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Watch 2022-2023 online sermons » John Bradshaw » John Bradshaw - Midnight to Dawn

John Bradshaw - Midnight to Dawn

John Bradshaw - Midnight to Dawn
TOPICS: Slavery, Freedom

This is It Is Written. I'm John Bradshaw. Thanks for joining me. You might call it the midnight of American history. It's one of the most discussed, written about, and documented subjects in the whole of the American experience. It's a story that stretches from the early 17th century to the passage of the 13nth amendment to the Constitution in 1865 after the end of the Civil War: in truth, even beyond that time. The dehumanizing darkness of this "peculiar institution," as some have called it, is well known to us today. There seems to be some flaw in the human psyche that enables people of all backgrounds to engage in a system like this. Slavery has existed since virtually the dawn of civilization.

The Roman Empire was built on the back of slavery. The New Testament book of Philemon is the story of a runaway slave. Slavery was practiced in Africa, New Zealand, South America, the Caribbean, and Europe. People of multiple races have enslaved others, and the enslaved have over time been people of every conceivable ethnicity. It's very much a human issue. In the midst of the dark night of American slavery, there were glimmers of hope. Abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and South Carolina-born sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimké devoted themselves to abolition, and not only spoke but also wrote against slavery in newspapers, books, and pamphlets. And the actions of some went beyond the page and the lecture hall to the tracks of something that became known as the Underground Railroad.

Today the Underground Railroad is well known, with figures such as the incomparable Harriet Tubman, who journeyed into the South to help lead escapees to the North. Runaways were hidden in safe houses, behind false walls, in attics, or underneath floorboards to evade capture. The Underground Railroad was not just one route running from the South to the North. Instead, the Underground Railroad was a number of different networks that operated to assist slaves in their incredibly high-stakes quest for freedom. And while some escaping slaves stayed and made lives in the free northern states, many continued on to Canada, where there was not the fear of being caught and returned to the South under the U.S. fugitive slave laws, laws which allowed for the capture and return of the enslaved, even if they were found in a free state, and which imposed penalties on those caught aiding their flight.

Escape via the Underground Railroad came about in various ways. Sometimes abolitionists, both black and white, would physically travel into the South to lead runaways to safe places in the North, where they would be helped still further north by others. In other instances, slaves used codes to learn specific routes, locations, and other information for the best times and ways to escape. These codes were shared through commonly used words and phrases, through songs, and possibly even through quilts. It's believed the Ross code was created by Alexander Ross, an antislavery activist from Canada. In their book "Hidden in Plain View," Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard explain that the code utilized both numbers and poetic descriptions. The code, which would have been memorized, told both escaping slaves and Underground Railroad agents that Cleveland, Ohio, was called "Hope". Sandusky, Ohio, was known as "Sunrise".

And Detroit, Michigan, was dubbed "Midnight". The entryways into Canada were designated by words of praise and thanksgiving to God. "Glory to God" meant Windsor, Ontario. And "God be praised" stood for Port Stanley. In fact, when runaways left "Midnight", that's Detroit, Michigan, a good number of them crossed into Canada and went to "Dawn," a settlement created specifically for escaped slaves in Ontario, which means fugitives traveling this specific route were going from "Midnight" to "Dawn", from the dark night of oppression to the dawning of a new hope and new life across the Detroit River. Coded language was also used in songs. According to historians, the lyrics of many of the spirituals that came out of this era and which described salvation also contained phrases that helped slaves remember how and when to escape from slave territory, for example, the lyrics of "Steal Away to Jesus".

There's an obvious spiritual meaning to these lyrics, but it's said that within these words are coded instructions for escape. Tobin and Dobard explain: "'He calls me by the thunder' is interpreted by several writers as an indication to leave during a rainstorm. To do so would ensure...dogs would have no scent to pick up and that any footprints would be washed away. Thunderstorms tend to take place in spring or in autumn when the seasons are changing. 'Green trees bending' is a sign of springtime," the time suggested to leave the plantation. The words of the chorus represent escaping sin by finding freedom in the grace and salvation of Jesus and also escaping slavery to freedom by following the spirituals' coded instructions. According to some historians, quilts may also have contained similar coded directions.

