Monday, September 19, 2016

The Good Ol' Days of "Christian America"

In a presidential election year, it is common for candidates to have slogans such as, "Make America Great Again!" Statements like this play on the tendency of many people to think that conditions in the past were better than what they are in present. I think this mindset is similar to the idea of "the grass is greener on the other side of the fence." In particular, many Christians bemoan the deteriorating morals of America, pointing at issues like abortion or non-traditional sexuality. "We need to bring back Christian America!" goes the cry; if only we can get back to our country's supposedly Christian foundation, all will be well. Near the end of his life, King Solomon made an observation that may offer some insight on this subject. "Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not enquire wisely concerning this." (Ecclesiastes 7:10). Why did Solomon think that it is unwise to dwell on the alleged superiority of the past? To possibly answer this question, it might be worthwhile to examine briefly the track record of "Christian America." (Most of my information comes from the exhaustive research of David Bercot for his book, In God We Don't Trust.)

Most Americans are familiar with the arrival of the Pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts. However, the Pilgrims were preceded in America by the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown, Virginia (1607). The Jamestown settlement had a very rocky beginning, with the settlers suffering periods of starvation. The original purpose for the establishment of Jamestown was for profit, but after a few years, the colony was almost abandoned for being an economic failure. However, Jamestown was saved by growing a popular new product: tobacco. I don't think I need to go into detail about the harmful effects of tobacco, which are common knowledge in the present day. Back in the 17th century, on the other hand, could tobacco farmers claim ignorance of the negative aspects of their crop? Well, as early as 1604, King James of England wrote vehemently against the use of tobacco, even calling it a sin for damaging the health of the user as well as that of innocent bystanders. Tobacco quickly became the dominant industry of Virginia. You may recall from American History classes that the Virginia House of Burgesses was noted for being the first elected legislative assembly in the English colonies. However, your history textbook probably overlooked the fact that the first law passed by the House of Burgesses was aimed at regulating tobacco prices. If the tobacco industry wasn't bad enough already, the moral shortcomings of the enterprise were compounded in 1619 when the first black slaves were brought to Virginia in order to work on the tobacco plantations.

"Christian" America is off to a great start so far, but we haven't even talked about the Indians yet. The charter for Jamestown had claimed that evangelizing the Indians was one of the purposes of the colony, but later events clearly demonstrate that this was lip service. At first, the Powhatan tribe in Virginia was willing to coexist with the English settlers. Unfortunately, the colonists took advantage of the Indians' hospitality, with the English's increasing numbers steadily pushing the Indians off their land. By 1622, the Powhatan had had enough, and they attacked the English. In response, the English--the invaders of the Indians' territory--waged war on the Powhatan until the tribe was almost wiped out. So, on our list of accomplishments for the first English settlement in America, we have a burgeoning tobacco industry, the introduction of slavery, and the virtual annihilation of an Indian tribe.

 Alright, so Virginia's origins aren't exactly a shining example of Christ's teachings in action, but surely the devout Pilgrims had a more godly start in Massachusetts. As we discuss the Pilgrims, I want to clear up some common misconceptions about them. First of all, the Pilgrims did not come to America for religious freedom. While it is true that the Pilgrims were persecuted in England, the group had found freedom of worship in the Netherlands. They came to America for a better economic situation, and so that they could live with other Englishmen. Moreover, the Pilgrims had no intention of granting religious freedom to other groups in their settlement. Indeed, it was against the law for Quakers to live in Plymouth. They certainly didn't come to America to start a new nation or to be independent from England. The Pilgrims had meant to settle in already established Virginia but the Mayflower got blown off course and ended up in Massachusetts accidentally. If you look at the text of the famous Mayflower Compact, it is clear that the colonists (who weren't all Pilgrims, by the way) wanted to emphasize that they were still loyal subjects of King James.

We've all heard the stories about the first Thanksgiving, with the Pilgrims and the Indians sharing a feast. Like in Virginia, the local Wampanoag tribe initially had peaceful relations with the settlers. Unfortunately, also like in Virginia, more and more settlers kept coming and seizing Indian land. The Pilgrims definitely weren't interested in turning the other cheek, for their hired military officer Myles Standish launched a preemptive strike that killed many Indians, after he had invited them to a feast under false pretenses. When word of the massacre got back to the Pilgrims in the Netherlands, even their pastor thought they had gone too far. In his response, John Robinson wrote, "How happy a thing would it have been if you had converted some before you had killed any." Like a broken record, the Pilgrims' actions eventually led to open conflict with the Wampanoag, and superior English military might resulted in a disastrous outcome for the Indians.

The Pilgrims were the first religious group to come to Massachusetts from England, but they were followed a few years later by the Puritans. The Puritans had a lot in common with their Pilgrim neighbors. Both groups were staunch Calvinists, and they followed the typical Calvinist behavior of persecuting any other faiths that they didn't agree with. In particular, the Puritans couldn't stand the Quakers and actually hanged many of them until the English government told them to knock it off. Also, not to be outdone by the Pilgrim wars on the natives, the Puritans slaughtered the majority of the Indians in Massachusetts and neighboring Connecticut. Perhaps their Bibles were missing a few verses, such as Matthew 5:9. "Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God."

As time went on, the Puritans, and the Congregationalists that came after them, devised a very clever (and yet despicable) way of filling their pockets. In the first step of the so-called Golden Triangle, molasses imported from the West Indies was distilled into rum. (No, the Puritans and Congregationalists had no problem with drinking alcohol.) This rum was taken to Africa where it was traded for slaves. From there, the slaves were shipped to the sugar plantations in the Caribbean. The conditions on slave ships during this step of the process (also referred to as the Middle Passage) were disgusting, and many of the slaves didn't survive the journey. Nevertheless, sale of the slaves to the sugar plantations was very profitable. Completing the Triangle, the ships returned to New England with great wealth and more molasses to perpetuate the cycle.

Should we give the Pilgrims and the Puritans a pass because of the times they lived in? "Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever." (Hebrews 13:8). We don't get to ignore the teachings of Jesus for the sake of expediency, or because society around us is doing it. An excellent example of upholding the principles of Christ amid darkness is the Quaker, William Penn. This interesting man founded the colony of Pennsylvania in 1682, establishing complete religious freedom not just for his fellow Quakers, but other persecuted faiths such as the Mennonites and the Amish. In fact, anyone who believed in God was welcome to settle in Pennsylvania, which was certainly much more generous than the colonies started by the Pilgrims or the Puritans. Penn also treated the Indians fairly, seeking permission to bring over settlers and actually paying for their land. Another contrast with all the other colonies is that Pennsylvania under the leadership of the peaceful Quakers had no militia, as well as a distinct lack of Indian revolts until long after Penn's death. It should come as no surprise that evangelism of the Indians bore more fruit in Pennsylvania than in the rest of the American colonies.

Penn referred to his colony as "a holy experiment." He had endeavored to establish a colony that was in harmony with the words of Jesus. This can certainly not be said for the settlements started by the Pilgrims and the Puritans, not to mention the colonies with more secular origins. Despite its promising beginning, the holy experiment in Pennsylvania ultimately failed. Why? I intend to examine the reasons in my next post. In short, the downfall of William Penn's vision was the result of the armed insurrection against a lawful government that we like to call the American Revolution.

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