by Jesse T. Peck
From chapter one of The History of the Great Republic Considered from a Christian Stand-Point
This year marks the quincentenary of Christopher Columbus’ first voyage and discovery of the New World. Numerous articles have been written in newspapers and magazines examining his voyage and the impact western culture has had on America and the indigenous peoples living here. We can expect many more to follow. Unfortunately, a negative view of Columbus and western culture predominates a lot of these articles.
As a general introduction to such themes this article contains a brief providential view of the discovery and exploration of the New World. While articles in Time or Newsweek or USA Today may present many historical perspectives, one that is ignored is a providential perspective, which is the view most of the people whom God used to create the history we now read about had. This is especially true of Christopher Columbus.
Jesse Peck gives such a view in the book he wrote in 1868, The History of the Great Republic. The first chapter of his book follows.
Let it therefore be stated, that the theory of this book is, that God is the rightful, actual Sovereign of all nations; that a purpose to advance the human race beyond all its precedents in intelligence, goodness, and power, formed this Great Republic; and that religion is the only life-force and organizing power of liberty. If this is true, then all writers of American history must rise to this point of observation, or fail.
As certainly, therefore, as it is now as ever the right of God to reign; that he is now, as in ancient times, the common Father of our guilty race, the unchangeable Judge of all the earth; that his great and free volitions are controlled by principles of unerring righteousness; that men are, of themselves, blind and reckless in regard to the dearest interests of man, and wickedness is intensified by power, so that there is actually no hope for the downtrodden, but in God, – as sure as the verification of prophesy by inevitable history, so certainly is Jehovah today the Sovereign of all nations; and the American Republic is responsible to Him.
The old civilization required a new life. The race demanded an accession of ideas, a new theatre for the exercise of its powers and the realization of the divine purpose in the creation. Up to near the close of the fifteenth century, human governments had revealed little more than the struggles of liberty with the repressions of despotism; and God evidently intended a new and nobler development of the human race, a larger sphere for the manifestation of his providence and the exposition of his plans of sovereign control over individuals and nations.
He had given to man, as man, a strong love of liberty, the due expression and proper growth of which required room for free and independent action. Amid the despotic governments of the Old World, this would have been a moral impossibility. Such contiguity to old corrupt forms would have resulted inevitably in the infection of any new system, however just in itself. On the side of oppression, there was power; and a novel theory must have room and opportunity to experiment.
Precisely adapted to the necessities and mission of a free government, God had reserved a continent in which the savage state of its predatory tribes invited the coming-in of a high and purifying civilization. Without forgetting the just rights of the native Indians, which white man was sacredly bound to respect, it is philosophically and historically certain that Infinite Wisdom chose this land for the home of a broader liberty and higher Christian civilization than had been before known among men, and decreed the gradual occupancy of the Western World by the representatives of a new social order.
Upon the authority of ancient Icelandic manuscripts, brought forward by the distinguished antiquarian of Copenhagen, Professor C. Rafn, it is confidently affirmed that the old Northmen discovered this continent some five hundred years in advance of Columbus. Greenland was discovered in 983 by Erik the Red; and it is asserted that his son, Leif the Fortunate, in the year 1000, with thirty-five hardy mariners, landed at Helluland (Newfoundland), Markland (Nova Scotia), and Vineland (New England). He is said to have remained in the latter place for some time, where he erected larges houses, named after himself, Leifbudis (Leif’s booths).
Two years later, Thorwald, a distinguished brother of Leif, prosecuting these daring discoveries farther south, received his death-wound from the natives, and desired to be buried at the cape, where he thought it “Pleasant to dwell;” supposed to be “Cape or Point Aldeston, not far from the Pilgrim city, Plymouth, State of Massachusetts, where the fearless Thorwald, shortly before the sad termination of life, chiselled in Runes the exploits of his gallant crew.
In 1006, it is alleged that Thorfinn Karlsefne, “a man destined to become great,” an Icelandic merchant, sailed to Greenland, where he married “Gudrid, the widow of Thorstein (a third son of Erik the Red);” after which, in three vessels, accompanied by his wife, and a crew of a hundred and sixty-five men, he sailed to Vineland, where Gudrid “bore him a son called Snorre, who was the very first child of European parents born in America.”
It would seem that these “grim-visaged sea-kings of the North” continued their explorations, and attempts at settlements, down to 1347. But, by some strange influence of an invisible power, they disappeared from the continent. God threw a veil over it again until the plans of his wisdom should mature. He shut it up from the further gaze of the avaricious European until the fulness of the time was come; and then he produced the man, the idea, the impulse, which led to its discovery.
Columbus and the New World
Who can fail to trace the evidences of the Divine in the history of Columbus? Whence came the splendid poetry of that conception, which gave to him another world in the ideal before the knowledge of the real had become practicable? Why was he so far in advance of his age and contemporaries as to give him the reputation of a madman, not among the low and the vulgar alone, but among scholars, and courts far above him in opportunities and learning? Whence that lofty heroism, that indomitable perseverance, which knew no danger; which defied poverty, jealously, and the boldest combinations of secular and ecclesiastical power?
