By Ruth Nourse
“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth,” Jennie Brownscombe, 1914. Click to enlarge.
History as Truth
If it is possible in a courtroom to judge a defendant guilty or innocent, or in a laboratory to discover the relationship between physical properties and phenomena, it must be possible to know the truth about history.
The word “history,” according to Webster, is related to the Greek historia, “a learning by inquiry.” The word “skeptic” also comes from the Greek skeptesthai, meaning to examine or consider. A true skeptic is a “considerer” who will not pass judgment before the evidence has been thoughtfully examined.
In a world of sunshine and rain and natural beauty beyond measure, who is so cynical as to refuse to examine available evidence of the work of a Creator God in the history of man? For the open minded scholar the possibility of God’s presence in history is not unthinkable.
Page Smith points out in his book, History and Historians, that the Jews discovered history. For them chronology was transcended by the relation of a people with their God. The meaning, purpose and direction of history was found in God’s will and their Messianic expectation.
According to the Old Testament view, man is able to effect his own destiny in partnership with God. The New Testament demonstrates and affirms the validity of this view. According to the gospels, Messianic hopes of the Hebrew Scriptures were fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth; the Abrahamic covenant, according to Paul’s writings, was made universal through faith in Him.
Eusebius, the first important Christian historian, saw history as the unfolding of God’s purpose in the world. The verifiable experience of millions alive today supports this view – a view held since ancient times and, until our century, as the prevalent view of western historians.
Those who have seen God’s plan unfold in their own lives, find no reason to doubt Columbus’ claim that expeditions to undiscovered lands were undertaken as a divine mission. Samuel Eliot writes of Columbus: “His frequent communion with forces unseen was a vital element in his achievement.”
Intelligent purpose gives meaning to history and links believers of all generations in the on-going expansion of God’s kingdom on earth. Understanding this, we can readily accept what early colonists wrote of divine purpose in the settlement of America. In America, a new, and specifically Christian, start was made.
The Founding of America
Generations of English and European peoples were motivated in pursuit of sound government by a Bible based concept of justice. Before the settlement of New England, however, achievement along this line had been both remarkable and disappointing. Success and failure had been their mixed experience. The tyranny of the institutional church had proved as hard to bear as tyranny of kings.
Jamestown, the first colony in the new world, was almost exclusively profit motivated. Thoughtful consideration finds in the Jamestown experience inadequate impetus to explain the settlement of the continent much less the nation that grew here from such small beginnings. That first colony’s inability to cope with famine, sickness, hostile Indians, and chronic infighting among promoters and colonial leaders held no lamp of hope to bring throngs of would-be settlers willing to take the attendant risks.
Schemes to enlist Jamestown emigrants included suppression of facts about what colonists actually suffered in Virginia. Disillusionment provided no emotional stimulus for survival, and the colony struggled for years on the brink of disaster. The Jamestown episode fails to explain the resilience and success of colonial America.
The experience of the Mayflower Pilgrims, who landed at Plymouth in 1620, more adequately accounts for the survival and productivity of early American colonies and for the continual flow of immigrants to these shores. Doubters need only read the first line of the Mayflower Compact to confirm the faith of the Pilgrims.
It was a broad faith demonstrated by 102 hardy souls who knelt with William Bradford to ask journeying mercies before their little ship set sail and, again – as they viewed their new homeland – to thank God for delivering them from the “vast and furious ocean.” Prayer was not their only demonstration of faith. Hardships that broke the spirit of the colonists at Jamestown drew the Pilgrims closer together and caused them to pray more fervently.
Why must we doubt the testimony of the colonists themselves, who believed that God prepared the way before them and sustained them in the new land? Can the sequence of events that accompanied their coming be explained in a better way? Could such a series of enabling circumstances be expected to burst by chance into the stream of history?
Hostile Indians had been removed from Plymouth by a mysterious plague four years before the Mayflower landed. Apart from this “preparation” for their coming, the sea-wary strangers would have landed among unfriendly Native Americans. Nearly half the Pilgrims died the first winter, yet the faith of the survivors was not diminished.
