2.1. The religious mirage of the New World

2. THE COLONIZATION AND THE BIRTH OF AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM

2.1. THE RELIGIOUS MIRAGE OF THE NEW WORLD

The first settlers of the Americas were, naturally, Spanish and Portuguese who, following the path established by Columbus, concentrated on exploring and conquering South America. Instead, the English, the French, the Dutch and the Germans began to heavily colonize only in the 17th century, focusing on North America.

The new continent proved to be an extremely rich place in resources, but it had an uncertain religious status. Framing America in a biblical scheme was a delicate matter for the European scholars. The early theological explanations regarding America were vague and predominantly negative. At first, the debate was if the natives had a soul and should be evangelized or they did not have a soul and could be taken as slaves. Some, Jews and Christians alike, believed that the natives were a part of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Others, such as Columbus, saw the new continent as the new earth from Revelation 20. A Lutheran theory depicted the new land as the dreadful darkness from outside the gospel where the lost ones are treated with whipping and the gnashing of teeth, while for Anglicans the colonies were only a bunch of fanatics, swarmed in the wilderness to put into practice their aberrant ideas.959

The Spanish and Portuguese missionaries established the dominant religion of South America, Catholicism. But the expeditions in South America primarily aimed to obtain economic advantages, and secondarily religious ones. On the contrary, North America was colonized by people, mostly English, who mainly sought spiritual benefits. The colonization of the northeastern part of America gained momentum only in the 17th century, at the time of the Great Migration. The expression “Great Migration” refers to the migration of the English colonists, mainly Puritans, who traveled to Massachusetts between 1620 and 1640. Before the start of the English Civil War the English Protestants were divided into two groups: the separatists, who wished to interrupt any connection with Anglicanism and to establish a new church; and the moderate Puritans, who aimed to purify the Church of England through reform. Consequently, those who migrated to the New World were largely separatists who sought space to freely establish new religious communities, outside the Anglican and Catholic influence.

The peak of the Great Puritan Migration was between 1629 and 1640. Due to the climate of political instability and the anti-dissident tyranny imposed by Charles I and Archbishop William Laud, many Calvinists, Puritans and nonconformists left the country, taking refuge in Ireland, the Netherlands or other European countries. Others chose to risk in America, having in mind the incomparable spiritual and material benefits. The immensity of the Atlantic was negating the influence of European authorities, while the wilderness of the New World offered space and resources for any kind of social or religious project. This is how the English colonization of the New World began.

The expression “Great Migration” does not refer to the number of immigrants, which was much smaller compared to the number of Englishmen who migrated to Ireland, but rather to their quality. During the 11 years around 20,000 men, women and children left England to settle forever in the colony across the Atlantic. This mass of people was predominantly formed of families with some education and a relatively prosperous life.960

When the English Parliament was reestablished in 1640, the migration declined dramatically. In 1641, when the English Civil War began, some colonists returned to England to fight for the Puritan cause. But the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the Catholic threat and the persecution of the dissident sects by Charles II caused the resuming of the exodus.

For the English it was a greater economic risk to leave than to stay. Nevertheless, they chose to trade the relatively prosperous lifestyle of a corrupt England with a more precarious economic situation tempered by the opportunity to live more piously. The early American Puritans lived under the impression that their transatlantic exodus was as important as the crusades or the journey of the Israelites toward Canaan. God made with them a new covenant through which he chose them to be a model of religiosity for the other nations of the world. With England deviating from the right path, the colonists believed that God acted to preserve a remnant of his herd by placing it at the safety offered by the isolation of the ocean and wilderness. The discovery of America shortly before the outburst of the Reformation was not a coincidence, but a proof of divine intervention. The colonies were meant to preserve the gospel in its purest form. The emigrants surely asked themselves what they would eat, where they would sleep, where they would live or what they would work. But, as God took care of the Israelites in their journey through the desert, the belief in a divine plan gave them hope that he would be on their side as well in their journey to America.961

