PROVO, Utah This country didn't come about accidentally, said Elder David B. Haight. Not Columbus, not George Washington, not the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution.
Addressing a full house of approximately 14,000 people gathered in the Marriott Center on the BYU campus July 2 for the annual Freedom Festival fireside, Elder Haight spoke of the hand of Providence that created the land where the gospel would be restored.
"It thrills me to consider what happened to create this nation, . . . and it thrills me to see what has happened in the more than 200 years since independence was declared. All the material possessions we have. I worry about the youth and what they know about the inspired beginning of this land. Some could believe that it was always this way," he said.
As the featured speaker of the annual fireside, Elder Haight of the Quorum of the Twelve retraced the steps through history that led to the creation of the United States of America and pointed out the heavenly hand that made it possible.
"Consider the desire he had and inspiration that came into the heart and life of that unusual individual," he said, describing how Columbus set off into the unknown on a life-threatening voyage without the aid of modern technology. "He said he felt the blessing of the Holy Ghost inspiring and protecting him.
"In grade school studying the ships that accompanied Columbus I assumed they were sizeable ships," he said. But over time as Elder Haight came to appreciate the actual size, he said they were nothing more than "fishing boats."
"Imagine bouncing on the waves in those little ships, being thirsty and hungry, facing the threat of mutiny, not knowing where they were going, with some thinking the earth was flat. He had courage."
Colonizers soon followed Columbus, establishing settlements in North America. A government was set up in the colonies and they learned to get along "fairly comfortably" until King George III of Britain increased taxes to build up his military to become a greater power in the world.
Tension mounted between the colonies and King George as many new taxes, like the stamp tax, where levied. The colonies became rebellious, he said, angry that a government overseas would tax without representation.
The straw that broke the camel's back, he said, was raising the tax on tea. He recounted how a ship carrying tea sailed into Boston harbor and insisted that the tax on the shipload of tea be paid in advance. Colonists, angered by the demand, stormed the ship by night and dumped 350 large crates of tea into the harbor in what is now called the "Boston Tea Party."
"I guess that water would have been pretty strong with tea at that time," Elder Haight said to the amusement of the audience.
In response, King George sent a well-trained militia with red coats and brass buttons. Aware that the British were coming, Paul Revere rode through the settlements on his horse warning the people. "One if by land, two if by sea," Elder Haight said, remembering a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow he learned in his youth.
"The people were without an army. History refers to them as the Minutemen. Some of the early battles were Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill. There, these patriots, just starting to eke out a living, left their plows or shops and grabbed a musket or shovel or ax and, without training or uniforms, rose to combat a professional army.
"At the Battle of Bunker Hill many colonists and British died. The British learned the colonists would not be easily subdued. The war started to move. The 13 colonies were able to put together a document declaring their independence, signed by 56 men, declaring to King George that they believed they were entitled to liberty and freedom and justice.
"This brought about the burning of the midnight oil in Philadelphia and the writing of the Declaration of Independence. If you don't have a copy in your home, I hope you'll get one," he said. "These 56 men pledged their lives, their fortunes and sacred honor to this cause. John Hancock, as one of the wealthiest signers who gave much of his means for the purchase of supplies, was somehow known to the king and wrote his name in large letters to be seen."
Following Bunker Hill, George Washington was asked to lead this "rag-tag army, using whatever supplies they had." At one crucial point during the Revolutionary War, said Elder Haight, the British Army had surrounded George Washington and 9,000 of his best men on Long Island. If General Howe had kept pushing, he would have annihilated the American Army. But highlighting the hand of Providence in creating this nation, Elder Haight told how the British were ordered to withdraw after a day of successful fighting.
"It is not known why he gave orders for his army to pull back," Elder Haight said. But the fighting stopped, and almost instantly heavy rain set in. Accompanying the rain was a thick fog that covered the area for 13 hours, handicapping General Howe.
Under the cover of fog, George Washington was able to secure enough small boats to ferry his men across the East River and off the island. When the fog lifted, the American Army had been rescued.
In the end, explained Elder Haight, this under-funded, under-equipped army of untrained soldiers, with the military aid of France, was able to defeat King George's army, the culmination coming when General Cornwall surrendered by presenting his sword to George Washington in Trenton, N.J.
"This country didn't come about accidentally," Elder Haight said. "This is a land of liberty. Look what we have. The rights that we have, the opportunities we have, the responsibilities we have is to preserve and watch with vigilance and protect the Constitution. May we cherish it."