. Water began to pool in the boat, and the men surged forward. They had no experience with boats or rivers. And the boat capsized, and out they went into the frigid water. It was an accident that should never have happened. The Raleigh Observer would call it "the most awful [thing] that has happened in any of the public works of this state". Nineteen of the men drowned.

Now, it doesn't look like the kind of river that would claim 19 lives, does it? Well, getting to shore after the boat capsized wasn't easy... because the men were chained together. So, why were these men chained together? Well, I told you they were on their way to work, but "work" isn't really the right word. They were convicts who were being forced to labor constructing the railroad. Their task was digging out the 700-feet-long Cowee Tunnel to make expansion and industry and progress possible. Huge job, backbreaking work. The young nation was being built on the back of their blood and sweat. Now, when you hear of a chain gang, you probably think of a group of convicts working as part of the punishment for crimes that they committed.

Now, this is sort of what that was, except that it, it really wasn't. So let's look now at the history. This terrible tragedy on the Tuckasegee River happened in 1882, which your knowledge of history will tell you is almost 20 years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, 17 years after the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified. That's the one that abolished slavery. Blacks were free in the United States in 1882. Theoretically. In practice, it was different. Slavery had ended, except it really hadn't. Now, here's the history of it. Keep in mind that this is history. We shouldn't be backward about looking at history. And as we do, it'll give rise to that question I said I'd ask you.

After the Civil War there was a pretty significant problem in the American South. Where in the world were landowners and business people going to find cheap labor? Slavery had been outlawed. This was a legitimate issue. One day you have 10, 20, 30 slaves working on your plantation; the next day you have none. You've now got to pay free people a realistic wage to do jobs that most people wouldn't want to do. How does life go on? How do the wheels of industry keep turning when you have to pay workers? You're forbidden to buy and sell them now. So that was one challenge. Where in the world would the American South find workers to keep the wheels of the economy going around? And there was another question, another "problem," at least for those in power in the American South.

A whole race of people that had been oppressed would now rise. Pay them fairly and they'll provide for themselves; they'll show initiative. They'll be able to get ahead. And you never know, some of them might get into positions of influence and power. They might become active in the political process. Some folks weren't too keen on that. So that's how this unfolded. In order to provide cheap labor in a society where an enormous part of the labor supply had just been cut off, states realized that those same people who had worked as slaves could be put to work again. And if you're wearing a shirt made in Bangladesh and shoes made in Indonesia, you already understand the concept and the benefits of cheap labor. Laws were intentionally designed to limit the freedom of African-Americans and ensure their availability as a cheap labor force. African-Americans who had been arrested for crimes were leased by the state to mines, lumber camps, quarries, farms, and factories.

Now, when we say "crimes," that's a very loose term. The so-called crimes were often ridiculous things: changing employers without permission, vagrancy, riding freight cars without permission, being out after dark, being in town without having a permanent residence there. It was absurd. But it was enough to get an African-American into the prison system, where he could then be leased by the state, providing what was essentially slave labor to any number of enterprises. And often the person doing the sentencing for the crime was someone employed by a person who needed the labor. The system was, well, what would you call it? Now, I said a moment ago I had a very serious question to ask you. It is serious. It's important. I'll have that question in just a moment.

Thanks for joining me on It Is Written. On the second-last day of December in 1882, 19 men died here in the Tuckasegee River. Well, they weren't all men. Charles Eason was 15. Allen Tillman, James Fisher, and Jim McCallum were 18. One of the convicts survived. His name was Anderson Drake. He was 19 years old. He got out of the river and then went back in to save the life of a prison guard named "Fleet" Foster. People hailed him as a hero. Some thought that he would go free. Now, the story is told that that night Mr. Foster's wallet containing $30 went missing and was found among Drake's belongings.

So they lashed Drake 10 times across his back with a leather belt. Official records say that he also received a small reward, while another prisoner, Sam Pickett, was credited with saving several men and was pardoned and awarded $100. Convict leasing flourished after slavery was abolished. Leasing labor wasn't a new idea by any means. During slavery it was common enough for one business or plantation to lease slaves from slave owners. But after the Civil War, that whole idea was taken to another level altogether. Prison populations in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Texas began to surge, as providing convict labor was a lucrative business.