While the theory is debated among historians, the quilt code idea has become a celebrated part of the story of the Underground Railroad. The different patterns on quilts may have communicated instructions. A series of quilts may have given instructions in a step-by-step manner. On one day a quilt with a specific pattern would be put outside over a fence to be aired out. The next day, another quilt would take its place. Anyone seeing the monkey wrench pattern would know that they should collect supplies for the trip north. The wagon wheel was the sign to pack. The tumbling boxes pattern was the sign to go. As desperate as escaping was, it was often considered to be better than the alternative. There's something placed by God inside the human heart, a yearning to be free. The Underground Railroad helped many to find that freedom. Along the way, the Underground Railroad produced some outsized personalities. We'll meet two of them in just a moment.

Thanks for joining me on It Is Written. Imagine for just a moment that you grew up enslaved in the American South and somehow you found a way to escape to free territory in the North. Some who did that risked their freedom and their lives to try to save family members and others who were still enslaved. Among those who took that risk was a man named John Parker. Parker helped many runaways, on one occasion rescued a baby from a plantation master's bedroom. Parker's story is told by Ann Hagedorn in her book "Beyond the River: the Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad". Born into slavery in the South about 30 years before the Civil War, Parker was separated from his family as a young boy when he was sold to a plantation owner in Alabama. He eventually learned to read. He escaped three times. Parker purchased his liberty, and then he moved to Cincinnati in the free state of Ohio.

When another freed slave in Cincinnati approached Parker asking for his help to bring two women across the Ohio River from the slave state of Kentucky, Parker flat out refused. Aiding runaways was a dangerous business. Slave catchers were paid to patrol roads and riverbanks in the South, and they came up into the North as well, chasing after what slaveholders saw as their property. If a freed black man were caught helping runaway slaves, he could be sold into slavery again. Parker simply didn't want to take that risk. But he relented, and that experience whet his appetite for working on the Underground Railroad. He became a well-known conductor, described by one historian as "one of the most daring men on the Underground Railroad".

As his work as a conductor increased, Parker and his wife moved here to Ripley, a small town on the Ohio River at a major crossing point for runaways. They started a family. John began a successful iron foundry. He was a very capable man, one of the few African Americans to patent an invention before the year 1900. When the sun went down at the end of the work day, Parker helped runaways get across the river into safe houses in free territory. He would even cross over into Kentucky to prepare would-be fugitives for their journey or to accompany them to freedom. On one occasion, Parker traveled into Kentucky in the dead of night to help bring a young couple and their baby into Ohio.

Now, days before, the slaveholder had become mistrustful of the couple. So, in an attempt to discourage them from trying to escape, he took their baby and had it sleep next to his bed at night. When John Parker arrived and learned what had happened, rather than calling off the escape attempt, he crept as quietly as he could into the owner's bedroom, grabbed the baby, and ran, narrowly avoiding being shot when the slave owner awakened. All four made it safely across the river here to Ripley. For the couple and their baby, it was the beginning of a brand new life. It was the dawn of a new hope.

Another major abolitionist figure here in Ripley was a Presbyterian minister named John Rankin. He moved here after leaving his home in Tennessee, where his preaching that slaveholding was a sin made him unpopular with the locals. One of the reasons Rankin relocated his family here to this home in this spot is that his first home down by the river was too accessible to people who would stop by and demand information about fugitives. The staircase outside his home was known as the "100 steps to freedom". After emerging from the Ohio River, fugitives would walk up these steps and towards a lit lantern hanging in a window of this house.

There were times Rankin housed as many as a dozen runaways in this home at one time. While here in Ripley, Rankin wouldn't let slave owners join his congregations. He even helped form a new denomination, the Free Presbyterian Church. It campaigned against slavery. When his own brother became a slave holder in Virginia, Rankin wrote letters to his brother attempting to help him to see the error of his ways. Those letters were published in a book, which was then widely circulated. Rankin fought slavery for more than four decades.

In fact, he was the inspiration for a key figure in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin". He and John Parker helped 2,000 runaways find freedom. His great-grandson told a Connecticut newspaper that the term "Underground Railroad" was first coined here in Ripley and that when someone asked the abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher who abolished slavery, Beecher responded, "John Rankin and his sons". The Underground Railroad is a remarkable story, a story centered around freedom and the desire to be free, in fact, more correctly, the right to be free. Given that the Declaration of Independence states that liberty is an "unalienable right".

The greatest story ever told is the story of freedom. The Bible is more than just a collection of books. It's, it's more than just an assortment of doctrines or principles or ideals. The Bible itself is a story, an overarching narrative concerning a Savior who came to this world to secure a freedom for all who want to be free. The old story, rightly understood, is one of an almighty and loving God who intentionally created humankind to live in a world of light and liberty. Even though the human family rebelled and betrayed that liberty, even though they traded their God-given freedom for the chains of oppression and are subject to sin, the heart of the God of heaven beats with a desire to see you free, eternally. We'll talk about that in just a moment.

