Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: Massachusetts

The last best hope of mankind

Twenty-five years ago, as I walked the dirt streets of Plimoth, Massachusetts, Samuel Fuller fell into step beside me and began to visit.  “The churchmen in England say that we have no church here because we have no ministers.  A church is made up of Christian people; they don’t have a church over there.  Who made them ministers and bishops when they don’t even have a church?”

Samuel Fuller was a doctor who came on board the Mayflower.  He was also a deacon, the only ordained leader of the Plimoth church.  Of course I was strolling through the re-created Plimoth Plantation and Samuel Fuller was an actor.  Yet the original Samuel Fuller no doubt often repeated those very words as he travelled among the churches of the Plimoth and Bay colonies.

The law in England at that time required people to attend their local parish church.  In 1636, Edmund Goodenough of Donhead St. Andrew, Wiltshire was hauled into court and found guilty of attending church in a neighbouring parish where the minister was of a more evangelical persuasion.  The Goodenough family determined they would no longer live under such oppressive laws and in 1638 three brothers and two sisters arrived in Boston harbour aboard the Good Shippe Confidence.  I am descended from Thomas, a brother of Edmund.

The passengers on the Confidence became the founders of the town of Sudbury.  As in all the early settlements in the Plimoth and Bay colonies, they organized their church on congregational principles.  Their intention was to establish a New Jerusalem in the wilds of North America, a city set upon a hill to give light to all the world, showing the path of true Christian faith.  Only those who could give a credible testimony of being born again were admitted as members in the new church.  The members then engaged a minister for their congregation.

The idea of separation of church and state did not enter their minds; they were intent on building a new and truly Christian society.  Only church members were eligible to vote for town councillors.  The laws of their new society were based on the Bible and rigorously enforced on all.  Unwittingly, they created a society much like the one they left behind, except that they were now the ones in charge.

And they carried right on baptizing their babies.  Contrary to their expectations, many of those baptized in infancy failed to come to saving faith as they came to adulthood.  This is not the place to go into subsequent events, such as the Halfway Covenant and the Great Awakening.  Suffice it to say that there was a great decline in religion, followed by a mighty revival.  Through it all, there remained this glittering ideal of a city set upon a hill that would be a model for all mankind of the benefits of true religion.

When one Massachusetts minister, Roger Williams, began to speak of believer’s baptism, he was deposed from his pulpit and forced to flee in the dead of winter.  He established a new colony, Rhode Island, which offered freedom of worship.  When Quakers came to Massachusetts, trying to teach a milder, more peaceful way, they were rudely chased out of the colony.  They kept coming back and finally it was found necessary to condemn some of them to death by hanging to maintain the purity of the Massachusetts faith.

Some idea of the strength of their conviction that they were called of God to establish a new and better society can be found in the minutes of the town meeting of Milford, Connecticut in 1640: “Voted, that the earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof; voted that the earth is given to the Saints; voted, that we are the Saints.”  Thus they extinguished any qualms they may have felt about claiming ownership of lands that had been used by the native peoples for generations.

The ideal of a city set upon a hill imbued all of the thirteen colonies when they purposed to throw of the shackles of English rule.  They could not agree which church should be established in the new nation: the southern colonies were Church of England; New England was Congregational; Maryland was Roman Catholic; only Rhode Island and Pennsylvania permitted freedom of religion.  Thus, more or less by default, the Continental Congress was led to formulate the doctrine of separation of church and state.

Many of the leading lights of the revolution, such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin, were not Christians, but deists.  That is, they did not believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ or the authenticity of the supernatural portions of the Bible, yet they believed in God and in the moral teachings of the Bible.

It was during this period that the notion of a city set upon a hill appears to have been transferred from the church to the new nation.  All the leaders of the new nation believed that they were establishing something new in the world, a nation under God that would show the way in establishing a free and peaceful society.

The churches wholeheartedly supported this endeavour and believed that it would somehow usher in the millennium after which Christ would return to claim His own.  This belief is called post-millenialism and it was the prevailing view until the nineteenth century.

The civil war, the rise of unbridled capitalism and the inequalities found throughout the nation tended to dampen this utopian view.  In this setting, the dispensational pre-millennial views of John Darby found a fertile ground.  This doctrine seemed to promise to evangelicals that they would still be victorious and reign with Christ, even though conditions at the moment seemed to indicate otherwise.  Many proponents of pre-millenialism continued to believe that the United States of America had a special place in God’s plan for this world.

A competing doctrine, the Social Gospel, arose around the same time, teaching that the Bible’s denunciation of sin did not apply to individuals, but to society as a whole.  The key to America’s greatness would lie in eliminating the evils in society so that all people would be free to live as Christians ought to live.  According to this doctrine one of the greatest sins was the private ownership of businesses that were run for the profit of the owners.  Over time, the social gospel expanded to include many inequities in society, either real or imagined.  Governments used slogans such as New Deal and Great Society in their attempts to implement the social gospel.  In later years the movement has gone from advocating women’s right to vote, to advocating for the women’s movement and gay rights.  In the process it has distanced itself ever more from any claims of a Christian foundation.

Both dispensationalism and the social gospel still claim to be the embodiment of the old ideal of a city set upon a hill.  Both still claim a special place for the United States of America on the world stage as the last best hope for mankind.

This post is not an anti-USA diatribe.  As noted at the start, my ancestors were involved at the very beginning of the American experiment.  There is much that has been noble, and still is, about this experiment.  However, it is perhaps time to admit that it has not been a Christian experiment.  The attempt to integrate Christian faith and secular society was doomed to failure from the beginning.  The last best hope for all mankind is the unadulterated gospel of Jesus Christ, free of all nationalistic pretensions.

