“If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday.” ~Pearl Buck
THE AMERICA THAT WAS
The thing I like about early American history, the Colonial Period, is simplicity and aestheticism. I like their architecture, their Cape Cod houses, their austere rooms, neatness, and daily habits, even their stories of adventure. Our nation was founded by men who believed in God, in decency, in morality, and in personal responsibility.
The earliest European immigrants came to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607—about the time the King James Version of the Bible (1611) was published—but a few years later two distinct groups came to what would become the Greater Boston area.
The Pilgrims were Separatists: believers who wanted to separate from the Church of England and return to first-century Christianity. Calvinist in doctrine, they became Congregationalists and, like Anabaptists, believed in adult baptism and living a godly life. They came in 1620, aboard the Mayflower, a small ship, with about 100 passengers; their governor was William Bradford.
The Puritans were Dissenters: believers who wanted to stay within the Church of England (Anglican) and purge it of the vestiges of Romanism. They came in 1630 under charter as the Company of Massachusetts Bay in New England, with an 11-ship fleet, carrying 700 emigrants; their governor was John Winthrop, who came on the Arbella.
Since both Pilgrim and Puritan are 7-letter words beginning with P, since both came to Colonial America about the same time, seeking religious freedom, and believed about the same thing, and since both leaders were roughly the same age, and both called governor, it is easy to confuse the two Massachusetts groups. It is also easy to confuse them with another P word, Pharisee, if you want to denigrate Christians.
Cotton Mather (1663-1728), Puritan minister and grandson of John Cotton, said that “History is the story of events, with praise or blame.” He wrote biographies of both men: The Life of William Bradford and The Life of John Winthrop. Further, both Bradford and Winthrop left behind works of their own. Bradford wrote Of Plymouth Plantation (its history 1621-1646), et al. Among his several writings, Winthrop contributed to the history of the Colonies with his sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” (1630) and his Journal of John Winthrop, also called The History of New England.
The Pilgrim William Bradford (1590-1657) was self-educated, but that did not mean he was intellectually inferior—many persons of that time were educated at home. According to Mather, Bradford had a gift for languages. He could speak English, Dutch, and French and had taught himself to read Latin and Classical Hebrew. He was also well acquainted with history, antiquity, philosophy, and theology. Bradford, Mather said, was “a person of more than ordinary piety, wisdom, and courage … of well-tempered spirit … but the crown of all was his holy, prayerful, watchful, and fruitful walk with God.”
The Puritan John Winthrop (1588-1649), educated at Trinity College, Cambridge University, where his father was director, was born to privilege and wealth. “He was by nature a man at once benevolent and just … of unspotted integrity … excellent spirit … a governor in whom the excellencies of Christianity made a most improving addition unto the virtues … a very religious man … as he strictly kept his heart, so he kept his house, under the laws of piety; there he was … constant in holy duties” (Cotton Mather).
In 1633 Cotton Mather’s grandfather, John Cotton (1585-1652), a graduate of Cambridge and long-time English clergyman, because of his dissension with the ruling Anglican hierarchy, sailed for America. Cotton became pastor and leading religious figure for the Massachusetts Bay Colony. For almost twenty years, he was a contemporary of Bradford and Winthrop. When the Westminster Assembly of Divines met to restructure the Church of England, Cotton wanted much to go and be a part of it. Winthrop, with his dry wit, checked him: he couldn’t see the point of going 3,000 miles to agree with three free men. In 1646 the Church of England adopted the Westminster Confession of Faith; among some groups it was accepted and modified as the Savoy Declaration of Faith, the main difference being church government. It became pretty much the doctrinal statement for both Pilgrims and Puritans.
According to Mather, Winthrop drank water, not wine; he was charitable toward the needy and saw himself, as well as others, as responsible for the welfare and maintenance of the community. His family would even go door to door asking anyone if he needed anything. During a particularly hard winter in Boston, when told that a poor man had been helping himself to Winthrop’s firewood, Winthrop said angrily, “Go, call that man to me …. I’ll cure him of stealing!” When the poor man presented himself, Winthrop saw his pitiful condition and said: “Friend, it is a severe winter … wherefore I would have you supply yourself at my woodpile till this cold season be over.” Then, merrily to the tattler: “There. Didn’t I cure him of stealing?”
Both Bradford and Winthrop suffered harships. Bradford left his only son behind in Amsterdam. Bradford’s first wife died in the New World—Winthrop successively lost three wives, several children, and his wealth. Winthrop received no salary for his work; until, during a financial crisis, Colonists insisted he take it. Further, sympathizers raised £500 for his support.
When it came time for Bradford to leave this life, God so filled him with rapture concerning the world to come that Mather exclaimed, “Oh, that such an end of life might come to me!”
As he lay dying, Winthrop, who took literally James 5:14, 15, called for the elders of the church to come, lay hands on him, and pray for his recovery. The whole church fasted and prayed. Still, like David (Acts 13:36), he “fell on sleep,” into the arms of God.
Bradford’s and Winthrop’s legacy of good works is the early heritage of our European forefathers, if not the nation. “What the Puritans gave the world was not thought, but action” (Wendell Phillips). True, by the time of the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the US Constitution (1781), many leaders were Deist, not Christian, but still instilled with the Judeo-Christian ethic.
THE AMERICA I KNEW
Growing up, I was drawn to just about everything American. History. Literature. Music. Art. To greet me when I entered school eash morning were the portraits of George Washington and Martha Washington. Every schoolday began not only with prayer and Bible reading, but also with the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag and the chorus “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”
My favorite escape was the school library. I chose little blue-backed biographies of famous Americans: US Presidents, their wives, statesmen, military heroes, pioneers, explorers, inventors, authors….Here I learned about Francis Marion (the Swamp Fox); the Perry brothers, both Navy men—Oliver Hazard Perry (hero of Lake Erie) and Matthew C Perry (who opened the door to Japan)—the Clark brothers—George Rogers Clark (hero of Vincennes) and William Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame)—Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain boys; Clara Barton (American Red Cross); Molly Pitcher (Revolutionary War); Betsy Ross (American flag); Amelia Earhart (aviator), and many, many others. I couldn’t get enough of American history. “All history becomes subjective; in other words there is properly no history, only biography” (Ralph Waldo Emerson).
I still love to study history. Names, places, dates. Mentally I organize everything by dates. That is my way of filing the information in my head. A date is a peg on which to hang facts: it provides order. “History is a jangle of accidents, blunders, surprises and absurdities, and so is our knowledge of it, but if we are to report it at all we must impose some order upon it” (Henry Steele Commanger). I memorized the US Presidents sequentially by the year in which they were elected. I don’t understand students who don’t like dates.
As I aged, my reading matured. One of my favorite American writers has been narrative historian Bruce Catton—The Army of the Potomac, Glory Road, Mr Lincoln’s Army, Grant Moves South, Grant Takes Command, A Stillness at Appomattox …. I don’t read Catton, a preacher’s kid from Michigan, necessarily because he wrote about the Civil War—though in young adulthood I visited all the Civil War battlefields—I read him because he is mesmerizing. “Even the most painstaking history is a bridge across an eternal mystery” (Bruce Catton).
Some years back I was talking to a secondary school history teacher with a graduate degree. He had never heard of Bruce Catton—only of Ken Burns and Shelby Foote. Satisfied with his intelligence and store of knowledge, he was annoyed that I had mentioned someone he’d never heard of and probably not worth his time. What is wrong with today’s teachers? I wondered. They get their information from TV like laymen. Soon there won’t be anyone around with real education. But I knew that same history teacher would that night go home and look up Catton on the web. When he did, he’d learn that Catton was a Pulitzer Prize winner and the premier Civil War historian. I wouldn’t be looking so bad tomorrow.
Most of my life I have been a person in love with this country, its scenic beauty, its highways and byways, reveling in Woody Guthrie’s …
This land is your land This land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and Me
Standing at a place like the Old Manse, Concord, Massachusetts, for instance, you hear the spill from a tour guide, who sometimes tells you more than you would’ve known from mere books—like the romance between Sophia and Nathaniel Hawthorne (Sophia etching their initials in the glass with her diamond wedding ring).
And sometimes more than you wanted to know. At Sagamore Hill, Oyster Bay, Long Island, New York, our tour guide was a family relative, who knew too much about the romance between Teddy Roosevelt and his second wife, Edith (his first love). At that point I had a date with a ferry at Montauk Point and was more interested in the clock than the revelation.
When I visited the Mark Twain House, Nook Farm, Hartford, Connecticut, I was fortunate to have one of the best tourist guides I’ve heard anywhere. He was almost as eloquent as a speaker from Toastmasters. Descending the stairs, I appreciated him even more when I heard the tour guide coming upstairs. Next door to Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) was the home of Harriet Beecher Stowe, daughter of Lyman Beecher, sister of Henry Ward Beecher, and a known author (Uncle Tom’s Cabin). Until then I’d never known the two writers were neighbors, nor how close.
THE AMERICA THAT IS
The first time I heard the eye-opening term “post-Christian” was about forty years ago—from Francis Schaeffer, a philosopher-theologian living at L’Abri, in Huémoz-sur-Ollon, Switzerland. Schaeffer, and others acquainted with the Old World, were saying that in Europe Christianity was history. The light of the gospel of Jesus Christ was growing dim, or had already gone out, and it was only a matter of times until darkness circled the globe, including America. Since the 1970s were the heyday of the PTL Club and the 700 Club, and all kinds of public figures were climbing aboard the born-again bandwagon, I was a hard sale—It may have happened in Europe, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen here. I couldn’t see that happening to my country. Of course, now, it seems Francis Schaeffer was precocious.
We have come a long way since the Pilgrims and Puritans—near a half-millennium. If you had told me over a half-century ago that America would slip from its moorings and become the travesty it is now, I would never have believed it. My contemporary David Jeremiah has expressed as much in his book I Never Thought I’d See the Day! Culture at the Crossroads (2011). “We must understand that we are in a war for the very heart and soul of civilization or the consequences will be catastrophic” (David Jeremiah). George Barna has also expressed as much in his more cerebral The Seven Faith Tribes: Who They Are, What They Believe, and Why They Matter (2009). Don’t be fooled by the title. Barna presents a hard-hitting message. “The bottom line is simply this: the substitution of alternative worldviews for the traditional Judeo-Christian version is responsible for America incrementally destroying itself” (George Barna). Today decadent Americans sit around and poke fun at our religious beginnings; but whether we as a nation survive depends upon whether we can revive our moral and spiritual strength.
As early as World War I, an outspoken critic of Puritanism, the anti-God, anti-Christian HL Mencken, began leveling the early leaders of Colonial America. Mencken couldn’t get off the subject. In A Book of Burlesques (1916), Mencken denigrated Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” In Notes on Democracy (1926): “the Puritan yearning to browbeat and injure, to torture and terrorize, to punish and humiliate all who show any sign of being happy.” In The Vintage Mencken (1956): “There is only one honest impulse at the bottom of Puritanism, and that is the impulse to punish the man with a superior capacity for happiness—to bring him down to the miserable level of ‘good’ men; i.e., of stupid, cowardly, and chronically unhappy men.” Mencken had a habit of bad-mouthing anything decent and good because he himself was flagrantly bad.
As if they had heard all this before, and took it as gospel, many have joined his chorus. Others, without saying a negative word against our forefathers, are yet living out Mencken’s sacrilegious assessment. “There is more criticism of Puritanism, and more distance from Christian morality, than there has been before” (Susie Bright).
More appalling today than the noise of the bad people is the silence of the good people. The morals of our leaders are low because the morals of our people are low. Ultimately, nations reap what they sow. Few, if any, have ever been conquered from without that were not rotten within.
The question is not whether America can be saved but whether America is worth saving. Only the moral deserve to be saved. We cannot oppose evil by compromising with it. “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20).
Christianity is not broadminded; it is as narrow-minded as the compass, radar, the multiplication table, the boiling and freezing points of water …. “Study everything between quarks and quasars and you find structure, motion, order, a lawful stability, arrangement, and design” (McCandlish Phillips). “Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way” (Matthew 7:13, 14). If we want to survive, then we have to change. We have to return to “the God of our fathers.”
“If the past has been an obstacle and a burden, knowledge of the past is the safest and the surest emancipation.” ~John Acton
Copyright © 2011 Alexandra Lee