The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you murdered by hanging on a tree. Him God has exalted to His right hand to be Prince and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. – Acts 5:30-31, New King James Version
The struggle for American independence wasn’t something that happened overnight. Britain’s 13 American colonies had been a cauldron of political discontent for some time. Americans balked at burdensome taxes and felt their needs were being ignored by parliament and the crown.
The problem came to a boil in 1765, when the British Parliament passed the infamous Stamp Act, a tax on all legal documents, permits, commercial contracts, newspapers, pamphlets, and playing cards. The colonists saw this as a form of censorship. Since all printed materials from books to papers required the stamp, basically the British government was eliminating the freedom of the press and the freedom of speech. Only printed material approved by the Crown could be read. Then, as now, Americans hated what they considered to be an unfair tax. So, in true American fashion, they decided to hold demonstrations of protest.
One of the most famous Stamp Act protests took place in Boston, Massachusetts, the birthplace of the American Revolution. On August 14, 1765, a group of men calling themselves the “Sons of Liberty” gathered in front of a grocery store at the corner of Essex Street and Orange Street, near Hanover Square. They staged their anti-tax demonstration under a large, old elm tree, and concluded it in fine American fashion by hanging two tax collectors in effigy. From that point forward, the elm at the corner of Essex and Orange became known as the “Liberty Tree.”
In following days, the Sons of Liberty gathered under the Liberty Tree to stage demonstrations against British tyranny. The tree became a rallying point for patriots and a symbol of the ongoing American struggle for freedom. Patriots hung banners and lanterns from its branches to symbolize unity to the cause of independence.
Not surprisingly, British sympathizers and agents of the British government did not feel an affinity for the old elm tree. They scorned what it represented and mocked the colonists who met in its shade. British soldiers even tarred and feathered a patriot named Thomas Ditson, and then forced him to march in front of the tree. Finally, late in August 1775, a party of Loyalists – colonists who sided with the British government – chopped down the Liberty Tree and used it for firewood.
The British and their sympathizers had done away with the Liberty Tree, but they couldn’t kill what it represented. As the seeds of revolution spread across the colonies, more “Liberty Trees” were selected as gathering places for patriots. If a tree was not available, locals erected a pole around which to plot. As the idea of liberty took root, images of the tree appeared on colonial flags.
After the Revolutionary War ended with American independence, the Liberty Tree lived on. It appeared in France in 1790 as a symbol of the revolution raging there. Five years later, another Liberty Tree was planted in Amsterdam. In 1798, Italians marked their freedom by establishing their own Liberty Tree. Even into the 20th century, the tradition of planting a tree to represent liberty endured.
Today, a bronze plaque marks the location of the original Liberty Tree in Boston. While you may not be able to visit that site today, we can stop and consider the price paid to win the freedoms we celebrate.
The Liberty Tree also reminds Christians that political freedom means little if we are spiritually enslaved. (Spiritual enslavement leads to political enslavement.) However, spiritual liberty didn’t originate under a Boston elm tree: Jesus Christ won it for us on a tree outside Jerusalem almost two millennia ago.
The tree was cut down to make a cross for the Son of God. We don’t know where the timbers came from. We can’t say, “X marks the spot,” concerning where the wood originated, but Christians have traditionally referred to the cross as a tree on which Jesus was crucified. On that “old rugged cross” our Lord was pinned to the timber by nails. But not just nails, for His love for man held Him there.
Criminals were crucified along this busy road as a deterrent to crime and a reminder to criminals of what happened to those who broke the law. The Romans were cruel taskmasters, and they used crucifixion as the most violent form of punishment and eventual death ever known to man.
The tree we know as the cross was God’s Stamp Act, where His Son was imprinted with our sin. He who knew no sin became sin for us. He took our sin so that we could be set free from the tyranny of sin and death. He died there, so we might live.
Since that time, many have ridiculed the cross. Others have tried to erase its memory. But despite their efforts, that tree and the freedom it represents has spread around the globe. It lives on in the hearts of millions today. That tree—that cross—became our original Liberty Tree. It is where God met man in his greatest need. He offered forgiveness and grace through His death. There is no plaque, no national memorial there, but millions upon millions have traveled to the Holy Land for the last two thousand years to remember it was there that Christ paid for our sin.
Jesus was not a famous general; He was a humble carpenter and a servant. Jesus is not the leader of a religion, Jesus knows nothing of religion. Jesus came to establish relationships and to restore fellowship with man. Religion is man reaching up to God to try to appease Him and gain His approval. Christianity is God reaching down to man. Jesus did for us what we could never do for ourselves.
As we approach the celebration of the resurrection, it’s not about eggs, bunnies, and candy. It’s about eternal love, shed blood, and a cross. Like America’s Liberty Tree at Essex & Orange, The most famous tree in the history of the world doesn’t exist any longer. It served its purpose. It held the body of the perfect Son of God, the creator of everything on this planet. It’s gone, but HE LIVES.