It was not human. It was too elevated and far-reaching, too patient and enduring, too potent in resisting and wearing out opposition, too fruitful in expedients, and creative in resources, to admit of the idea for a moment. God only could have furnished such amazing foresight, such superhuman energies. He felt the stirrings of divinity within him, and claimed that he was inspired for his great mission of discovery. Still unaware of the grand designs of that Providence which guided him through all his wonderful career, he was, in his sphere, as verily the chosen instrument of God as Moses or Joshua or Elijah. Heaven directed the winds that filled his sails and brought him to the unknown land.
What he had discovered he did not know; what impulses he had given to thought and enterprise, what new life he had poured into the mind of his age, he by no means understood. How much more was necessary to the realization of the plans of Providence, and who would be the honored agents of continental discoveries, he could not tell; nor was it in any way important. He had fulfilled his mission. He was not to be the successful founder of empire. He was not to wear the diadem of royalty. Neither heir nor kindred was to be the inheritor of the vast domain which rose up dimly before him. This was God’s realm, and he would take the charge of its great future. Columbus could receive his discharge from cares and from earth. He was henceforth immortal.
The Wisdom of God Above the Folly of Man
It is intensely interesting to observe the control of superior power over the devices of men for the accomplishment of high providential purposes. The success of Columbus aroused the spirit of enterprise; and navigators from different nations, with ideas wholly their own, embarked for new discoveries. But how very absurd were their views! How blind they were with respect to their true mission!
Portugal and Spain were moved by cupidity to adventurous expeditions in search for gold; but God used their hardy mariners to reveal other lands in the Western oceans. A Papal bull had divided the world of discovery between them, assuming original proprietorship of unknown as well as known portions of the globe; but God roused the spirit of exploration in another quarter.
John and Sebastian Cabot sailed in 1497, under the auspices of England, to look for land, but especially for a northwestern passage to Asia. It was not material what where their views. They might be wild and irrational: but God conducted them to the coast of Labrador, and made use of their enterprise to establish the claims of England to the first discovery of the continent; thus indicating a purpose to give the dominant influence in the New World to the Anglo-Saxon race.
In 1498, the younger Cabot, a truly great mind, moved by the same blind idea of the northwestern passage, was available in the divine plans to open to the mind of England new sources of wealth in his further discoveries, of which he was never to become the proprietor. Why, let us ask, were these illustrious navigators not permitted to live and die in Venice, or to prosecute their adventures as Italians? The answer plainly is, the Italian people were not suited in the eyes of God to the task of founding the great empire of freedom.
In 1551, the Portuguese thought they saw great gain in the returns of the ships of Gaspar Cortereal, freighted with Indians, torn from their hunting-grounds, and doomed to inexorable slavery; but Providence intended and used the voy-ages of this daring mariner to reveal to the world some seven hundred miles of the North-American coast.
Three years later, it appeared that God had given to Amerigo Vespucci the idea of a new continent, and sent him out to explore its hidden lands, and report, as he did, to Lorenzo de Medici, the accession of an additional quarter to the globe; to which, as the only desirable reward of his enterprise, he had the honor of giving his name.
France, in 1523, must also undertake the discovery of “a western passage to Cathay;” and to John Verrazzani of Florence was conceded the honor of this fresh attempt to gain the treasures of that fabled land for royal coffers. This was upon the surface; but a profounder purpose appeared in conducting him to North Carolina, and far along the coast southward and northward, where “the groves, spreading perfumes far from shore, gave promise of the spices of the East, and the color of the earth gave promise of abundance of gold.” As God willed, he brought to the knowledge of the world the spacious harbors of New York and Newport, and the rugged shores of New England; but no French monarch was ever to reign over this wonderful coast, the purposes of which were yet wrapped in profoundest mystery.
Whether thirst for gold or lust of power, ambition for fame or the vagaries of fevered brains, prompted the efforts of kings and of daring navigators, human plans were tolerated and developed just so far as the profound purposes of God would allow, and no farther, and then defeated, or pressed into the service of the exalted power, which in wisdom infinite rose above and ruled over all.
The brave and reckless Ferdinand de Soto could march with the air of a conqueror through Florida, as he had done through Peru; and advance to the Alleghanies and the great Mississippi, as he did in 1542: but he could bequeath no permanent empire to the Spanish throne. The grand Valley of the Mississippi was reserved by a higher Sovereign for the hosts of freedom in the great future.
So of every act in the scene of discovery, revealing at the same time the narrow earthly schemes of human ambition, and the stern reservations and broad purposes of the Infinite Mind. Whether thirst for gold or lust of power, ambition for fame or the vagaries of fevered brains, prompted the efforts of kings and of daring navigators, human plans were tolerated and developed just so far as the profound purposes of God would allow, and no farther, and then defeated, or pressed into the service of the exalted power, which in wisdom infinite rose above and ruled over all; and the divine plan of human freedom became the controlling law of discovery upon the Western continent. So God ordained, and history reveals.
This article originally appeared in the Providential Perspective, the monthly journal of the Providence Foundation. For more information on how to receive this excellent publication, contact: The Providence Foundation, P.O. Box 6759, Charlottesville, VA 22906.