Most English settlers had a high level of literacy, came from urban areas and belonged to the middle class. At the moment of the departure they were around the age of 30 and they had three or more children, with the capability and the desire to further procreate. Overall, the colonists of Massachusetts Bay were able to reach a comfortable living, having the possibility to economize. They did not spend the dispensable incomes on silverware, pieces of pottery or household goods according to the European mentality, but on religious books. This aspect stimulated the production of millennial literature. In 1662 the Puritan Michael Wigglesworth sold nearly 100,000 copies of his work of poems The Day of Doom, Or, A Poetical Description of the Great and Last Judgment, being the first American best-seller.962

Inevitably, the settlers integrated America in a religious paradigm that altered the Eurocentric points of view. In the summer of 1630 John Winthrop led 11 ships and 700 passengers to Massachusetts Bay. Winthrop played an important role not only during the journey, but especially at its end, in the New World. Besides the fact that he was chosen the governor of the colony and became a much respected political figure, Winthrop wrote the sermon A model of Christian charity, better known as City upon a hill. In it, he described the image of a new society, ideas and plans to keep Puritanism strong, and the challenges of the new continent.963 The name City upon a hill is in fact a phrase from the parable of Jesus about salt and light:

Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost its savor, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under foot of men. Ye are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do [men] light a lamp, and put it under the bushel, but on the stand; and it shineth unto all that are in the house. Even so let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5:13-16).

As Jesus prepared his apostles before sending them in the Old World, Winthrop’s sermon, delivered on the ship Arbella, aimed to spiritually instruct the newcomers before they colonized the New World. And, as the sacred mission of the apostles was to spread the Christian religion, the sacred mission of the colonists was to establish a nation of saints, a model of Christianity and morality for the entire world:

For we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken ... we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God ... we shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into Curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land where we are going.964

Winthrop’s sermon is often depicted as the originator of American exceptionalism – a theory which maintains that the United States of America has a special place among the nations of the world in terms of national creed, historical evolution or political and religious institutions.965 Modern politicians, such as President Ronald Reagan, cited Winthrop and used him as a source of inspiration. Nevertheless, those who eulogize Winthrop’s legendary image forget that he supported the doctrine of the sacred communism, and condemned democracy as being not only unscriptural, but also the worst and most destructive form of government.966

At the beginning of his sermon Winthrop showed that a healthy Puritan life requires social and economic equality and constant communication between the members of a group. In this way the everyday activities bring spiritual resonance within the community, faith is kept strong and there is no occasion for pride and resentment. Winthrop’s exhortation to the people who were about to set foot in America reveals the visionary sense of the early settlers and the forming American mentality. For this kind of Puritans, Anglicanism was incompletely reformed and insufficiently separated from the Catholic rituals and dogmas. Unlike the separatist pilgrims, who believed that the only hope was to leave the Church of England and to start a new church, the moderate Puritans remained part of the Anglican community to purify it from within. Once arrived in the New World, they had the possibility to reform Anglicanism according to their own ideas. They hoped that through their example ... (This text is incomplete. If you wish to read it in full, please purchase the book)



You might also be interested in:

6.3.1. The Ten Lost Tribes of Israel

Since the early days of Christianity until the Enlightenment, all Christians, regardless of confession, blamed the Jews for being the allies of the devil. The Jews had been a sort of universal scapegoat: whenever there were times of panic or “divine” plagues, they were automatically accused and killed. And yet, the traditional Christian eschatological scenario requires a return of the Jews to the Holy Land so that the Antichrist can manifest himself...

2.2. Cotton Mather and the apocalypses of the witches

The Puritan colonial writings expressed the belief that human actions and historical events reflect the divine plan and that the world is hopeless. Human beings are completely depraved (due to Adam’s fall), God’s will is absolute, and mankind cannot be saved through good deeds, but only through God’s grace. Regardless of our actions, only a group of people have been chosen to receive divine grace and to have eternal life in Heaven, while the rest of...

3. The First Great Awakening

Although the colonists stepped on the shore of the new Promised Land with optimism, eager to live in freedom, America’s geographical and demographical features proved to be a serious impediment in the materialization of their religious aspirations. The English parochial system supported by Anglicans and Puritans was hardly implemented in the New World. Unlike the compact communities of the Old World, the small farms of America spread...


Share this page

Please read the rules before making a comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *