Modern America’s Pursuit of Christianity:
Regaining Her Celestial Strength
from A Puritan Letter
by Patrick J. Wilson
What is wrong with American? Is America immutable? Do Her leaders suffer from myopia of history? One may respond with a mundane and liberal perspective, yet one’s answer does not insinuate that individual Americans concur. Sadly, though, the Nation does agree with the liberal perception. Yet in William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, we have a glimpse on how his historical writings epitomize not only Colonial American Literature and History, but also how early Americans believed in a religion and God’s Providence, which both are deficient today. We need to excoriate the pharisaism that swathes Modern America and rejuvenate what Bradford’s America had, and what she has lost today – Her philotheism and Christianity.
What is meant by revitalizing Her philotheism is to bring back specific aspects of Bradford’s world, which we read about in John Robinson’s letter. Of course, it is vital we discuss Bradford and Robinson’s America in context, so readers can attain a deeper sense. Both Bradford and Robinson were Puritans, and they epitomized the essence of the Puritan movement in Colonial America and England. In fact, both men were Separatist and believed The Church of England was corrupt and needed reformed.
However, the Non-Separatists believed the Church needed to be reformed too. But, unlike, Bradford and Robinson, they didn’t believe seceding from the Church was the best answer. Nevertheless, the Separatists’ traveled to The Netherlands, but soon they opted to sail towards a New Beginning, a New World.
Were the Separatists’ apprehensive about their journey? Undoubtedly, they were since many of them left behind the sanctuary of the known for the pursuit of the unknown. Many perished before the sun could kiss their bodies on the outside, but it was their potency to continue their quest that outweighed their fate: “So [we] left that godly and pleasant city (Leyden) which had been [our] resting place near twelve years; but [we] knew [we] were pilgrims” (Bradford, 162).
Indeed, Bradford further states from Book 1, Ch.7 that they “lift up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest county, and quieted their spirits” (162). It should be obvious that Bradford’s mentioning of “their dearest country” does not refer to England: it refers to a celestial country in which their faith and philothesim gives them the optimism they need to trust in God’s Providence. But there’s a problem with Easton’s description!
For us to believe in God’s Providence, we must become believers ourselves. Also, it’s important to note that Puritans closely followed The Five Points of Calvinism, as opposed to The Five Articles of the Arminians. Likewise, they shared Calvin’s belief in double predestination, which clearly separates them from most Christians.
Nonetheless, Bradford nor Robinson did not practice a new religion different from Christians. In fact, they saw themselves as Christians, as we shall see in Robinson’s letter. Yet their views on Christianity were more radical than traditional Christian views. Now, does this mean they were bad Christians? For their love of God was unparallel to most traditional believers of their day. So, one may ask, what does this all mean?
It means a few things: 1) Modern America can learn a great deal from the Puritan movement without becoming a Separatist, Liberal, Non-Separatist, or Republican. 2) Modern America does not need to adopt radical Christian views of yesterday to regain what She once had. John Robinson’s letter clearly states what Colonial America had, and it displays what Modern America has misplaced.
Robinson was a beloved Puritan pastor and writer; however, there is not much information about him. Our introduction to him comes from Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation (Book 1, Ch.7), which is more of a farewell than an introduction. From this brief introduction, Robinson provides to Bradford’s readers two letters: A letter written to Mr. Carver, and a letter written to the Separatists’ before they depart for the New World. We will focus mainly on the latter, for it’s the one that Modern America should take Her advice from if She plans to regain Her celestial strength.
Still, we should promptly look at his letter to John Carver since it sponsors the message to come: “The spirit of a man (sustained by the Spirit of God) will sustain his infirmity; I doubt not so will yours” (163). From this letter, it should be obvious that “the tender love and godly care of a true pastor appears” (163). And Bradford is correct, for Robinson’s letter to his brother-in-law, John Carver, displays both love and faith at the hour of need. The Spirit of God will “guide [those who believe] with His hand”; furthermore, He will “protect [believers] with His wing, and show [us] His salvation in the end. . .” (163-164). Robinson furthers this metaphor in his next letter.
His second and final letter opens like a sermon on paper, as Perry Miller describes, “[t] he Anglican sermon is constructed on a symphonic, [plain-style] scheme of progressively widening vision” (qtd. in Campbell): “Loving and Christian Friends, I do heartily and in the Lord salute you . . .” (164). Besides, Robinson tells his followers “to renew [their] repentance with [their] God” daily (164). He further writes that God will deliver “security and peace. . . . from all evil, whether in life or death,” for those who believe (164).
What Robinson is saying echoes the message from the Gospels: We must accept the Lord’s celestial strength and spirit in order to live a peaceful life on earth and to be welcome into heaven. Furthermore, it is after we have “heavenly peace with God and our own consciences” that we can “provide . . . peace with all men what in us lieth, especially with our associates” (164). Robinson makes a great point here; we must believe in God and have His spirit dwell in our conscience before we can change our America.
Now, “change” has been a key slogan for a key political figure in Modern American politics. But what this political figure has failed to do is to define exactly how his change will help America. What America needs is Her love of God and to believe in the celestial strength of Christianity. Both Bradford and Robinson lived and died for their pursuit of Christianity. Should we not do the same?
Modern America should not change or accept it from a figure that some of us believe is speaking the truth, for John Calvin believed that “simply knowing truths about God did not . . . mean the same thing as knowing God” (qtd. in Campbell). Modern America will change once she finds her spiritual strength and conscience again. Until then, it is up to us to leave behind the sanctuary of the known for the pursuit of Christianity – even if it’s – one day, one Christian, and one journey at a time.
Baym, Nina, ed. “William Bradford Of Plymouth Plantation.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature 6th Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2003.
Campbell, Donna M. “Calvinism in New England Puritan Culture.” Literary Movements. Date of publication: 5/21/07: http://www.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/litfram.html
Easton, Matthew George. M.A., D.D., “Definition for ‘Providence’ Eastons Bible Dictionary”. bible-history.com – Eastons; 1897.
Miller, Perry. The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1954.