I have a funny name

I belong to an old family, the various spellings of the name revealing to which genealogical line we belong.  Our ancestors came from Wiltshire to Massachusetts on 1638.  The descendents of Edmund spell their name Goodenow or Goodnow and are mostly still found in New England.  Another subgroup of this line spells their name Goodeno or Goodno.  The descendents of Thomas, brother to Edmund, spell their name Goodenough or Goodnough and are found all over North America.  In the case of my particular family, the ‘e’ was dropped by the children of my great-great-great grandfather Ebenezer.  There is a Bob Goodenough in Michigan who is descended from Ebenezer’s brother Levi.

As can be imagined, each variation gives rise to jokes: Goodnow, bad later; Goodno, bad yes; Goodenough, bad enough.  And that’s it, there is really only one joke that can be made about each name.

Nevertheless, it often happens when I meet someone for the first time, that he feels a compulsion to display the originality of his wit by making a wisecrack about my name.   Now, it doesn’t make for a lasting friendship to inform my new acquaintance that this is the 1,723rd time that I’ve heard this particular joke and I’m all laughed out.  It works better to smile politely and try to direct the conversation onto a different topic.

The same joke has probably been told as long as the name has existed.  One theory is that the name began as a nickname for someone who was easily pleased.

There are a couple of examples from two centuries ago that rise above the  jokes that I  hear today.  The first was occasioned by a sermon preached to the House of Lords in England by Samuel Goodenough, bishop of Carlisle, in 1809:

‘Tis well enough that Goodenough
To the Lords should preach;
But sure enough, full bad enough
Are those he has to teach.

The second dates from 1822, when Ira Cooper of Manchester, Vermont married Miss Betsey Goodenough of Hancock, Vermont.  This poem has fun with both names, as the original meaning of Cooper is barrel maker.

Hoop poles with us are rather low,
And times we own are tough,
Since Coopers must to Hancock go
To get one Good-enough.

Catechism Classes

About the only thing my parents had in common was a feeling that the church in which they had been raised had let them down.

My father was a descendant of New England Puritans, with some French and Scottish blood thrown in.  He was born in Iowa, grew up in Minnesota and arrived in Saskatchewan in 1908 at the age of 17.  The family was Wesleyan Methodist, but a series of mergers brought most Methodists into one fold and then in the 1920’s they became part of the new United Church of Canada.  My dad told of a service he had attended in Edmonton in the early years of the United Church.  As the preacher spoke, it became evident that he didn’t believe the creation account, the virgin birth of Jesus, or much of anything else in the Bible.  Dad walked out of that church into the street and wept.  After that he tried to avoid ever setting foot in a United Church again.

My mother was of pure Low German descent.  Her grandparents came to Canada in the great migration of the 1870’s.  There is a story in our family that her grandfather learned to read and write English and discovered that the bishop of the Old Colony Mennonite Church was using money that belonged to the congregation for his own benefit.  Great-grandfather was thereupon excommunicated and joined the Sommerfelder Mennonite Church.  I’m sure there would be a different story from the other side, but this is the story that I have been told.

Mom was born in Manitoba and grew up in Saskatchewan, the sixth in a family of 14 children.  She was the last one in the family to learn High German, which was the only language used in the Sommerfelder Church worship services.  Mom often spoke of how she felt that the church had abandoned her younger siblings.

In her later teens she joined a group of other young people in a catechism class.  They were supposed to learn the catechism by heart.  After the catechism classes were finished, they were to answer the questions of the catechism before the congregation.  I believe this took place over several Sundays.  Mom was the only one of the group to memorize the whole catechism.  As they always sat in the same order, the others calculated which questions they would be asked and memorized only those answers.  One of Mom’s cousins sat beside her.  The morning they were to begin answering the questions before the congregation this cousin told Mom, “I don’t have my answer memorized, so when the bishop asks my question, just speak up and answer it for me and no one will know the difference.”  Mom agreed to this subterfuge.  All went well until the bishop came to the person after Mom.  The anticipated sequence was now broken and he had not memorized the answer to the question he was asked.  Somehow it all worked out and they were all baptized.

My parents were married in the Alliance Church in Moose Jaw, but did not affiliate with any denomination.  I remember that we once attended a service in a rural school house.  I suspect my father was not pleased as we never went again.  One time we attended an Ernest Manning crusade in Regina.  When I was nine, my father arranged for me to be baptized in a private ceremony in a Lutheran church.

That same year, we moved to a farm on the outskirts of Craik.  There were three churches in this town, United, Catholic and Anglican.  My father decided that we needed to start attending church and the Anglican Church was the only good choice available.

A catechism class was planned for the following winter and my father decided I should join.  There were four other boys my age in the class and we spent a number of months studying, not memorizing, the Anglican catechism.  I still remember the definition of a sacrament: “An outward and visible form of an inward and spiritual grace,” and think that is the best definition that I have heard.  The confirmation service, where the bishop would be present to lay his hands on our heads and pray for us, making us full members of the church, came in the spring of 1953.

We five boys had a meeting with the bishop before the service began.  The Right Reverend Michael Coleman, Bishop of Qu’Appelle, was a kindly, white-haired gentleman.  He spoke to us of how the service would be conducted.  Then he told us: “When I was your age, I had the idea that after the bishop laid his hands on me and prayed for me, I would not be able to sin anymore.  When we got home after church, I went out behind the barn to see if I could still say the words that I had used before.  They came just as easily as they ever had!  When I lay my hands on your head today and pray for you, that will change nothing inside of you.  To overcome sin you will need something that I cannot do for you.  You will need a change of heart.”

This happened 57 years ago and I may not have the words exactly as he said them, but this was the essence of his message to us.  The fact that I remember that message so clearly must indicate the impact those words had on me, even though the fruit did not appear until many years later.

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