Sunday, September 16, 2018

Point of Departure



UCC Series II
O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling.
—Ps. 43:3

A few years ago, I came across an old schoolbook of mine. Very old. It was my second-grade spelling book, and it was nothing if not a curious volume. For instance, one lesson—the one I’d have read in November of 1967—had a brief story about the first Thanksgiving, followed by a list of words that I was supposed to learn to spell. It was a story of goodwill and inclusion, and the vocabulary words were simple and pleasant, such as beans and feast and eat. The point was well taken: so amicable were the Pilgrims and Indians (as they were called in those days), that together they could teach seven-year-olds how the letters e and a could work together to create a single clean sound.

But then a few lessons later—and this one I would’ve read sometime around March of 1968—came another story about colonial America. The picture above the story was of a frightened blond girl in her log cabin. The text was all about Indians (we still called them that a few months later) attacking her family. “The Indians were on the warpath!” the story proclaimed. And the vocabulary list included words like warpath, and arrow, and tomahawk. The lesson was clear. So untrustworthy and volatile had these Indians become, that they could now be employed to teach second-graders not only the fickle nature of the letter w, but just as importantly, its adverse effects on innocent English vowels.


In my opinion, it’s bad news that I was taught these lessons back in the 1967-1968 school year. The good news is that I have never in my life won a spelling bee—so apparently I didn’t pay that much attention during the lessons from this book. But I can’t really blame my second-grade spelling book anyway. After all, it didn’t invent these stories. They’ve been around for nearly 400 years now. But these stories illustrate in perhaps the best way imaginable that the relationship between European-Americans and indigenous Americans reflects changing attitudes. Even more importantly than that, these stories show us how things might have been, and how differently they turned out.

But before we get to that, let’s talk about the European side of the story of the first Thanksgiving—the same people from whom that frightened little blond girl in the warpath story might possibly have been descended. These, of course are the Pilgrims. And, as we all know, the Pilgrims were the first people to bring the Congregational Way to American shores. Many of us remember that they arrived in 1620. But who were they really, and what brought them here in the first place?

The people we call the Mayflower Pilgrims were part of a group of radical Protestants who were very dissatisfied with the state of the church in their country, which was England. They didn’t like the prayer book, they didn’t want their pastors wearing vestments, and they really disliked having bishops. There were other English Protestants who agreed with them, but wanted to stay in the church and reform it from within. But the ones who came over on the Mayflower wanted nothing to do with it. They believed that all true Christians were being called to leave the established church and be gathered by God into faithful congregations independent of the Church of England.

One such congregation was found in Norwich under the leadership of a man named Robert Brown, who, it was said, “perceived, as by sudden illumination, the glorious liberty of the children of God in the voluntary fellowship… of the New Testament” church. [1] Early Separatists were therefore derisively called Brownists, and another group of Brownists popped up in a village in Nottingham with the rather cute name of Scrooby. These Brownists were led by a man named John Robinson. Now Robert Brown spent some pretty miserable years in prison and was coaxed back into the fold of the established church, so Robinson was soon seen as the real leader of the Separatists.

And the persecution didn’t let up. As they watched others hunted down, imprisoned, and even executed for their beliefs, a large group fled in 1607 to Holland, which was a more tolerant country. There a church was gathered in Leyden which employed Calvinist theology and the English language. And though they were perfectly free to practice their faith in the Netherlands, they became dissatisfied on behalf of their children, who not only preferred Dutch to English, but, even worse, who were being influenced by the freedom of thought that surrounded them. They knew they couldn’t return to settle in England, so they somehow convinced the English to allow them to found a colony in Virginia. Now, please note that Virginia was simply the name they gave to the whole East Coast of this country. They weren’t necessarily intending to settle in or even near Jamestown, which by then was more than ten years old. We often think of the whole group leaving Holland en masse, but in reality, less than half of them decided to leave. And since the majority was staying behind, Pastor Robinson stayed, too. But as the minority left, he shared with them some very important words that are still remembered and quoted today: “God hath yet more light and truth to break forth from his holy word.”

And so the Pilgrims who left Holland set forth in a ship called the Speedwell, and the Speedwell’s first stop was Southampton. There it met up with its sister ship the Mayflower, and together the two ships set sail for the New World from Southampton on August 15. If all this sounds like alternate history to you, it’s not. What happened next was that the Speedwell proved leaky, and so before sailing out of English waters, they returned to shore—this time to the port of Plymouth—where as much cargo and as many passengers as possible were transferred from the Speedwell onto the Mayflower. When all this was completed, the date was exactly 398 years ago today: September 16, 1620.

They were aiming for a point somewhere around present-day New York, but in November they sighted Cape Cod, which, of course, is considerably farther north. The decision was made to remain in that region, and in December they dropped anchor at their permanent home. They named it after the English port they’d set sail from.

1966 Plymouth Fury II
And it’s at this point that I want to share with you another bit of nostalgia. This one’s not about my second-grade spelling book, but about my dad’s car when I was around ten years old. It really wasn’t that long ago that there was such a car as a Plymouth, and my dad used to have their flagship model. He hadn’t bought it new, so around 1970 he had a 1966 Plymouth Fury II. It was silver and it was about a mile long. The Plymouth was called the Plymouth, of course, because it was named after the place the Pilgrims settled. But just think: If the Speedwell hadn’t started leaking, and the Pilgrims had named their new colony after the place in England they’d just left, my dad would’ve been driving around Ashland, Kentucky in his 1966 Southampton Fury II.

Please remember that though we think of the Pilgrims as being all alike, many of them weren’t part of the church community in Leyden, and had emigrated for economic reasons. And apparently life in the Netherlands had taught the Separatists a bit about tolerance because the religious Pilgrims and the non-Separatists arrived at an agreement before disembarking. The agreement was called the Mayflower Compact, and it was the first European document in the New World that claimed a right to self-governance.

You may already have spotted one of the first problems the Plymouth colonists were going to encounter. That was the fact they’d landed at the absolute worst time of year. One of the only reasons any of them survived was the fact that they’d discovered—and stolen—a store of corn laid by by the people of the Pokanoket nation. When they finally met up with the people they’d stolen from, though, they repaid their debt. And they met a man named Squanto who actually spoken English. He was from the Patuxet nation and had been abducted by another group of English and eventually returned to his home region—only to discover that the diseases that had wiped out the vast majority of Native Americans since the Spanish arrival in South America over a century before had finally reached what is now New England. Having lost his own people, he sheltered with the Pokanokets and became an ally of Plymouth Colony.

These initial encounters led to the Thanksgiving feast that we all know about. But this feast was quite symbolic of something else—that is, that the relationship between Pilgrims and Native Americans was mutually beneficial.
By forcing the English to improvise, wrote Nathaniel Philbrick in his 2006 book about the Mayflower, the Indians prevented Plymouth Colony from ossifying into a monolithic cult of religious extremism. For their part, the Indians were profoundly influenced by the English and quickly created a new and dynamic culture full of Native and Western influences. For a nation that has come to recognize that one of its greatest strengths is its diversity, the first fifty years of Plymouth Colony stand as a model of what America might have been from the very beginning. [2]
But, as we know, English settlement didn’t stop at Plymouth. Soon the colonies of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire followed. And even though all the land they settled on was agreed upon and paid for, the children of the first Americans began to rue the day their forebears had allowed this to happen.
With only a fraction of their original homeland remaining, said Philbrick, more and more young Pokanokets claimed it was time to rid themselves of the English. The Pilgrims’ children, on the other hand, coveted what territory the Pokanokets still possessed and were already anticipating the day when the Indians had, through the continued effects of disease and poverty, ceased to exist. [2]
So a war between colonists and natives began 55 years after the founding of Plymouth. Named King Philip’s War, after the Pokanoket leader on whom it was blamed, this 18-month conflict is still the bloodiest in American history, for in it, ten percent of the population of New England—both native and colonial—was killed or wounded. And it had broken out because “both sides had begun to envision a future that did not include the other.” [2]

So we’ve come full circle. My second-grade spelling book wasn’t so far off-the-mark after all. What was separated by a few months in my experience at Poage Elementary School in reality took two generations. But it still really happened. The joyful harmony we celebrate each year at Thanksgiving was gone in less than sixty years. Though the Pilgrims arrived in the new world as a persecuted minority, they themselves began their own form of persecution as soon as the original settlers were all dead. Because of King Philip’s War, those who had preceded the Pilgrims on the land, some of whom had adopted their faith, had lived among them, supported them, and depended on them suddenly became an unwanted minority. Laws were passed, and official segregation came into existence. The stage was set, and the story was repeated over and over again on this continent. Though we might choose to remember the first Thanksgiving, it’s King Philip’s War that we chose to actually live.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m proud that the Pilgrims are an important part of American history, and consider it a privilege to be part of a church which claims them as our own ancestors in the faith. They truly were remarkable people who did remarkable things, often giving up their very lives in the process. They were not perfect saints, however, but flawed human beings. If we can learn anything from them, it is that we should not take ourselves so seriously that we uncritically apply biblical texts to ourselves which imply that we are the clean, and that others are the unclean; that we are God’s chosen, and that others are rejected; that we are good, and others are evil. As far as the Pilgrims were concerned, I’m sure that God really did have “yet more truth and light to break forth” from the word. When we will we ever learn that sometimes that truth is acceptance, and that the light that breaks forth is someone else’s interpretation of who God is, how God acts in the world, and which people are doing God’s will?
—©2018 Sam L. Greening, Jr.

NOTES
  1. Alan P.F. Sell, Saints: Visible, Orderly & Catholic: The Congregational Idea of the Church (Allen Park, PA: Pickwick, 1986)
  2. Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War (New York: Viking, 2006).