I love history. It's not just dates and facts but the beating pulse of people's lives and circumstances. It's psychology, narrative & intrigue; at times, smooth & steady, or wild & unpredictable.
I especially love early American history. The idea that men & women were willing to trade the familiarity of home for a new wild land is intriguing. I respect their bravery.
However, I cringe when glorification of these early "good old days" when America was once such a "godly nation" founded upon Christian principles, is mentioned.
"Surely," I hear from conservative folk, "America is doomed now because she's lost her Christian roots. Where are the people who piously live for God as they did in the days of our ancestors?"
I am calling bullshit.
If you think God desires the godliness of the past, it's possible you've fallen for the textbook historical facade, Disney esque Pocahontas and John Smith PG version of our nation's history.
I picked up a book in the library stacks a few weeks back that caught my eye for it's provocative title, and I mean that in the nerdiest way possible.
The title read:
Roger Williams & The Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty by John M. Barry.
"I'll just quickly skim it," I figured, but I soon learnt this was not a read for the faint of heart, nor the "skimmer- inclined."
I had to commit. It was too perfectly detailed and woven together to not pay my full respects to.
Perhaps you've never read in detail why the Puritans came to America? (Before this book, I hadn't either.)
Partly it was to escape religious persecution, but equally important was their conviction to "convert" Indians. They identified the Indians as uncivilized people like their own non-distant relatives of the early Britain conquests, and they had the noble idea to save these poor pagan hearts.
And so they set sail on the antithesis of today's luxury cruise liner, with conditions foul & dirty, arriving in the new world ill prepared for the harsh winter that soon set in on them, with only bare tents & scrappy housing to ward off the chill, with most starving & sick & many dying. (One can hardly expect them to befriend, much less convert, an Indian when barely still alive.)
However, a few years into their colonization experiment, when it was more established and thriving, what had the English Puritans achieved in their Indian conversion agenda? They had "achieved nothing. They had achieved nothing because, despite all their rhetoric, they had tried nothing. Not the Virginia Company, not Plymouth, not the Massachusetts Bay, not the Connecticut or New Haven colonies- all of whose founding documents claimed to justify colonization because it advanced Christ's kingdom among Indians- had made the slightest effort to convert a single Indian" (John M. Barry).
They not only never lifted a finger to understand the culture of the people's land they were plopping down upon, but they also gave them their European diseases (not intentionally, to their credit), disregarded, attacked, & murdered them.
I know, I know you don't want to believe our "peaceful pumpkin-pie eating Pilgrims" were savage killers when it came to what they wanted? You want to believe that their pious worship translated to their actions.
Bernard Bailyn, longtime Harvard historian, reminds us of a most conveniently forgotten little war, The Pequot War.
Allow me to summarize: the English wanted land. They needed an excuse to pick a fight with the Pequot Indians. They found a pretty lame one. They go on a rampage burning villages & killing everyone. The Pequots are eventually wiped out. The end.
The Indian culture produced valiant warriors who fought nobly for their cause. The English produced blood-thirsty, merciless killers. It was the Europeans that taught the Indians the art of scalping. And it was the Europeans that first raided and burned their villages.
Who was it then that kept the peace between the white folk and the Indians during those early colonial years, as much as possible?
Roger Williams, the man who actually bothered to learn their language & customs, who invited them into his home & in return, they invited him to theirs. Williams, the man who brought it to the colonies' attention that the land, according to English law, actually belonged to these Indian folk & paying them for it would be the respectable English thing to do.
Of course, the Puritans loved that idea; in fact, they loved many of Roger Williams ideas because his were ideas hundreds of years before his time and a bit revolutionary and they really celebrated those differences about him...
Perhaps you've never heard of how Puritans treated those who questioned the teachings of the ministers? Or, those who felt they could not fall under Puritanical practice? As they had once escaped religious intolerance in England, did the Puritans offer a gracious understanding hand towards those with differing religious views, like the Quaker, the Baptist, the atheist? Nay, on the contrary, banishment, hangings, ears cut off, lashes, imprisonment, & deportation, were all acceptable common practices for nonconformists.
