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 VoxPath:   Home / wren / w_editorials / Pilgrim America (pt.3): Out of Massachusetts Created: 12/3/1998   Views:  

Re-Discovering Pilgrim America - Part III

Out of Massachusetts
What The Pilgrims Were REALLY Thankful For.

- by Wren Walker

In October of 1631, John Withrop wrote: "One Mrs. Hutchinson, a member of the church of Boston, a woman of ready wit and bold spirit, brought over with her two dangerous errors: 1. That the person of the Holy Ghost dwells in a justified person. (and) 2. That no sanctification can help to evidence to us our justification...."

From quaint English this translates as "We've got ourselves a rogue here, boys!"

Anne Huchinson believed in the Quaker tenet of "inner light'- a spiritual presence which resides within all persons. This "light" , as she understood it, allowed people direct access to God without the need for a mediator or a minister to interpret the Bible passages. As she spread her ideas of the God-given right of a individual to interpret and follow religious principles as he/she personally divined it, the magistrates began to get a tad worried.

Puritan beliefs in the literacy of the Bible as interpreted by only the very the best scholars and ministers of the time were being challenged by (gasp!) an uppity woman who basically was saying, "YOU have the power within yourself to decide what is right and what is wrong!"

Out she went.

Also in 1631, Roger Williams began to mutter something about the fact that civil magistrates had no power to punish persons for their religious beliefs. (Picture Puritan power-holders pulling out their hair at this point. "What IS it with these people?") The William's proposition that "forced religion stinks in God's nostrils," was just a bit too much. In fact, much too much.

Out he went, too.

Now, I know that Moses gets all the big movie deals for that parting of the Red Sea trick, but the exodus of the ideas formulated by Hutchinson and Williams had as much of an impact on the future development of democratic thought in America as the flight from Egypt had on the psyche of the Hebrews. (How about it, Mr. Spielberg? Brad Pitt would make a great choice. Check him out in those black pants with the boots...uh, where was I again?)

Williams was not entirely the saintly liberal that he is often portrayed as. He gained his land in Rhode Island as a gift from the Narragansett, the very same tribe who aided in the attack of the Pequot. Rumor has it, that he encouraged his Narragansett allies to spy on the Pequot and report on their numbers and movements. (He also believed that the Pequot and the Mohawk were cannibals and practiced witchcraft.)

However, Williams did go on to found a colony that -for its time- was a radical step toward a true democratic ideal. It was declared that pluralistic worship was to be tolerated. Soon, the settlement was growing with Anabaptists, Gortonians, Arminians, Puritan heretics, Quakers, and all the other "whatevers."

The concept of the separation of church and state did not begin with Jefferson or Madison. It really began in Rhode Island with Roger Williams. American individualism was already becoming a reality in 1636.

To add to the rapidly fermenting stew of radical ideas, the New Amsterdam (New York) Dutch were already espousing the theme, "difference makes for tolerance." (Which sounds like something off a banner one could find at any Rainbow Rally today!)

And then there were those noisome Quakers. Seeking friendly allies with which to share God's undying love for all mankind, they strolled into colonial Puritan Town. Those who were not whipped, beaten or hung quickly jogged back out again. Settling finally in Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey, the Quakers established colonies where they paid no taxes, took no oaths and, quite to the annoyance of their neighbors, refused to tip their hats to anyone in authority. (All we need to complete this picture is the image of a Quaker placing a daisy into the blunderbuss of a watchful Puritan soldier! I wasn't there. Maybe it happened.)

Then came the Irish, the German Lutherans, the Mennonites, the Amish, the Moravrian Lutherans and just about anyone else who could book passage to the New World. By 1660, the Puritans were already a minority and their dream of a national theocratic government considered an idiosyncrasy. They would never recover it.

If America was an oyster, then the freedom to spread out and "do your own thing" was her pearl.

As more and more diverse peoples arrived and spread westward and southward, religion played a very small part in their lives and plans. The lure of profit and the lack of government or church restraints bred a country whose culture was rapidly becoming more and more secular.

By 1740, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Maryland, New York, and Virginia were predominantly non-English, the west was already wild, Vermont was definitely not for tourists and the southern Gulf Coast area was Spanish or French.

Americans may not have had many "official" democratic rights at this stage, but-especially beyond the Mississippi- what they did have was an absentee landlord. They had freedoms that had never even occurred to them under European feudal rule. No state church. No resident king. No lord to parcel out a piece of land and then collect the taxes from it.

Journals and papers of the time speak of new adventures, hardships, disasters and triumphs. Not much talk of religious matters at all. They were conducting a great experiment. Not in the founding of a religious nation, but in the exploration of the horizons of both land and belief. They got used to making up the rules as they went along. And they liked it very much indeed.

They weren't going to give it up.

If there was ever any doubt about the religious timber -or lack thereof-of the colonies, it was put to rest during the Revolutionary War and the period immediately following it.

Of the eight flags flown during the War for Independence, none was made up of a religious symbol or bore a religious motto. Don't you think that if they thought that they were fighting for some religious ideal that it would show up here? Folks do tend to get religious awfully quick when someone is shooting in their direction.

Nope. E Pluribus Unum-"one out of many"-was the theme.

For most Americans, it still is.

Next: Jefferson, Madison and Adams-Oh My!

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