Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Skipping 150 years to prove a Christian nation

I want to step out of my Puritan specialty for a moment to record a passage from an old American history textbook that speaks to the problems of connecting the first 17th-century English founders and their religion to the Founding generation in the late 18th century.

I was reading the Popular School History of the United States, part of Anderson's Historical Series, published in 1889. On page 67, the author pauses to fill in the outline of the Pilgrims:

"Our fathers were brought hither by their high veneration for the Christian religion. They sought to incorporate its principles with the elements of their society, and to diffuse its influence through all their institutions, civil, political, or literary. Let us cherish these sentiments, and extend this influence still more widely; in the full conviction that that is the happiest society which partakes in the highest degree of the mild and peaceable spirit of Christianity."

As modern historians, we would never write in this style. But many people today make the same point: since the first English settlers came here for religious reasons, we were founded as a religious/Christian nation.

This elides the 150 years between the only English settlers who came for religious reasons (Pilgrims and Puritans, not Virginians) and the Founders. All that time of tremendous change and diminishment of the religious angle of settlement is simply folded up, tesseract-style, to make a quick, short step from Plymouth to Independence Hall.

It also ignores the fact that religion was important, but not the only focus of settlement for Puritans and Pilgrims. The Puritans especially intended to make money and live well, and be very successful businessmen.

While the Founders were influenced by their New England ancestors, it's clear that many of them worked hard to keep religion from being the foundation stone of the new nation. Yet it's very tempting to see the Pilgrims in direct, immediate connection to the Founders. While Anderson's Historical Series goes obviously too far, its inheritors can come close to making the same point, in much less flowery language.


Lindsey Shuman said...

This is why it is good to have your insight, because we often forget the 150 of history BEFORE our founders ever emerged on the scene.

Your last paragraph pretty much sums it up. The founders reacted to the religious "radicalism" that they had learned about and witnessed.

Anonymous said...

Isn't "simply folded up, tesseract-style" a reference to a Heinlein short story? It's a bit obscure.

Weren't Maryland and Pennsylvania also places of religious refuge to one degree or another?

Apart from that, though, you make an excellent point. America was more about opportunity than refuge.

Anonymous said...

A number of SF writers wrote with reference to tessereacts and folding, though two stories primarily jump out at me. The first is the Heinlein short, "And He Built a Crooked House" (IIRC), the other the "Wrinkle in Time" series by Madeleine L'Engle. I suspect the latter is more germane.

I don't know that the specific reference is important, but you understood, did you not? One jumps from one point to another, skipping the "messy" details inbetween.