The sin that now binds the human race came into the world when Adam and Eve, at the bidding of the serpent, made the choice to distrust their Creator and eat the forbidden fruit. Later, in the cool of the day, God spoke with them, and upon their admission of guilt, He announced to Adam, Eve, and the serpent that conflict would ensue. In Genesis 3:15, God says, "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed". Enmity is a state of constant conflict or war. And this conflict is between Eve and the serpent. The book of Revelation describes the serpent as "the great dragon that was cast out, that old serpent, called the devil, and Satan, which deceives the whole world". Jesus called him "the prince of this world".

Now, ultimately the conflict is not just between Eve and the serpent. It's between her descendants and spiritual darkness. You could say, between her descendants and sin. So the conflict extends way beyond Adam and Eve's time on this earth. Their children and their children's children would be caught up in the same struggle. Revelation 12:17, "And the dragon was enraged with the woman, and he went to make war with the rest of her offspring, who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ".

You and I are now in the midst of this conflict. And the first step to gaining our freedom from the prince of this world and the power of sin is to acknowledge our condition, to remember that we are indeed slaves to sin. Jesus Himself outlined the truth of our condition in John 8:34. "Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin". And Romans 3:23 makes it clear that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God". "Now, how can that be"? you might ask. "I'm not a slave, nor am I oppressed. I'm the master of my own destiny, and I get to decide how that plays out".

Well, on the surface, that might seem to be true. But the fact of the matter is every person alive is a sinner. And those who choose to remain in their sins ultimately become more and more shackled by them. But the story doesn't have to end there. We're not destined to remain enslaved. There's a Chief Conductor, Jesus Christ. And when you acknowledge your sinful condition, you can call on Him to free you from your shackles. What makes Him the Greatest Conductor of all? He never knew sin and was never bound by the prince of this world.

Yet just as John Parker chose to cross state lines and risk his freedom in an attempt to free the enslaved, Jesus chose of His own free will to leave the light of heaven and cross over into enemy territory, where He would offer a world held captive freedom from sin. He announced His mission and objective when He confirms that He is the very fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy of the Messiah found in Isaiah 61:1, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound".

And while freedom via the Underground Railroad afforded slaves personal liberty and the hope of a new beginning, the freedom Jesus Christ offers comes with the greatest gift of all. Romans 6, verse 20 tells us, "For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.... But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord".

So how do you obtain this freedom, this remarkable gift of everlasting life? You simply choose to follow Jesus. You do what so many did in the American South so long ago: They shed their chains and escaped to freedom via the Underground Railroad. And necessarily, what follows the choice to be free is preparation for the journey from slave territory to free territory. For the slave, preparation meant having secret meetings, packing supplies, learning the best routes and times to escape, and memorizing the codes that were found in language, song lyrics, and perhaps quilt patterns. Without this preparation, any escape was likely to fail.

Now, if you want to experience freedom from sin, preparation is important. Thankfully, God has given you a road map for your journey from earth to heaven, and that's the Bible, complete with instructions and signs. For your trip from here to there, from slavery to freedom, the Bible tells you everything you need to know. For example, 1 John 1:9 tells us how to approach God with a repentant heart: "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness". Micah 6:8 reveals what kind of life the Lord wishes us to live: "He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God"?

The books of Daniel and Revelation include prophetic codes and signs, which help to prepare us for the final scenes of earth's history, some of which we're seeing unfold before us and some of which are still to come. Our work of preparation as followers of Christ necessitates the study and understanding of Scripture. But there's one more part of this process. Just as some former slaves, like John Parker, made it to freedom and turned right back around to aid other enslaved people through the Underground Railroad, we, too, must go back for others.

You see, the plan of salvation is twofold. First, Jesus delivers you from the bondage of sin. And then He desires your participation in leading others into freedom. He calls you into His work. If you're willing, He'll make you a conductor, who, with His help, will lead others out of slavery and into freedom, into His marvelous light. This work is more urgent than ever because the hour is late. The signs of Christ's second coming are all around us.

Romans 13:11 and 12, "And do this, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light". It was right there that anxious fugitives made their last desperate dash to freedom. Will you choose freedom today? To travel with Christ, the Chief Conductor, from midnight to dawn, will you steal away to Jesus? As the old song says, "We ain't got long to stay here".
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