Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Was America Supposed to Be A Christian Nation?

I think most serious American Christians believe that our nation had a special designation from God, or was foreordained, to be a land to be governed on Christian principles. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints--Mormon, if you will-I believe that God blessed this land for the establishment of Christ's Kingdom in the last days, that it was to be a special place for freedom loving and God fearing people to possess, as long as they were righteous. Is that just an afterthought, to give ourselves a purpose and meaning in a troubled world? Why did our ancestors come here? What were the English explorers trying to do in America? Did they do it?

In the one hundred years after Columbus’s discovery of the New World, England found herself falling farther and farther behind its European competitors in the so called mercantilism that was the reigning economic philosophy of the time. England was also realizing that it had a growing unemployment problem. Sixteenth Century Europe was in the throws of Religious unrest, and the newly (relatively so) established Church of England found itself in competition with the Roman Catholic Church and was experiencing its own sub set of religious dissenters. Economic and religious pressures in England were forcing many to cast their eyes to North America for answers to their various problems. History shows that they were successful in accomplishing their aims, but it may also be argued that they were too successful. The English that wished to come to America did not envision the creation of a new separate nation.

England missed her chance of perhaps writing a much different history of the world, when Henry VII chose not to let Columbus sail for England. Instead, the newly formed Kingdom of Spain backed the Italian explorer, and thus launched itself into the forefront of Europe, growing wealthier by the shipload of stolen treasure and goods from its increasing number of American colonies. England watched as many of its seafaring neighbor nations dove into the colonizing fray. As other European countries became richer and England began to fall behind, Englishmen like Gilbert, Ralegh, Harriot, and the Haklyuts (the elder and the younger) began to raise their voices in unison calling for England to colonize as well. Richard Hakluyt (the younger) warned, “all other englishe Trades are growen beggerly or daungerous, especially in all the kinge of Spayne his Domynions, where our men are driven to flinge their Bibles and prayer Bokes into the sea, and to foreweare and renownce their relligion and conscience and consequently theyr obedience to her Majestie.” (Pp.46)

These Englishmen recognized, or at least hoped, that American colonies could supply England and her navies (for defense against Spain and other nations) with cheaper goods and supplies than they could, at that time, obtain through international trade. They understood that buying things that they needed through their competitors only enriched their competitors. North America was covered with virgin forests of great quality that offered materials for ship building that their own diminishing forests could no longer provide. The alternative would be to continue buying lumber and ship masts from Russia and Norway which was more difficult and costlier than a trip across the Atlantic. They also recognized that English products like wool were losing their strength in the European market place. England needed new products and an expanded market place. Its own American colonies would provide access to the new growing fur trade and, if a suitable place could be found for planting, a product for the wine and olive oil markets as well as new cash crops. Richard Hakluyt (the elder) suggested that grapes, olives and sugar cane might thrive in Virginia.

Rapid population growth (it more than doubled) and declining real wages in England between 1500 and 1650 were the cause of much unemployment and social stress during pre-colonial and colonial times. Much speculation arose amongst many of its proponents that American colonization was the answer to the population and employment problem. Englishmen like John Winthrop saw millions of acres of land in North America going to “waste without any improvement…” “Why then,” asks Winthrop, “should we stand hear striveing for places of habitation…?” (Pp.135) The fact that the land was already inhabited was of some concern but proponents rationalized displacing the native inhabitants because of the good things that they might bring to the ‘savages’. Winthrop declares, “We shall come in with the good leave of the natives, who finde benefit already by our neighborhood & learne of us…” (Pp.137) Those Englishmen who might not be able to make a living and raise a family in England would surely be able to in America. John Smith, as others before him, listed “ Carpenters, Masons, Fishers, Fowlers, Gardiners, Husbandmen, Sawyers, Smiths, Spinsters, Taylors, Weavers, and such like,” as necessary laborers in any properly organized colonization effort. (Pp.143) American colonies would supply much needed lands, resources, jobs, and markets for struggling England.

High, if not first, on every list of reasons for England’s proposed colonization of America is to spread the Anglican version of Christianity and compete with the Catholic Church abroad. Richard Hakluyt (the elder) claimed as his first reason for colonizing America was “The glory of God by planting of religion among those infadels.” (Pp.340) Hakluyt, the younger, likewise declared, as his number one reason, “That this westerne discoverie will be greately for the inlargement of the gospell of Christe…” (Pp.46) The continued spreading of the Catholic Church was particularly troublesome for the English at this time. John Winthrop, in his list of reasons, states, “…to rayse a Bulworke against the kingdome of the Antichrist, wich the Jesuites labour to rear up in those parts.” (Pp.134)

Though the English may have stumbled at first, as is shown by their initial difficulties at Roanoke and Jamestown, they were very successful in reaching their goals. Helped by a fortunate naval victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588, the English were virtual masters of the seas. This freedom allowed them to pursue their goals of commerce via American colonization with minimal interference. They were indeed successful in providing employment and land for English subjects. The population of England’s North American colonies, much to the annoyance of the American Indians, was more than 250,000 by 1700 (more than 10 times the population of French and Spanish in North America). Trade in furs was so successful, again much to the displeasure of the Indians, that the beaver (and later the buffalo) were extremely depleted. The American forests were very beneficial to the building up of the great English navy and merchant marine. Although planters in the North American colonies had no success with grapes, olives, and sugar cane, they were, with the help of slave labor from Africa, able to dominate the tobacco trade. The colonies were eventually an economic success.

The English were equally successful, though often by use of force, in converting the Indians to Christianity. However, as colonists began to actually come to America, the religious reasons for colonization seem to shift from primarily doing missionary work to seeking religious toleration. Most significant was the fact that Englishmen were no longer pitted only against the Catholic brand of Christianity. Englishmen came seeking freedom from religious persecution from the Anglican and Catholic Church alike. After arriving, if one was unable to worship as they wished in a particular colony, they were often able to find like-minded worshippers and safety in another colony.

The English colonization of America was very successful. Richard Hakluyt (the elder) stated it very plainly when he wrote “The ends of this voyage are these: 1. To plant Christian religion. 2. To trafficke. 3. To conquer.” (Pp.39) England had accomplished virtually all of its goals. But perhaps, England’s efforts were too successful. Their American colonies, along with their other colonies around the globe, had helped England become the most powerful nation in the world. But, a century and a half after the English began to colonize North America, the Americans, as the colonist eventually became known, would form their own identity and require independence from England. The success of England’s colonization of North America was such that a new nation would be born--a nation that would replace England as the most powerful in the world. And, it became the foremost Christian nation in the world, perhaps the blessed place tha we serious Christians have always believed it to be.

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