Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: Puritans

The value of history

Some folks dream of the coming of a golden age, when the gospel will have created a state of peace and benevolence on earth almost approaching that of heaven. Most of us dismiss such ideas as folly, the pride of man.

What about the good old days? Many folks believe things were better in the past. Such an idyllic view of the past is evidence of a selective memory which chooses to ignore the wars, oppression, violence, immorality and cruelty that have marked the history of mankind. There are sincere Christians who think that is how history should be taught; future generation will be better off if they learn nothing about wars and conflicts of the past. I believe there is a fatal flaw in that line of thought.

Most people consider their own country to be the greatest example of human civilization. China, for example, has called itself the Middle Kingdom since 1,000 BC, the centre of the world around which everything else revolves. There is a similar tendency in the USA. I am a Canadian, but my roots in the USA go deep. When my grandparents came to Canada with their sons in 1908, the Goodnough family had been in the USA for 270 years, going back to before there was a USA.

When we reminisce about a golden era in US history, let us not forget that there has never yet been a golden era for black people, or native people. We put people of the past on pedestals, telling ourselves that they were the very models of Christian public figures. Take the Puritans of New England, for instance. (This includes my ancestors who landed in Massachusetts 18 years after the Mayflower.) They were such kindly, peace-loving people; didn’t they have the wonderful Thanksgiving meal with the native people? That was nice, to be sure; but it didn’t last.

The Puritan settlers believed that they were God’s elect and therefore could take any land they wanted for their growing settlements with no consideration for the original residents. Their attitude eroded the trust of the Indian peoples and finally led to what is called King Philip’s War in which thousands of Indians were killed.

Neither did they tolerate any variation in Christian doctrine. When Roger Williams, one of the Bay Colony (Boston) preachers, advocated believer’s baptism he was forced to flee for his life in the dead of winter, with only the clothes on his back. The few Quakers in the colony talked about non-resistance. They were expelled from the colony, but some came back. Two of them were burned at the stake.

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Roger Williams (right) being sheltered by Native Americans after fleeing Massachusetts Colony to avoid arrest, 1636. Image from Shutterstock 

“I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know,” Thomas Jefferson, 1819. Jefferson considered Jesus to be the greatest moral teacher of all time, but rejected anything that smacked of the supernatural, or the divinity, the miracles or the resurrection of Jesus. He was the main author of the Declaration of Independence, which begins by saying:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Jefferson most definitely did not believe that black people were created equal, nor had they any unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Lafayette urged Jefferson on several occasions to free his slaves. His response always was that black people were not fit for freedom. That did not prevent him from fathering six children by one of his slaves. Four of those children lived to adulthood and were the only slaves that Jefferson ever freed.

Those children were only one eighth black ancestry. Their great-grandmother was an African woman who was made pregnant by a British ship captain. The daughter who resulted grew up as a slave on a Virginia plantation and was in her turn made pregnant by the plantation owner and gave birth to Sally Hemings. When her master’s daughter married Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings went to Monticello. When Jefferson’s wife died, he turned to Sally Hemings to satisfy his carnal lust. She was only 14 at the time, a half-sister to Jefferson’s wife and three quarters white ancestry. As a slave, she had no choice in the matter; this cannot be termed a romantic relationship.

For years people have argued passionately that someone else was the father of Sally Hemings’ children. A few may still hold to that argument, but the evidence seems conclusive that Jefferson was the father.

Slavery was brutal, people were forced to work long and hard, with poor food and whipped savagely if they faltered or dared to ask questions. From the time slavery ended until well into the 20th century, at least 3,000 black people were lynched in the US South. These were not clandestine events, carried out in the dark of night. They were publicised, postcards with photos of lynchings were sold in the stores, in one case an excursion train was arranged for people wanting to witness a lynching. Law enforcement officers looked the other way.

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Anti-slavery poster of 1780

In the “Red Summer” of 1919 there were anti-black riots in more than three dozen cities across the USA. In 1943, with auto plants converted to war production, the Packard plant in Detroit promoted two black workers to supervisory positions. The white workers walked out and a riot ensued as the news spread. In the evening, unemployed white youth traveled to black residential areas, looting and vandalizing homes. The police ignored the white vandals and arrested black men trying to protect their homes and families.

It is good for us to read history, especially those parts of history that jar our illusions of the sweetness and light of our forefathers. We are not better than the people of past generations. The most important lesson of history is that the heart of man is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. My heart is no different than the heart of any of the villains of the past. It is when I ignore the true nature of my heart that I become a villain, while believing that I am doing some great and noble good. As Blaise Pascal wrote: “Man is neither angel nor beast; and the misfortune is that he who would act the angel acts the beast.”

Solomon said: “Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not enquire wisely concerning this.” (Ecclesiastes 7:10).

A Puritan Preacher

“There is a narrow way that leadeth unto heaven
and there is a broad way that leadeth into hell
and many there be that go therein;
the papists and protestants do meet in that way
and may shake hands in hell.”

From a sermon preached by Gabriel Sanger in 1634 in the parish church of Sutton Mandeville, Wiltshire, England.

My ancestors, who spelled their name Goodenow at the time, lived in the neighbouring parishes of Donhead St. Mary and Donhead St. Andrew. It is likely that they heard Gabriel Sanger preach at some time before they left for Massachusetts in 1638.

A matter of the heart, not the head

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By Swampyank at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18002690

As I walked the dusty streets of Plimoth, Massachusetts, Samuel Fuller fell into step beside me. “The church hierarchy in England says that we are not a legitimate church, because we have no ministers. A church is made up of Christian people; they don’t even have a church. Who made them ministers and bishops?”

On my father’s side I am descended from English Puritans who arrived in Massachusetts in 1638, just 18 years after the Mayflower. We have attended two family reunions in Massachusetts and each time we have gone to Plymouth to visit the historical reconstructions. Plimoth Plantation is a reconstruction of the village established by those who came on the Mayflower, as it would have been seven years after they arrived. The people who populate the village speak in the accents of the areas in England where the character they are playing originated from. They are very thoroughly trained and absolutely unaware of anything that has happened since 1627.

Samuel Fuller was the colony’s doctor and deacon, the only spiritual leader the church at Plimoth had in its early days. I wondered if the convictions he expressed with seeming sincerity came off along with the costume at the end of the day, or if they went deeper At a family supper that evening I had an opportunity to ask a cousin  who also played a character at Plimoth Plantation. She hesitated just a bit, then said “I think he has it in his head, but not in his heart.”

The two statements I have quoted hit the nail on the head. A Christian church must be made up of Christian people. That means people who have the truth in their heart, not only in their head.

That explains why my wife and I went from church to church during the first few years of our marriage. We met many fine people, we would be happy to call them friends today. But something didn’t seem right; it was never clear to us how many of them might actually have a relationship with the Shepherd. They all claimed to be following the Shepherd, but it often seemed like they wee receiving direction for their lives from other sources and there did not seem to be a closeness, a genuine trust and fellowship among the members.

We have been members of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite for 41 years. We are not better people than the people in all those other churches we used to visit. We don’t all see things exactly the same way, we don’t always do things just right. But I believe that we all know the Shepherd and that allows us to trust one another. When problems and misunderstandings arise, and they do, we trust the Shepherd to help us sort things out, and He does.

That is what we were missing in all those other churches, that is what kept us searching, even though we might not have been able to put into words just what we were looking for. I believe the Shepherd was leading us, telling us that He had something better planned for us.

Jesus, speaking of Himself as the Good Shepherd, said: “And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers.” John 10:4-5.

An abiding church

“Reader, understand what I mean; we do not dispute about whether or not there are some of the chosen one’s of God, in the before mentioned churches; for this we, at all times, humbly leave to the just and gracious judgment of God, hoping there may be many thousands who are unknown to us, as they were to holy Elijah; but our dispute is, in regard to what kind of Spirit, doctrine, sacraments, ordinances and life, Christ has commanded us to gather unto him an abiding church, and how we should maintain it in his ways. ” – Menno Simons, 1554

This statement reveals a fundamental difference between the historic position of the Anabaptist/Mennonite faith and other faith traditions. We are concerned that the faith be transmitted unchanged in spirit and life from one place to another and from one generation to following generations. Granted, there are Mennonite denominations which have majored in preserving cultural traditions to the detriment of genuine faith. This is a departure from the faith.

As I look at other denominations, the change and decline of their faith during my lifetime is something that, if it had been foretold 50 or 60 years ago, I would not have believed possible. Even the Anglican Church of today bears faint resemblance to the Anglican Church of which I was a member in my youth.

It has been ever thus. My paternal ancestors were English Puritans who in 1638 removed to Massachusetts in search of religious liberty. When churches were established in the towns of Massachusetts, membership was restricted to those who could tell of an experience where the Lord forgave their sins and spoke peace to their hearts. Feeling assured that God would bless their commitment by leading their children to the same salvation, they continued to have their babies baptized.

Alas, the Christian experience is not automatically transmitted from one generation to the next. The majority of those children did not get converted. In 1662, a Synod of the New England Congregational churches enacted a new policy. Those who had been baptized in infancy but had not come to a personal experience of saving faith were members and could have their own children baptized, as long as they professed the doctrines of Christianity and lived a life free from scandal. However, they would henceforth not have the right to vote in church affairs, nor to take part in the Lord’s Supper. This is known as the Halfway Covenant.

A few years later, John Stoddard began to admit all members to communion in his church, considering the sacrament  a means by which the grace of God was extended to mankind and arguing that it was not right to refuse the means of grace to those who were most in need of it. Despite opposition from the Cottons and Mathers, this position spread to other churches and by 1700 all Congregational churches practiced open communion, making no distinction between the converted and unconverted.

The New England Congregationalists had now come full circle to the position of the Church of England that their fathers had felt the need to flee. Then in 1748 Jonathan Edwards, Stoddard’s grandson and his successor in the pulpit at Northampton, Massachusetts, announced that he could not admit members to communion without evidence of saving grace.

This was the beginning of the Great Awakening which revitalized New England Christianity. In later years, others opted for Unitarianism or just abandoned any pretense of Christian faith. And the circle goes round and round.

This is the merry-go-round that Menno wanted to avoid. And so do we in our day. Our desire is for an abiding church where the true faith will be taught and lived by our grandchildren, and their grandchildren.

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