The turning point at Plymouth came when Samoset, an amiable Algonquin chieftain, brought Squanto to the colony. Stolen away from those very forests by English tradesmen before the plague, Squanto gained a knowledge of the English language and lifestyle by the time he found a way back to his childhood home. Finding none of his own people alive, he spent six months with the Algonquins, seeming not to know which way to turn.
Squanto found new purpose in life as he taught the English settlers how to plant crops, harvest fish and otherwise survive in a perilous environment. Without this native guidance, Plymouth might well have suffered losses like those at Jamestown, where the mortality rate the second year was nine out of ten. The Mayflower Pilgrims recognized God’s providence in all this; but the story is seldom told as originally written in William Bradford’s account Of Plimouth Plantation.
Providential reward of faith was claimed in the same way by Puritans who arrived on New England shores ten years later. In 1630, John Winthrop was sent as governor with colonists to reinforce the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s languishing settlement at Salem. Shocked by the appearance of gaunt and ragged survivors who met him at the shore, Winthrop may have considered returning to England had he not remembered the clear purpose with which his band of Puritans had set sail.
They were people of faith, and their purpose would be achieved in spite of distressing circumstances. The governor outlined his plan for overcoming adversity in a bold and noble sermon entitled “A Model of Christian Charity.”
“For this end we must knit together in this work as one man … We must hold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience, and liberality. We must delight in each other, make one another’s condition our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our Commission and Community in this work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace …
“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 a praise and glory, that men of succeeding plantations shall say, ‘The Lord make it like that of New England.’ For we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill …”
The Puritan Hope
Pilgrim and Puritan colonists, in the characteristic manner of Christian believers, held to the Hebraic view of history. Experience of other early settlers in America, their compacts, the founding documents of the several Colonies, and of the United States, demonstrate that the character and the faith of her first leaders was like that of the Pilgrims and Puritans.
Such was the faith perpetuated by America’s early literature and the textbooks of her schools. The first book printed by Harvard Press was The Whole Booke of Psalmes “Faithfully translated into English metre.” That the faith of the early colonists reigned well into the 19th century is a fact born out by the universal popularity of Longfellow’s writings and McGuffey’s readers.
It seems evident that devotion and sincerity diminished in proportion to an increase of hypocrisy in life and formalism in worship. Departure from living faith contributed to the instability of the times. Society seemed to depend on enforcement, rather than demonstration, of Christian virtue. Objectivity was forgotten in a subjective purpose to throw off uncomfortable restraints.
Once freedom to do good had been enough, now freedom was granted to do almost anything one wished to attempt. With several generations of results to observe, we may consider more objectively what have been the consequences of rejecting the Bible as the measure of truth. Note that the emphasis here is on the Bible as the basis for faith. Confusion over religious dogma, tradition, ritual has divided Christians for centuries and has undoubtedly discouraged many honest inquirers.
Wisdom in our day is to distinguish between truth and religious verbage in the present as well as in history. Differences over dogma, tradition, and the conduct of people who wear Christian labels confuse the real issue, which is: The Bible either tells the truth about the origin and nature of man, and actual events of history, or it does not. Those who say they have experienced God’s intervention in their lives, just as people did in Bible times, are either telling the truth or they are not.
Probably no other human experience has ever been so commonly reported, and at the same time so flippantly discounted. True historians, according to the etymology of the word, will learn by inquiry what has actually happened, rather than distort the record to accomplish some preconceived purpose.
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In 1776, a short time after the Declaration of Independence was adopted, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin were assigned to design an official seal for the United States of America. Their proposed motto was Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God. America owes its existence to centuries of Christian political philosophy. Our nation provided a model for liberty copied by nations the world over.
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Patrick Henry’s famous declaration not only helped launch the War for Independence, it also perfectly summarized the mindset that gave birth to, and sustained, the unprecedented experiment in Christian liberty that was America.
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