George A. Bowers Sr. Boundary stones, witness trees and iron stakes
I found the article in Monday’s paper about Washington, D.C.’s boundary stones very interesting. Having just spoken about such things the day before in Sunday worship, it was especially enlightening to see how the early surveyors and planners took great pains to carefully align and place 40 rocks around the border of what would become our nation’s capital city. It was fascinating to read how these were laid by George Washington himself and how most of them continue to lay exactly where he placed them over 200 years ago.
Colonial Americans couldn’t rely on iron stakes and GPS coordinates to map out their territories and instead used items found in nature such as streams, trees, or, in this case, big rocks. Warren Hofstra, in his book, The Planting of New Virginia, describes how early settlers at Opequon used large witness trees to mark the various corners of their properties. It’s very difficult to move 100-year-old oaks.
Hofstra further explains how the entire community would gather once every four years to walk the boundaries of everyone’s properties together. This event was known as “processioning” and reminded everybody of exactly where the boundaries were for each member of the community. Processioning was scheduled and conducted by the church, perhaps in a proactive effort to maintain peace and harmony among neighbors. At a time before fences were practical, this method made clear to everyone precisely where the margins lay.
Many years before Opequon or the District of Columbia, God himself sought to keep the peace among neighbors and included provisions in the Mosaic Law that forbade anyone from moving their neighbor’s boundary stones. Another section pronounced a special curse on anyone who did so. This constituted theft and was an especially despicable form since it involved ancient family inheritances.
Just as people disobey the law today, I’m sure there were those who did so then. One could gradually move the boundary stone onto their neighbor’s property a foot a month over a few years’ time and gain quite a bit of land. Even more subtle would be to do so by only inches which would be barely noticeable, especially in an atmosphere of mutual trust.
As I’ve thought about boundary stones, witness trees, and iron stakes, it has reminded me of the boundaries God has laid out for our behavior. In his holy word, he stakes out Ten Commandments that give us ample room to enjoy life while keeping us from encroaching onto our neighbors or upon him. These commandments stand as ten large witness trees outlining the territory in which we are free to do as we wish. Other Scriptures sketch in the lines between these trees, and taken together, God has revealed the perimeters of acceptable conduct. We do well to walk them with each other regularly by reading and studying his word to remind us where they lie.
Unfortunately, we humans have constantly tried to move his boundary stones. The efforts are usually gradual, only a small increment at a time. But year by year, decade by decade, eventually the line is nowhere close to where God originally drew it. Consequently, disputes arise between us and ultimately our relationship with him suffers most.
Sadly, we live at a time where many of God’s witness trees have even been cut down. Enamored with our own personal pleasure, we have set out to redraw what is acceptable and what is not using only popular opinion, personal happiness, and individual freedom as our surveying instruments. As a result, we see broken families, drug crises, deceit, dishonesty, hatred, murder, and the general deterioration of the fabric of American society.
Thankfully, most of the 40 boundary stones arranged by President Washington continue to lay where he originally placed them. For the few that are missing, replacements have been made and repositioned on the sites of their originals.
As we contemplate the boundaries for our lives, our families, and our society, may we pay attention to the survey that God has outlined in his word. And may we take great pains to reestablish and respect his boundaries each day for the good of all. Blessings, George
George Bowers Sr. is the senior pastor of Antioch Church of the Brethren and has authored 10 books including his latest, “Valley Verses, Volume IV,” which is available at Four Star Printing and Shenandoah Stuff. He can be reached through www.georgebowersministries.com or at firstname.lastname@example.org.