Tag Archives: protestant

The Pilgrims’ Bible

All of America’s great historical men of letters wrote in a style that owed much to the King James Bible. That book was, for many pious early American families, the only book from which children were taught to read and write, the only one from which children were read to on dark winter evenings. Its soaring, yet earthy prose helped to shape the sound of American rhetoric back in the days when public figures were expected to speak and write with intelligence, clarity and precision.

So it is a surprise to find that the Pilgrim Fathers themselves did not use the King James Bible.

King James’ Authorized Version, completed in 1611, was that monarch’s attempt to reconcile the various factions that existed within the English church, each of which was passionately devoted to its own special translation of the Bible. By including in his translating committee representatives of the various religious groups, he hoped to create a translation that all English Christians could use and love. In this he was more than successful.

Of course, you can’t please everyone. And it was particularly difficult to please the Puritan Separatists. Their Bible was the Geneva Bible, a massive encyclopedia of Calvinist thought that included extensive notes, maps and diagrams. Many of its explanatory notes were contentious and explicitly anti-royalist: for example, the word “tyrant,” which does not appear in the King James Bible, occurs over 400 times in the Geneva Bible.

When the pilgrims left the distastefully liberal religious atmosphere of England for the Netherlands and thence to Plymouth Rock, it was the massive Geneva Bible they toted along.

Interestingly, some Puritans believed that Biblical names should not be translated; the name Adam should read “Red Earth,” and Timothy, “Fear-God.” The Geneva Bible included a list of the meanings of all those ancient signifying names at the back. In imitation of the great figures of scripture, the Puritans took to naming their children after moral qualities, such as Lament, Eschew-evil, Fear-not, and the very popular name Sin-deny. Among William Brewster’s own children were Fear, Love, Patience and Wrestling Brewster.

(Nicolson 74-75)

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under 17th Century, Uncategorized

Abolitionism and Evangelical Christianity

The Abolitionist movement began in Britain, where evangelical Christians like William Wilberforce succeeded in ending slavery by 1833. The idea migrated to America with religious groups such as the Quakers and the Methodists. But Abolitionism would prove more problematic in the U.S., with its millions of slaves throughout the southern states, than in the British Empire, where slavery mostly existed in far-flung colonies.

In the 18th century, most Americans, North and South, believed that slavery was basically an evil, although regrettably a necessary one. But by the 1820s and 30s the cotton gin, the amazing profits to be made from cotton, and the correspondingly high price of slaves had effected a change in attitudes. Slavery was increasingly being promoted in the South as a positive good, something that needed to be expanded. A number of states passed laws making manumission illegal. Southerners became hostile to any criticism of slavery.

The earliest anti-slavery organizations in the U.S. advocated the resettlement of African-Americans to Africa. Groups like the American Colonization Society believed that slaveholders would willingly let their slaves go if they knew that upon their emancipation the freedmen would immediately leave the country. But this supposedly painless option never materialized; only a few free African Americans migrated to Liberia, and the Society never freed a single slave.

Abolitionists found the deportation idea offensively tame. They called for an immediate, uncompensated termination of slavery. Most Abolitionists were evangelical Christians, to whom slavery was a blatant violation of God’s command to love one’s neighbor, a sin that must be completely renounced.

Churches were enormously important institutions in the early 19th century. The American Methodist Episcopal denomination had more than one million members, with regular church attenders numbering two to three times that many. On any given Sunday, one in five Americans was sitting in a Methodist church! The Methodist church had always been strongly anti-slavery, and in 1800 the General Conference required conferences in slave states to petition their legislatures for abolition.

But mainstream Americans considered abolition a dangerously radical idea. It was frightening, not so much because of the financial loss it would cause, which was considerable, but because the specter of a lot of freed slaves suddenly living among whites on a basis of equality was too shocking to comprehend.

In the 1820s and 30s, Abolitionists were a radical minority; even in the North, abolitionist orators were often the targets of mob action. Southern leaders threatened to lynch any northerner found carrying Abolitionist literature. Southern congressmen succeeded in banning Abolitionist materials from the U.S. Mail. In 1836, proslavery congressmen passed a “Gag Rule” – no petition about slavery would be read or debated. A similar rule was passed in the Senate.

But the harder proslavery forces worked to suppress Abolition, the more northerners joined the cause. Americans who were not at first interested in slavery were stirred by Congress’s blatant infringement of their time-honored right of petition. Suddenly, antislavery petitions began flooding the Capitol, and a small group of sympathetic congressmen, including John Quincy Adams, fought to get them read. And it seemed that every time a southern mob attacked an Abolitionist, more and more complacent northerners were awakened to the tyranny of slavery.

To many northerners, the final straw was Article IV, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution: the Fugitive Slave Law. This law meant that slave states could override the rights of free states by retrieving escaped slaves from states were slavery did not exist. This was an intolerable violation of states’ rights.

For many citizens, the Fugitive Slave Law was asking them to place human law above divine law. Church congregations and abolitionist groups all over the North passed resolutions declaring that human laws contrary to divine law were not binding. By 1848, seven northern states had passed personal liberty laws, declaring that no state personnel or facilities could be used for retrieving runaway slaves. If the federal government insisted on dragging people into slavery, it would have to attend to the matter itself.

Meanwhile, more and more northerners were becoming involved in aiding fugitive slaves, and many colleges, seminaries and other Christian institutions became stations on the Underground Railroad.

But Methodism, facing constant pressure from its southern congregations, dropped the ball. National Methodist leadership began to assert that slavery was a social evil, rather than an individual one. Therefore, slaveholders would not be barred from church membership. The rapid influx of unrepentant slaveholders irreparably weakened the denomination’s stance on slavery. By the 1820s Methodist periodicals were urging church members not to be “judgmental” against slavery. In 1836 the General Conference, as always more interested in stability than in religious zeal, announced that the Methodist Church would henceforth refrain from discussing the disturbing subject of slavery.

This did not reflect majority sentiment in Methodist pews and pulpits in the North. Seven of every eight Abolitionists were evangelical Christians, and most were Methodists. Dissatisfaction with denominational acquiescence on slavery inspired about 15,000 Methodists to splinter off and form a new antislavery denomination, the Wesleyans, in 1843. Then in 1844, following a scandal concerning a slave-owning bishop, outraged southerners left to form their own strongly proslavery denomination, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.

Similar splits occurred within the Baptist and Presbyterian denominations. These various schisms in the 1840s reflected the beginnings of a major rift within the nation as a whole. For the average American, religious matters were much more important day-to-day than the doings of Congress. By polarizing along strictly North-South lines, the denominations succeeded where politics had failed: now, to the average American, the country was beginning to seem divided in two.

(Woodworth 40-54)

Leave a comment

Filed under 19th Century

Roger Williams and the Separation of Church and State

It is often said that when the Puritans first settled in Massachusetts Bay Colony, they were seeking religious freedom. It should more properly be said that they were seeking freedom from religious freedom.

The stated purpose of these Puritans was to establish a City on a Hill, dedicated to their particular vision of God and the performance of what they regarded as God’s laws. They allowed no room for individual interpretation. Puritan ministers were compelled to wear the surplice and use the Book of Common Prayer, or face imprisonment. Everyone was compelled to attend approved church services, or suffer painful consequences. The colony’s leaders believed that it was the responsibility of the State to prevent error in religion; they believed the success of the colony depended on it.

Roger Williams was a young English clergyman, and a graduate of Cambridge. He brought his family to Massachusetts Bay Colony a few months after its establishment, and the Boston church immediately offered him a post.

At first he turned it down. Williams was convinced that preventing error in religion was not the responsibility of the State. He did not believe preventing such error was even possible, for when people interpreted God’s law, they would inevitably err. It was his belief that a society such as the Puritan leaders envisioned would corrupt the church.

Yet he eventually accepted a position at a church in Salem. Soon he had gathered about him a like-minded congregation. The authorities continued to keep a wary eye on him, and eventually his free-thinking interpretations of Scripture became too much for them. In October 1635, the General Court banished him and gave him six weeks to leave the colony.

Because Williams was ill, and winter was coming, they agreed to extend his stay in the colony until spring, provided he did not speak publicly during that time. He complied, yet continued to promote his views privately, among his friends and family. The authorities considered this a violation of their terms, and in January they sent soldiers to arrest him and have him shipped off to England. Warned of the impending arrest, Williams quickly put on his warmest clothes, stuffed his pockets with provisions, and fled into the snow.

For 14 weeks he survived in the wilderness, helped only by some Indians with whom he had previously traded. Eventually he found his way to a likely spot for settlement, and purchased it from the Narragansett Indians. He called the place Providence.

His family and a dozen or so others soon joined him, and quickly he realized they would need some form of government. He drafted up a political contract, a remarkable document that showed just how free-thinking he had become.

Although all English and colonial precedent gave him complete political control over the settlement on the land he had purchased, he relinquished almost all the land to the common stock of the town, and with the land any special political rights to which it would entitle him. He reserved for himself only a vote equal to that of the others. And in stark contrast to the founding documents of every other European settlement in the New World, the compact made no mention of God’s kingdom, God’s will, or God’s blessing. It didn’t mention God at all.

This omission was no accidental oversight. Even Williams’ worst enemies knew how pious he was. Devotion to God informed everything he did, or wrote, or said. By leaving God out of the compact, he was intentionally limiting the government of Providence to matters purely civil. Unlike every other English settlement, this one would neither set up a church nor require church attendance. All this was completely revolutionary.

Massachusetts did not take kindly to having this godless colony at its borders. The authorities began to claim more and more land in an attempt to swallow up the new colony. So Williams sailed to England to convince Parliament to grant him a legal charter.

At first, Parliament was no more receptive than Massachusetts to the idea of divorcing church from state. Tradition and universal public opinion still demanded the death penalty for heretics. But Williams was relentless, promoting his views tirelessly wherever he could get an audience. In February 1644 he published a pamphlet in which he used for the first time a phrase which continues to echo through public debate in America today: “(the) wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes of the world.”

His efforts paid off. Since Rhode Island was a tiny settlement, safely separated from England by a vast ocean, Parliament agreed to let him perform his revolutionary experiment. His charter was granted in March of 1644. The charter gave the colonists complete self-rule, as long as their tiny government conformed, more or less, to English law. Amazingly, it left religious decisions up to the majority of Rhode Island settlers.

Williams had created freest society the Western world had yet seen.

(Barry 72-90)

Leave a comment

Filed under 17th Century

Plymouth Colony as Failed Experiment

The story of the pilgrim fathers began in 1593, when a band of radical Protestant Separatists fled religious persecution in England, emigrating to the more tolerant religious atmosphere of Holland. But the Dutch people went too far in the other direction. They tolerated all kinds of religions, as well as atheism, and allowed a lot of secular behavior – drinking, gambling, dancing, etc. – that the Puritans found offensive. Fearing for the spiritual development of their children in this pagan setting, the Puritans fled again, this time to the New World.

Despite the loss of half the first Puritan band during the disastrous winter of 1620-21, two more boatloads of Separatists followed them to Plymouth. These were in turn followed by about 20,000 non-Separatist Puritans, who settled at Boston. These two groups of religious ideologues hoped to found a theocracy far from Europe’s godless influence.

They were disappointed. It turned out that new immigrants as well as their own children took a dim view of their narrow-minded doctrine. In 1691, King Charles II amended the charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In the new version, religious dissenters were to be protected, rather than banished or worse. Men’s voting rights would be based, not on Puritan church membership, but on ownership of property.

(Sass 9-10)

Leave a comment

Filed under 17th Century