God and Hamilton, Meet Author & Speaker Kevin Cloud
This Friday, July 3rd, the smash hip-hop musical HAMILTON, featuring the original 2015 Broadway releases on Disney+. The musical has captivated the country and audiences around the globe as the Founding Father’s life is played out. Not only was he a deeply spiritual man, but his life sheds light on issues of grace, forgiveness and immigration.
We sat down with pastor and author Kevin Cloud, who details in his book, God and Hamilton: Spiritual Themes from the Life of Alexander Hamilton and the Broadway Musical He Inspired, how Hamilton’s life story serves as a lens through which we can learn more about God and our ourselves.
Interviewed for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: How did you feel when you saw Hamilton the musical on-stage for the first time?
Kevin Cloud: It was an incredible experience. I went into it certainly with high expectations. I mean, so much had been written and spoken about as far as people just having these amazing life-changing experiences from seeing Hamilton. But honestly, I went into it thinking, I’m sure it’s going to be good, but it can’t be that good. Right? I mean, it can’t be as good as everybody says. I left the theater kind of in this stunned silence. It was that good. It was a remarkable work of art in the storytelling, the songs, the choreography, it was amazing. But even more than that, I left the theater with a really profound sense of having experienced God’s presence in that story and in that theater and so many different scenes and so many different things that happened to Alexander Hamilton throughout his life that really drew me into God’s presence and God’s spirit in that theater.
RM: Talk a little bit about that. Obviously he had this amazing life and career, but for those who don’t know much about the founding father, or haven’t seen the show, how is Hamilton a modern-day parable?
KC: He really was a man of faith. He followed after God, and his wife Eliza did as well. So many of the great themes of the Gospel really are at the center of this musical because they were at the center of his life. Themes like grace and faith, surrender and death, and redemption are all right at the very center that this story is telling. And when we can see those themes played out on stage, oftentimes we can learn from what we see on that stage and we can apply those themes back to our lives today.
RM: Your book is arranged in chapters ranging from everything from grace to equality, despair to redemption, how did you pick which character qualities to highlight and then tie those to the biblical truths?
KC: I saw the musical first, and like I said, I walked out of the theater with this deep sense of experiencing God in that production. But then I went home and for probably six months, I read everything I could about Alexander Hamilton and about the early Revolution and about our Founding Fathers and certainly reading Ron Chernow’s biography, “Alexander Hamilton.” So many of the similar themes of faith in his life were sticking out to me. So as I started writing the book, I just tried to think, Okay, what are the key themes that are a part of Hamilton’s life that are also found in the Gospel, and in the scriptures, that we can learn from and apply to our lives today?
Grace is one example that I can talk about. It’s the first chapter of my book, where Hamilton grew up in the Caribbean. He’s a poor orphan kid. His dad left their family when he was around the age of five. And when he was 11, his mom died from a sickness. So he’s this poor kid, no future possibilities. And then this hurricane devastates the island that Hamilton’s living on. And he writes this letter in response to the hurricane and the letter was so beautifully written that these local businessmen read it and they go and meet with Alexander Hamilton and they decide that they’re going to put together a fund to send this young man to America to get his education because they were so impressed with his intellect.
So the point I make in my book is that everything that Hamilton becomes in America, and most historians would say that behind George Washington he was the second most influential Founding Father, that really everything Hamilton becomes, was a gift of grace. It was this gift that he couldn’t have earned, a gift that he didn’t deserve. It was this gift of grace that was the foundation of his life.
And that’s true of our lives, right? The apostle Paul says, “But by the grace of God, I am what I am.” And that is true for every single one of us. And so throughout the book, that’s what I try to do. I try to pull the faith from Hamilton’s life, I try to connect it with the scriptures and then ultimately try to connect it to our life and say how can we learn from this? And how can we be transformed by these spiritual themes that are really at the center of Hamilton’s life.
RM: It is such an interesting time in America. Families navigating COVID and quarantine, millions unemployed, some businesses may never reopen… how do we hold onto hope when everything is falling apart around us?
KC: Well, there’s another chapter in my book where I talk about redemption. I talk about this idea that God is in the business of making broken things beautiful. And that even the things that seems so difficult and so catastrophic at the moment, that God can somehow redeem them and make them good. How that connects with Hamilton’s life, as I mentioned earlier, he was born and very quickly became an orphan and really carried that difficulty throughout his entire life. I mean, we see it in his letters where he’s writing about feeling embarrassed about his birth and heritage, and certainly felt kind of lonely and isolated at times in America.
After he died, he was shot and killed by the sitting Vice-President, Aaron Burr, in a duel of honor. They were kind of political enemies and their political angst with one another ended up at the dueling grounds where Hamilton was shot and killed. But after he died, a few years later, his wife, Eliza Hamilton, who also was a profound woman of faith. She was a remarkable woman. But she really felt called by God to build an orphanage. And it was the first public orphanage in New York City. And she, and a handful of women built this orphanage and offer these kids another chance at life.
To be an orphan in that time in New York City, you would have had no good options, but now all of a sudden you have this orphanage that exists. And Eliza talks about how in every orphan that she served, she saw her husband. And she saw the pain and the difficulty that her husband went through, but also saw the potential in her husband. And so it’s a great example in Hamilton’s life about how this broken difficult part of Alexander’s life was made beautiful by his wife, Eliza.