In 1883, according to the University of Houston, about 10 percent of Alabama's total revenue was derived from convict leasing. In 1898, that rose to nearly 73 percent. Death rates among leased convicts were approximately 10 times higher than the death rates of prisoners in non-lease states. In 1873, for example, 25 percent of all black leased convicts died. Now, if you wonder how this could have happened at all, well, it was a long time ago. The country was really still emerging from slavery, and there was a loophole in the Constitution, in the same amendment that freed slaves. This is the Thirteenth Amendment: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction".

According to the Texas State Historical Association, "A vagrancy law allowed local courts to arrest people whom they defined as idle, fine them, and contract their labor if they could not pay the fine". Local courts were able to force people into any type of labor until a fine was paid. Anyone who had been sentenced to time in a county jail for a misdemeanor or a petty offense could also be forced into labor. These were tough times.

Now, listen to this; it's from the Alabama History Education Initiative: "Convict leasing was a forced labor practice that developed in the South after the end of the Civil War. Huge numbers of convicts, primarily black males, many of whom had been legally but unjustly imprisoned (often on trumped-up charges), were leased by county and state governments across the South to various businesses in search of a source of cheap labor. These businesses (railroads, lumber, and mining companies, for example) paid governments a fee for each leased convict and assumed the cost of housing and feeding prisoners in camps they built. As a result, prisoners no longer cost the government money; they became a substantial source of revenue, a fact that increased the incentive to generate ever larger numbers of them. Tragically for prisoners, once on a job site, they received no protection. They worked long hours for little pay, often in extremely unhealthy and dangerous conditions. Prisoners were routinely shackled at night and whipped or tortured if they disobeyed orders. Hundreds of thousands of them died on the job. But because companies had so little invested in any one prisoner, if he died, he was readily and easily replaced".

Although the vast majority of the leased convicts were black, some were immigrants, and some were white, not many, but some. One of them was Martin Tabert from Munich, North Dakota, who rode the rails to Tallahassee, Florida, in 1922. He didn't know that the sheriff of Leon County had a scheme going. Men riding the rails into Tallahassee would be arrested and fined $25, about $400 today. The fine was to be paid within two days. The sheriff got $20 of those $25. He'd keep $3, about $50 today, and then split the rest among the men who were helping him with this scheme. Mr. Tabert, no surprise, couldn't pay the fine. So he was sent to the Putnam Lumber Company turpentine camp, where he was whipped to death by the camp boss. Tabert's family hired an attorney, who contacted a New York newspaper, which generated publicity that led to convict leasing being discontinued in Florida the next year.

Writer Marjory Stoneman Douglas wrote a poem about Tabert's death. It says, in part, "They took him out to the convict camp, and he's walking Florida now. O children, the tall pines stood and heard him when he was moaning low. The other convicts, they stood around him, when the length of the black strap cracked and found him. Martin Tabert of North Dakota. And he's walking Florida now". The Florida state legislature ended convict leasing the following year, 1923.

Writer and historian Dr. Matthew Mancini wrote, "There may be a trace of irony, however tragic, in the fact that a system of black forced labor would come to an end because of the hideous murder of a white convict". Convict leasing existed until the 1940s, some say the '50s. Now, you could make the case that in a certain sense convict leasing was worse than slavery in that, under slavery, enslaved people simply didn't have rights, and they knew it. But post-slavery, while every American was said to be free, this system made a mockery of that right. You might think you were free, when in actual fact, freedom was a delusion, an illusion, a chimera.

So there's the history, a grotesque system. It's well-documented. This isn't new news, although doubtless many people are unaware of its depth or of its truly hideous nature. But it gives rise to that question I want to ask you. The men who toiled under convict leasing were not free. Now, legally they were free, but that freedom was stripped away from them so that while they should have been free, they were not. There are people like that today, should be free, are not free. The church is full of people like that. Outside the church, they're everywhere. You might be one of those people. This matters. I'll be right back.

They say the Cowee Tunnel is haunted. Of course it isn't, but it is haunting. They like to say around here that the water that drips down inside the tunnel is the tears of the 19 men who died and were then buried up on top of the tunnel. Well, in actual fact, they were buried on a hillside not very far away from here. But there is a question that might just eat away at you, the way water might drip, drip, drip down on a rock and start to wear that rock away. Here's that question: How free are you? Well, you might say, "What? I live in the United States of America, 'the land of the free and the home of the brave.'" Or, "I live in Canada, New Zealand. I live in the Caribbean. I live in a free country". All right. But back to my question. How free are you? I'm gonna tell you this. You might not be as free as you think. In fact, you might not be free at all.

