Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Morning Thanks--the Puritans*


Just exactly what Mencken said, I suppose, doesn't matter because his intent was clear--he wanted to besmirch the reputation of both those Calvinist pilgrims and puritans, those who, in many ways, were the founders of this nation. My favorite version of his famous indictment is this one: "Puritanism is the fear that someone, somewhere, might be having a good time."

Without a doubt, it catches something of terrifying sobriety of a man like Austin Dickinson, Emily's deadly serious brother, who, like his father, likely never told a joke. And yet, this super sober man had sufficient temerity to carry on an extra-marital affair for years, using his sister's house as a love nest, while attending church, well, religiously.

But Mencken meant that cutting definition to describe the uptight gang of Massachusetts pioneers who'd put up a church no more than an hour after putting up an outhouse, a people whose precious Christian faith was, in fact, the most significant cause for their being here--the wilds of North America--in the first place.

Today, the Writer's Almanac claims, is the anniversary of their departure from ye olde country, the day William Bradford and his Brownists climbed aboard the Mayflower for a 65-day trip to the other side of the Atlantic, neither a pleasure cruise, nor a Love Boat.

We're stuck with them, as Mencken's quote suggests. They're there in our history--for loud mouths like Mencken to ridicule, for true believers like Pat Robertson to deify. They're indelible in our history, in great part, because they did what hadn't been done: they created a society and a culture, even a nation. Right there at our inception, for better or for worse, stands a stiff-collared Calvinism as undeniable as it is intractible.

They were much greater than Mencken would have us believe, and I, for one, am thankful that this nation has folks like Bradford and Winthrop in its museums, their words in its history. We'd be a wholly different nation if England had merely used the new world as a garbage dump. Here's something people don't talk much about: in 1640, among the pilgrims and puritans of New England there were more educated folks per capita than there was in London. They were, after all, "People of the Book."

Intolerant?--yes. Self-righteous?--don't I wish it weren't so. Dour?--probably. Deadly serious?--maybe even to a fault. And if I were Native American, I likely wouldn't be saying what I am right now, because without a doubt the saints were sinners.

But they liked their beer. And they dug in, and they stayed; they created a culture, when many others palefaces did not. They believed, in a sometimes too bellicose way, in their God and his call and their mission.

To talk about this nation being somehow Christian is not only silly but dangerous. But that doesn't mean that I can't rejoice and give thanks this morning for a chapter of American history that doesn't get good press.

Half their folks died in their first Massachusetts winter, and it's arguable that they wouldn't have made it all without the gracious help of what they called "savages."

For all of that and despite all their excesses and their failures, this morning, just thinking of them leaving so much that was precious and dear behind as they set sail, I'm thankful for their deep and abiding faith and the gift that faith has been to the culture of which I am a part.
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*This post was written in November, 2010, long enough ago for anyone who might have read it to have certainly forgotten.  I'm out of town.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If you were a "Native American" what would you say?