|Re-Discovering Pilgrim America - Part I|
Re-Discovering Pilgrim America
The Nina, The Pinta and The Religious Right:
A Misguided Voyage To Rediscover The Christian Nation.
- by Wren Walker (Sunday, November 15, 1998)
It has all the trappings of an epic voyage of discovery. Just as the European monarchs once commissioned potential adventurers to seek out the New World in order to expand their patron's influence and power, so a new breed of explorer is now setting its compass-heading on America.
Carrying their charts and the latest poll results, these modern explorers are looking for a fabled and lost land. Spoken of in folklore and legend, it is said to be a country where everyone was always happy, the traditional family was the cornerstone of its society and all the inhabitants worshipped the same god.
Unfortunately for our earnest modern explorers, they-like Columbus-are completely off course.
Seeking The "Christian Nation"
Although the Spanish and the French early on explored the fringes of the New World, established trade with the local inhabitants-who were not always happy to be so "discovered"- and set up posts along major rivers and into Canada, the search for the Christian Nation for our new explorers usually begins with their interpretations of the mythic legends of the Puritans, the Pilgrims and that magickal number-1620...
The Puritans were Englishmen and Scotsmen who wanted to purge European Anglicanism of what they considered to be non-biblical worship. Most were Calvinists; some were Presbyterians. Most also thought everyone else's religious tenets were much too lenient. That's why they left the other countries-especially Holland-where they had taken up temporary refuge. They just couldn't stand all that toleration.
The Pilgrims were English Separatists: radical converts to Calvinism who wanted to separate themselves from the Anglican religion and society; moreover, to both govern themselves and practice their religion based on strict Bible precepts. Short version: They wanted to create a theocracy.
The New World story begins for our explorers when the thirty-seven Pilgrims disembarked from the Mayflower at Plymouth The other 65 passengers were Anglicans, Presbyterians or had no religious preference. So while a few non-Pilgrims joined in signing the Mayflower Compact, the rest just waved "See ya, wouldn't want to be ya" and went on their own merry way.
Ten years later, over 1000 Puritans landed at Salem and the Massachusetts Bay Colony was formed. (By the way, it was not until the 19th century that the name "Pilgrim" was applied to the Plymouth settlers (Puritans). Thanks to our first grade "color in the turkey' lesson plans, we now have it that everybody around in 1620-ish was a Pilgrim.)
So far, this is historically accurate. But here is where the myth of the Christian Nation begins and historical accuracy takes a hike. Because no sooner had our "Pilgrim Fathers" set up camp, then they turned their minds to more "worldly" pursuits-which became actual buckled boot pounding on the ground pursuits-as they chased "outsiders" away and even trekked through miles of New England wilderness to hunt them down lest they escape the proper Christian punishment for being different.
Any outsiders who did try to stick it out-if they were found to be not quite up to Pilgrim snuff-were fined, whipped, put in the stocks or hanged. In 1660, Mary Dyer and two of her companions were hanged because they would not change their Quaker beliefs. We all know about the Salem Witch Trials in 1692. Not to mention the Native Indian neighbors who were betrayed, taken advantage of and even sold to slave traders as early as 1637.
You may not have read that version in the first grade. Hardly surprising. It's not all that flattering really. Just keep the kids coloring in those Thanksgiving turkeys and pumpkins. (No need to tell them that the Massachusetts Bay Colony was the first settlement (in 1641) to legalize slavery either.)
The Pilgrims were not seeking religious freedom at all-except for themselves, that is. They rejected the notion of tolerance for differing beliefs flat out. If that is the "real" founding of the Christian Nation, then it sure explains a lot.
The real birth of the ideal that we now know as American religious freedom came not from our "Pilgrims' Pride" at all. It was born screaming and hit the New World with both feet running as fast as it could-right OUT of the Massachusetts Bay Colony!
In 1636, Roger Williams, who was himself banished for preaching the notion that a forced religion is a bad religion, founded the first colony to declare true freedom of worship and introduced the concept of what became "the separation of Church and State." It was a pluralistic vision where Anabaptists, Gortonians, Arminians, Puritan "heretics", Quakers, and all the other whatevers were welcome.
The exodus that followed Williams, and later Anne Hutchinson, was truly one of "biblical" proportions. What spread throughout the new colonies was not the concept of a new land where Christianity ruled the day and everything else under the sun.
No, what spread throughout the New World was the exhilarating realization that this new country was completely open to exploration, settlement and that every group had an equal shot at establishing their idea of what a community-and eventually a nation-could be.
The fact that the Puritan theocratic ideal never spread beyond the Massachusetts Bay Colony should tell us a bit about the real spirit that formed what would become the United States of America.
No matter how hard our modern misguided explorers may pound on their moral compass, the needle still points toward religious toleration, new horizons, a chance to make a good living and free thought being the driving forces in the colonization of America.
Thank the Goddess that many of the true 'founding fathers and mothers" of this nation followed that magnetic pull toward real freedom.
Click Here for part II