So let's talk about freedom. This is Romans 6, starting in verse 16: "Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one's slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness". And verse 20: "For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness". See, here's what we've gotta remember. Jesus came into this world to set us free. Once Adam and Eve had sinned in the Garden of Eden, they were no longer free. They were slaves, slaves to sin. But Jesus came into the world to set the human family free, not just to tell us that we have been forgiven, but to actually break the chains that tie us to the old life of sin.

You're a believer and you can't control your temper. Well, you're not free. You're being held in chains by your temper. If lust controls you and you can't shake it off and for years you've been led around by your desires, you can't claim to be free. You're not experiencing what God wants for your life. Now, careful, I'm not saying that followers of Jesus don't have challenges, don't make mistakes. Babies often fall as they're learning to walk, and long after they've learned to walk, they might still fall. But they're not being held captive by falling. They're growing. How is it with you? Are you growing?

The person who says, "I'm not a believer; I don't have time for God; I don't need God" is the same person who's a drunk or immoral or an addict or selfish. You're not nearly as free as you might think because you're a slave to selfishness. Here's what the Bible says, 2 Corinthians 3:17. "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty". It's God who makes you free. Look, it makes no sense that Jesus came to this world, died on the cross for you, ascended to heaven, where He now intercedes for you as your High Priest, if Jesus did all that for you, it makes no sense for you to be on the chain gang with other sinners. You ought to be free.

As Paul wrote to the Galatians, "Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage". That's Galatians 5, verse 1. He wrote to the Romans, "For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death". Romans 8, verse 2. What God wants for you is freedom. But just like the convicts who were leased out as slaves, there are too many people today who aren't experiencing real freedom in Christ. So here's what we want to do about it. We're all sinners. As the Bible says, "All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God".

Jesus died to set us free from sin, so we accept His death. We believe it happened for us. We confess our sins, and we're forgiven. Forgiven. Free. But you don't want to go back to the old life. You don't want to be set free and then return to shackles. So you continue to lean on Jesus and allow Him to set you free from the penalty of sin and the power of sin so that sin doesn't have dominion over you. Jesus has freedom from sin for you. Now, don't be saying to yourself, "Oh, I've gone too far. God can't possibly save me". That's just not true. You don't want to be thinking in your mind, "I'm too bad for God. I'm in this too deep". That's completely wrong. Jesus brings freedom into your life. That's what He does. And He'll do it for anyone.

Now, if you're thinking to yourself, "Oh, I'm leaving God out of my life, I'm ignoring God, and I'm okay; I feel like I'm free," well, God has you hearing this so that you can know that you're not free at all. Without Jesus in your life, the truth is you're a slave. Look at Jesus' words in John, chapter 8. Here's where we find real freedom. "Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, 'If you abide in my word, you are my disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.'" Jesus said, "Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin.... Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed".

Free indeed, that's God's plan for you. Free indeed, free from the power of sin. Free indeed, experiencing the power of God in your life. Free indeed, not under the dominion of sin. Free indeed, God's plan, the Holy Spirit in your heart, Jesus abiding in your life. Free indeed. What do you say? No one else can offer you what God offers you in Jesus. Can you ask for that kind of freedom in your life? You want freedom? Not just free on paper, but free in your experience. Forgiven and set free, free indeed. I'd love for you to get today's free offer, "Promises of Power". Experience how God's promises can empower and enrich your life. I wrote this with you in mind. To get today's free offer, just call us now on 800-253-3000, 800-253-3000. Or go online to "Promises of Power," it's free, and there's no obligation. Call us now: 800-253-3000. Let's pray together now.

Our Father in heaven, I thank You today for freedom. Thank You that we can be free in Jesus. So many of us, we must be set free, from sin, from guilt, from anger, from ill-health, from relationship challenges, from financial difficulties. We seek our freedom in You, real freedom, not just free in name only, but free in our experience.

Friend, would you claim freedom today in Jesus? You can do that now. You can reach out to the God of heaven and say, "Lord, set me free. I choose to believe that Jesus makes me free". When you pray that prayer, you can believe freedom is yours in Christ.

We thank You today, Father. Bless us, keep us, grow us, in Jesus' name, amen.

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