I think in the times we live at today with all of the heartache and the dysfunction and the chaos that we’re dealing with, the idea, and the promise that is in the scriptures is that somehow that God will make all things new again, and that God will redeem all of this heartache somehow in ways that only He can even possibly imagine. And it might not happen the way that we hope, in the way that we like, but the redemption is coming for all of us.
RM: Talking about his wife Eliza a little bit further here, she was challenged to forgive her husband after he had an affair.
KC: That’s right. It’s one of the most powerful moments in the entire musical I think. Alexander has committed an affair with a woman named Maria Reynolds. The affair became public and in many ways became the first U.S. Government sex scandal. It’s in all the newspapers, Eliza, as you can imagine, is humiliated and ashamed about what’s happened and yet, so, so angry with her husband.
One of the songs in the musical called Burn, is recounting the decision that she makes, where she burns all of the love letters that she’s written to her husband in response to this affair. It’s her way of kind of showing him how angry and hurt she is. You can imagine these love letters that she had written over the history of their relationship being one of the most treasured possessions that Alexander has, and she burns all of them. But eventually she does get to a point where she forgives her husband.
And I love to imagine Eliza praying and just agonizing with God to find the strength, to find the ability to forgive, even when she was so angry, and so hurt. She felt so betrayed, but she does get to that point. And in the musical what’s happening is Alexander is kind of reaching out to her and trying to rebuild their marriage and trying to ask for reconciliation. But she, initially is cold and harsh towards him. He’s singing to her and she kind of pulls away from him. But then as the song progresses, she softens. And eventually she takes his hand and starts singing with him.
And there’s this beautiful moment in the musical where the entire chorus sings out, “Forgiveness, can you imagine?” And when that line is sung, you can feel the atmosphere in the theater shift because there’s so much power and so much truth in that moment. And I think what’s happening in that moment is Eliza’s act of forgiveness is confronting our lives and challenging our lives. And making us ask the question, will I forgive the people in my life who have hurt me, who have wronged me, who have betrayed me? Will I forgive people like Eliza has forgiven her husband?
When I traveled the country preaching about this book, I encourage people to just say, maybe it’s even too big of a step to offer forgiveness at this point. Maybe you just need to reflect for a couple of months on the cost of not forgiving people in your life and what that can cost you. Or maybe your step isn’t to forgive that person, it’s to just simply pray for strength to forgive. And you need to go to God and beg God to change your heart and give you the ability to forgive, because you maybe have been hurt so badly that forgiveness just feels like an impossibility.
But it’s those small little steps I think that move us towards that. And ultimately what we find is that when we forgive someone, author Philip Yancey has a great line where he says, “When we forgive someone, we set free a prisoner. And we realized that that prisoner was ourselves.” And that’s the ultimate truth of forgiveness is that we pay the price when we hold on to unforgiveness in our heart.
RM: Sometimes we’re our own worst enemy. A famous line from the show is, “I’m not throwing away my shot.” How do we not allow fear to keep us from our calling?
KC: Yeah, that’s another great scene from the musical. Hamilton singing out, “I’m not throwing away my shot,” it could have been his life mantra. He was a man that lived with this incredible bent towards initiative. Whether it was coming to America in the first place, whether it was joining the Revolutionary Army and very quickly rising up the ranks. He was chosen by George Washington to lead the attack at Yorktown, which was the defining battle of the Revolutionary War where the British surrender. He was just constantly a man of action and initiative.
The lesson that we take there is that, will we live that way as well? Will we be people that have initiative? When we have things that we can be doing, will we shrink back in fear and insecurity and will we let that overtake us, or will we move forward and will we make bold decisions, and will we take initiative in ways that God might be calling us to do?
There was a great article about the Los Angeles Lakers when they were in New York to play a basketball game, they had an off night and the whole team went to go see Hamilton. And I like to joke when I give my sermon about this book, that that must’ve been an incredible experience for the team and a huge bummer for the entire row sitting right behind them trying to see. Abunch of seven foot guys, trying to see over them to see this musical that you paid hundreds of dollars for. But afterwards they interviewed one of the players, and it was Josh Hart. And he said something to the effect of, “In our lives, sometimes we don’t see things that are there. And it’s so good to see other people’s lives and other people’s stories, and then take truth from those stories and bring them back to our lives.”
It’s a great example of going to the theater, going to the movies, going to a story and taking truths from those stories back to our lives today. And Josh Hart said, the one truth he was going to take from the Hamilton story, was to not throw away his shot. He wanted to live a life of initiative and to move forward in the face of fear. In another workshop I taught it was with middle school kids, and I was asking them, “Hey, what are some of the things that have impacted you through this musical?” And this one girl, she was in seventh grade. She told a story about how she was going to run for student council. And then in the last minute she almost bailed. She was afraid of losing. She was afraid of having to get up in front of her peers and give a speech. And she almost decided not to do it.
But then she’d recently seen Hamilton and she thought, “You know what? I am not going to throw away my shot.” And she went ahead and she ran and she did win the election and she was on student council. And I remember telling that girl, if you continue to make that decision, every time you’re faced with fear or your insecurities, if you tell yourself that you’re not going to throw away your shot, your life will look radically different than if you give into fear every time we face those challenges.