There’s no getting around the fact that the Broadway musical "Hamilton" is groundbreaking in many ways. Not the least of which is that, as a result, my teenage daughter is now actually interested in American history. For me, one of the highlights is its treatment of the curious and captivating relationship between founding father, Alexander Hamilton, and his sister-in-law, Angelica Schuyler Church.
By all accounts, Angelica was a strong, intelligent, beautiful woman. She was already married to John Church when she and Alexander first met, but a few years later, Alexander ended up marrying her sister, Eliza. Over the next 20 years, he and Angelica exchanged dozens, if not hundreds of letters, many of which have been lost.
The surviving letters underscore two essential points. First, Angelica was exceptionally brilliant and a woman who struggled to find contentment in her marriage to the less-than-brilliant John Church. Second, Angelica’s relationship with Alexander was anything but the typical brother-in-law, sister-in-law affair. Their letters are immersed in subtext, subtly conveying mutual devotion and admiration, even possible allusions to romantic attraction. For example, a misplaced comma in a 1787 letter from Angelica to Alexander altered the meaning of its sentence implying possible romantic desire toward him. It was likely unintentional, but either way, Alexander picked up on it.
In his next letter, he responded, asking her to make him sure of her intentions by the “repetition or omission of this mistake” in her following letter. Of course, her next correspondence was lost, so we’ll never know how she responded.
Most historians believe Alexander and Angelica were probably romantically attracted to one another, but never acted on any feelings they may have had. It appears that as much as they may have desired to be together, one simple value overrode their pent-up passion; the simple concept of duty.
Duty seems to have lost its place in our cultural ethos. Duty isn’t sexy - - you’ll never see it in a romance novel or a modern film. Even when it comes to faith, we often talk about passion, or calling, mission, heart’s cry, or any number of other ideas to express our devotion to God, but we rarely mention duty. Duty, however, is an indispensable quality of true love, and for Angelica Schuyler, the duty of love compelled her not to follow the desires of her heart, but to bring them into submission to her duty. As much as she may have loved and admired Alexander, her love for him and for her sister required the duty of faithfulness.
James 2:16 tells us, “If one of you says, ‘go in peace, keep warm and well-fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” In other words, love is expressed through duty. If we love, we have an obligation to demonstrate that love to the best of our ability in tangible ways. For Jesus, the duty of love was the cross. The people he loved were lost, “a sheep without a shepherd,” as he said. Jesus heard love’s call to duty and paid for the sin of the world with his life.
For us, I read Jesus’ command to love the Lord with all my heart, mind and strength as a call to duty - - the duty of worship and prayer, the duty of vocation and family and the duty of learning to love my neighbor as myself. My passionate love for God is expressed most clearly through these duties. Just as the duty of love called Jesus to sacrifice, it will call you and me to sacrifice as well.
Duty may require you to muster superhuman patience with ungrateful children “who never appreciate anything.” It may require you to persist in love toward a spouse who has one foot out the door, or in-laws who don’t understand the word “boundaries.” Duty may require you to keep getting up and going to that job you hate, so your children will have opportunities you never did.
Or maybe duty will require something more significant, maybe killing off a piece of yourself for the good of the other, sacrificing your well-being and desires for the good of those around you. Whatever duty’s call is in your life, it is an indispensable part of love because love, as Jesus described it, is not just a feeling, love is a call to duty.
The Rev. Jason Koon is an ordained minister who lives in Morganton.