They preached a message of love. But, it was love of conformity as they saw it. Rise at the same time, eat the same foods, dress in the same attire, attend the same church... Be all the same in oneness & conformed community.
Roger Williams, a devout minister & Puritan, for all his genuine pursuit of Christ, would not recant his developing ideas about property rights & church authority in government & thus, was banished alone into the blizzard-infested, winter wilderness (during a bout with a life threatening illness, no less) because he had dared to question the teachings of the Puritan leaders from the pulpit & in his own home.
The very people that had enjoyed his company, listened to him preach, ate at his table, even shared his beliefs, snubbed him. He spent the winter barely surviving in the bitter cold weather, sheltered by the Indians.
Williams dedicated the rest of his life to establishing a free colony where all were welcome to live according to their own convictions. He let the colonists participate in and form the small government, and rallied against Massachusetts constant bullying to swallow the little colony up. He harbored the Baptists, the Quakers, the atheists, the out-of-the-box thinkers.
(Williams felt that seeking a solely Christian nation would create forced worship and "forced worship stinks in God's nostrils.")
His was the first experimental colony where freedom of thought was allowed. His was the first where church and state were separate. His colony eventually became the little state of Rhode Island.
I gave that little riveting history lesson (or maybe you found that really boring and gave up reading already) so that I could share my convictions with you.
The Puritans wanted a city on a hill and they would stop at nothing to get that. They'd kill/banish/jail/torture anyone unwilling to conform to their vision. That was the beginning of these Conservative Christian Puritanical Principals so many long for in modern day America. Those are the roots. It's a far cry from the postcard picture we've painted in our mind of the first founders of this nation, innocently escaping persecution to live peaceably & thankfully in a new land, considerate and grateful for their Indian brothers.
If you think God is unhappier with our nation now than he was in the days of bullying & massacring Indians, persecuting nonconformists, and later on, owning & abusing slaves, abhorrent racism & hate crimes, wiping out the Indian population, all while attending church piously on Sundays, then you must serve a different God than I.
And if you believe our nation must be immersed in Christian virtues, a city upon a hill, in order to not be condemned to fire and brimstone, remember that Jesus said, "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's?"
Isn't government of this world?
*Williams saw the church as the Edenic garden that must be kept separate from the sinfulness of man. He saw the individual standing alone with God in glorious isolation, and so independent from the state as almost to be outside it" (John M. Barry).
Outside of the government. Outside of whoever is elected, whatever policies are imposed, entirely individual.
(Williams was still involved in government, he did wonders to keep Rhode Island chartered by getting involved in British politics, and his ideas became the backbone of freedom of religion and separation of church and state in America. It's not a matter of abstaining from involvement in government, it's understanding we will hold to our values and respect others for their's.)
Instead of craving this illustrious image of the city of the hill, let us reach for something more godly, tangible & possible.
Ask yourself how you can be a Roger Williams in a world of conformists. What is your metaphoric Rhode Island? Who are the outcasts & the least of these that you will commit to building relationship with? What steps are you willing to take to stand up for what is right? Would you allow God to take you into a new wilderness, separated from all you know and love?
Walk to the beat that doesn't preach love but lives it.
America is just a place filled with human error; in itself, it will never be goldy. However, there are men and women today who still embody the Roger Williams spirit, fighting for justice and truth, and they make me proud to be associated with this country.
Let's commit to making America's future brighter than her past by being exemplary individuals.
Let's commit to making America's future brighter than her past by being exemplary individuals.
Happy 4th of July, fellow Americans.
"Enforced uniformity confounds civil and religious liberty and denies the principles of Christianity and civility. No man shall be required to worship or maintain a worship against his will." -Roger Williams