Those who claim that the USA was founded as a Christian nation certainly would reference the Puritans and their leader of the Massachusetts Bay Company, John Winthrop. In April 1630, he spoke to those on the voyage from their homes in England to the chartered colony in New England. His sermon, A Model of Christian Charity, talked of the hardships that they would face and the imperative that they work together as a community. With the grace of God, he foretold that “… we shall be as a city upon a hill.” Even as late as our lifetime, President Reagan in his retirement from office in 1989 gave his “City on a Hill” address, evoking the religious sentiments from 350 years earlier. What was that city and what has become of it?
If the USA is a Christian nation, we must accept that it was formed during times of conflict within the Christian community, and possibly with some additional motivations. My elementary school images of New England, mixing up the Pilgrims and Puritans, is of men and woman wearing black and learning to grow corn in a hole with a fish head. I did not think about them wanting to leave England. But, the 17th century was a time in which the Church (aka Catholic) and the Church of England (aka Anglican) ram-rodded each other every time the crown changed from one loyalty to the other. Meanwhile, a multitude of Protestant denominations, Puritans, Calvanists, Presbyterians, et al. were forming with various interpretations of scriptures, and no loyalty to whoever wore the crown.
As England, or Europe for that matter (remember what the French Catholics did to the Huguenots?), was not a safe place to proclaim your purity outside of the established order, the Puritans primarily wanted religious freedom, and were willing to leave to gain this purity. John Winthrop, a devote Puritan, had additional motivations. He has lived comfortably as a country squire, but an economic collapse in the 1620’s, and loss of his station because of King Charles I’s reign (i.e. anti-Puritan reforms), prodded him to take the leadership position. With 700 followers in 11 ships, and a royal charter to establish a colony, he sailed toward New England. In case you think that trans-Atlantic travel is uncomfortable today, consider that 200 of these travelers died at sea. Within a month of arrival, 100 risked the transit back to England, rather than carve out homesteads. The remaining 400 established Salem and Boston. Over time, with additional colonists, they settle Massachusetts and New England.
While Winthrop called for community and cooperation, essential traits to survive establishing a colony, over time such togetherness did not last. As merchants and traders established their businesses, the accumulated wealth, they were not as ready to share this with those whom the viewed a less industrious, and certainly not with the Crown. As followers came to join the settlements, followers who did not share in the initial hardships, they brought more divergent religious theology and practices. The Puritans were interested in religious freedom… for themselves, not any Johnny-Come-Lately. Roger Williams would take religious freedom another step, leading the other-than-Puritans south to establish the Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. You can visit the first synagogue in the USA, not in Boston, but in Newport, RI. (full disclosure, we were married in the Old Narragansett Church, built 1707, in Wickford, RI, but I would not want to appear biased in my reporting).
So, what does this say about our City on the Hill? Was the USA formed with Liberty for All, or Liberty for the In-Line? Were our religious institutions a football for political parties to kick around the field? Were commerce, capitalism, and individual rights to accumulate wealth the hidden religious of the USA? What happened to the plea for community and cooperation? I do not think that these are mere abstractions. In our presidential race this year, we have candidates whom we might align with each postions: communal survival (Obama), capitalism (Romney), Pure Religion (Santorum), It’s All About Me (Gingrich), Personal Liberty, But Better Bring Your Own Safety Net (Paul). Read Winthrop’s sermon twice. First envision yourself on a fleet of ships that is tossing dead bodies over daily. Next, as one considering your liberty to vote this year.
Which ship would your rather be on?
A Model of Christian Charity
Now if the Lord shall please to hear us, and bring us in peace to the place we desire, then hath he ratified this convenant and sealed our commission, and will expect a string performance of the articles contained in it; but if we shall neglect the observations of these articles which are the ends we ahve propounded, and, dissembling with our God, shall fall to embrace this present world and prosecute our carnal intentions, seeking great things for ourselves and our posterity, the Lord will surely break out in wrath against us, and be revenged of such people, and make us know the price of the breach of such a convenant.
Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluitites, for the supply of other’s necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make other’s conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. so shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as His own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of His wisdom, power, goodness and trush, than formerly we have been acquainted with. We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us praise and glory that men shall say of succedding plantations, ‘may the Lord make it like that of New England.’ For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. They eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and by-word through the world…
And to shut this discourse with that exhortation of Moses, that faithful servant of the Lord, in his last farewell to Israel, Deuteronomy 30: ‘Beloved, there is now set before us life and death, good and evil,’ in that we are commanded this day to love the Lord our God, and to love one another, to walk in his ways and to keep his Commandments and his ordinance and his laws, and the articles of our Covenant with Him, that we may live and be multiplied, and that the Lord our God may bless us in the land wither we go to possess it…
Therefore let us choose life, that we and our see may live, by obeying His voice and cleaving to Him, for He is our life and our prosperity.