In the year 1790, an American artist named Samuel Jennings was living in London, and working in the circle of Benjamin West. Only months earlier, in 1789, the United States Constitution had been ratified. I have every reason to believe that although he was living abroad, Jennings was a patriot. It was now, seven years since the end of the War of Independence, and fifteen years since that war had begun. At last, a government had been created, and the shape of what the United States would be, was coming into view. Indeed, I suspect that to Jennings, and to many patriots of the day, 1790 may well have felt like the “year of the Lord’s favor,” to borrow the phrase from the prophet Isaiah.
In London, Jennings learned that the library that Benjamin Franklin had founded nearly sixty years earlier was building a new home, at Fifth and Chestnut Streets, in the shadow of what we now call Independence Hall. And the artist wrote to his father, asking him to make an offer to the directors of the Library Company of a painting he would make for them. He suggested that suitable allegorical subjects for the painting would be one of the goddesses, Cleo, Calliope, or Minerva. But Jennings felt that Minerva would probably be best, since, as “Goddess of Wisdom & all the Arts,” she is “The Presidentess of Learning, which seems to comprehend everything that can be desired.”*
Jennings received the following response to his suggestion:
“The Board have considered the three Subjects submitted to their Choice, and readily agree in giving a preference to that of Minerva; but as a more general latitude has been so politely granted, they take the liberty of suggesting an Idea of Substituting the figure of Liberty with her Cap and proper Insignia displaying the arts by some of the most striking Symbols of Painting, Architecture, Mechanics, Astronomy etc, whilst She appears in the attitude of placing on the top of a Pedestal, a pile of books, lettered with, Agriculture, Commerce, Philosophy, & Catalogue of Philadelphia Library.”**
As it happened, the leadership of the Library Company comprised not only men who instinctively understood product placement, but also a concentration of Quakers and others who were devoted abolitionists, and who saw an opportunity, as it were. Their suggestions of the detail of the composition of the painting went on (with apologies for the anachronistic language that sounds hard to our modern ears):
They suggested that the painting should include, with Lady Liberty, “a broken chain under her feet, and in the distant background a Groupe of Negroes sitting on the Earth, or in some attitude expressive of Ease & Joy.”
Today the Library Company inhabits modern quarters at a new location, but the painting, in which Jennings closely followed the compositional suggestion of the directors, still hangs prominently in its reading room. The painting is known by two different titles: most often as “Liberty Displaying the Arts and Sciences.” But, secondarily (and again with apologies) as “The Genius of America Encouraging the Emancipation of the Blacks.” It was given to the Library Company by the artist in 1792.
Let me acknowledge that the painting, by today’s standards, is problematic. It would be hard to find a lily whiter than this Lady Liberty, who is porcelain-skinned, with blonde tresses, and draped in an ivory gown. Even the liberty cap she displays on a slender pole - customarily red - is, in this image, white, to match her dress, her skin, and everything about her. The black people in the foreground of the painting sit or kneel below Lady Liberty, at her feet, in supplicant, but eager, posture. Before them lie the broken chains of their bondage, held firmly beneath one of Liberty’s milky white feet. This lady puts the “p” in “maternalistic.” She is, admittedly, a figure of her time.
But for her time, she was remarkable. The Library Company owned not one piece of visual art until the moment it received this gift, which is possibly the earliest known pictorial expression of the abolitionist cause in either Britain or America. I am reliably informed that the painting also includes the first depiction of a banjo in all of western art. Remember that the year was 1792. And although the imagery is woefully out of date in this century, by most measures it expressed a hope that was many decades ahead of its own time. And we could reasonably ask whether or not that hope has yet been fulfilled.
When Jesus reached back to the words of the prophet Isaiah in order to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, he pronounced those few words that did then and still do echo so persistently through the ages:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free....”
Far from sounding anachronistic, these words sound entirely ahead of their time. Of course, Isaiah was looking to God’s future when first he was given these words to write. But when Jesus stands up to read them in the synagogue in his own home town, he then sits down to declare that “today this scripture has been fulfilled….” But sitting here today, can’t we reasonably ask ourselves whether or not that hope has yet been fulfilled?
For one thing, the whole idea of the “Genius of America” has begun to feel somewhat anachronistic in the hands of our present leaders, as it must have now long felt to people of color in this nation.
And for another thing, the idea of the “year of the Lord’s favor” might sound to many ears, like so much of the scriptures: pleasantly anachronistic poetry without much heft or significance.
But to my ears, these words have not lost their promise. They amount, I believe, to more than a painting whose imagery is out of date, even if its aspiration is somehow laudable. And the recitation of these verses, in which we reach back in time, to remember when Jesus reached back in time, in order to express the reality of God’s future, make me wonder how it is that with all that we have been given, we can be so woefully behind God’s time; how it is that we continually hobble what God would set free.
And if I feel this way, how must it feel to those who are in so many ways still made to kneel in supplication before the feet of Liberty, now being told to wait for that which has always rightfully been theirs, even though the chains that kept them from it were supposedly broken long ago?
It is telling that when Jesus reaches into the scriptures to locate the charter for his ministry, he does not remind his congregation to love God and their neighbors, he does not settle for the Golden Rule. Rather, he declares freedom to the oppressed as the sure sign of the year of the Lord’s favor.
People these days often think that faith is a thing of the past. But as long as there are chains of bondage to be broken, those of us who call Jesus “Lord” have work to do. And if we have to reach back in our faith to claim the promises of God’s future, so be it. Sometimes faith is as simple as believing that freedom is coming. That’s why in this country, oftentimes faith has been so much stronger among the people who in Jennings’ painting are kneeling in supplication, than it has been among the people who look like Lady Liberty. Their faith has had to sustain the promise that freedom is coming. Their faith has had to remind them that their chains have been loosed, since so many ways were devised to keep them in bondage anyway. Their faith has had to supplement their supposed freedom, since so much has been done to prevent their Ease and Joy.
Year after year, Jesus walks into our midst to stand up and teach us. And we sing, do we not, that he is our friend; that we want him among us; that he can consider this, our nation, as good as his own native soil, so much do we want to make this place his home.
So, he stands up, as he did in his own home town, and he reaches back in time to recite the timeless formula of God’s promise...
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he sits down.
And do we decide that we are not yet ready for the year of the Lord’s favor? That we do not want to do what is required? That we cannot accept his promises?
We do enjoy sitting here with our liberty cap at hand, where everything is ours. But do we really want to share it?
And so we sit down, too, and wait for another year.
But the promise will not go away. Jesus will be back to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor again next year, and the year after that, and the year after that.
And faith is believing that freedom is coming, and nothing can stop it.
Thanks be to God!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
27 January 2019
Saint Mark’s Church Philadelphia
*Library Company of Philadelphia Minutes, Vol 3, April 1, 1790, “Extract of a Letter from Samuel Jennings, dated London, January 12, 1790”
**Library Company of Philadelphia Minutes, Vol 3, May 6, 1790