I like to take a morning walk near my home in SE Wisconsin. I live in a new little neighborhood on the outskirts of the village of Ixonia. It is an area of marshes and rolling hills, much of which has been converted to farmland. Just up the hill is Bethel Cemetery, adjacent to the site of the former Welsh Presbyterian Church of Ixonia. I like to walk up there now and then and ponder the stories of these families who made their lives here.
On this Memorial Day in the United States I decided to walk up the hill and visit the graves of veterans. Now, Memorial Day is technically a day of remembrance of those who died in battle. Veterans Day is the U.S. holiday where we remember all veterans. As far as I can see, none of the men buried at Bethel died in battle… except, perhaps, one.
In the slideshow above are a few images that I took with my iPhone this morning.
On this Memorial Day I’m particularly moved, as I have been in the past, by the case of Owen Pritchard. It is amazing what you can learn from a grave site. If you stop at the picture of his grave you’ll see that he was born in North Wales, Great Britain in 1838. The stone indicates that he died in Ixonia on 9 October 1865. You might notice the little standard with the flag next to his grave that has “G.A.R.” That stands for “Grand Army of the Republic.” Mr. Pritchard fought for the Union in the great American Civil War.
Owen Pritchard was born in North Wales some time in 1838. At some point in his childhood he and his family took a long and possibly harrowing journey across the Atlantic. From wherever they landed in North America they eventually found themselves in what was the wilderness of Wisconsin. We don’t know from the grave how old he was when he arrived. We do know that in his mid-20s he joined the Union army, and it would appear, went off to war… for a nation into which he was not born. He died at approximately twenty-seven years old, curiously, the same year the war ended. Did he die of war-related wounds or infection? Likely, yes. Every time I walk up that hill and stand in the Bethel Cemetery grounds I am taken by this sacrifice.
When I stepped into the pulpit the previous Saturday and Sunday I noted that men like Owen Pritchard died to help secure the right to the free exercise of religion. I noted that “free exercise” did not–and does not–mean simply the right to worship, but to practice religion. Here is the text of the vital and very First Amendment of the United States’ Constitution:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
As I noted in my homily last Saturday and Sunday, there are some, even in the United States, who would prefer to silence the voices of Christians who wish to practice the receiving and giving of Christ’s forgiveness and follow Christ’s word in ethical practice. There are some in the United States, even at the “highest level,” who appear to have a curious or waning regard for First Amendment freedoms. One of our 2016 presidential candidates had the audacity to suggest that another religious group be restricted from immigration because of their religion. The other main 2016 presidential candidate actually had the audacity to say that certain religious groups would “have to change their beliefs” to comply with secular agenda.
I wonder what Owen Pritchard would have said about that.