Confession: I’m a terrible study of history. I was never good at it, and I often found it boring.
But I love Sarah Vowell’s history books, and one of my favorites is
The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell.
I highly recommend the audiobook, unless you can’t stand her voice (there are samples on the web page) which I don’t understand because I think it’s adorable but I know some people don’t like it.
Anyway… here’s a section of the book I really liked (emphasis added):
Here we arrive at the reason why this here tale of American Puritans is more concerned with the ones shipping off from Southampton for Massachusetts in the Arbella in 1630 than with the Pilgrims who sailed from Southampton toward Plymouth on the Mayflower in 1620: because the Plymouth colonists were Separatists and the Massachusetts Bay colonists were not.
Before I explain that, I will say that the theological differences between the Puritans on the Mayflower and the Puritans on the Arbella are beyond small.
Try negligible to the point of nitpicky.
I will also say that readers who squirm at microscopic theological differences might be unsuited to read a book about seventeenth-century Christians. Or, for that matter, a newspaper.
Secular readers who marvel every morning at the death toll in the Middle East ticking ever higher due to, say, the seemingly trifling Sunni-versus-Shia rift in Islam, might look deep into their own hearts and identify their own semantic lines in the sand. For instance, a devotion to The Godfather Part II and equally intense disdain for The Godfather Part III. Someday they might find themselves at a bar and realize they are friends with a woman who can’t tell any of the Godfather movies apart and asks if Part II was the one that had “that guy in the boat.” Them’s fightin’ words, right?
Anyway, England, 1630.
Question: Why is the aforementioned John Cotton standing in front of the aforementioned John Winthrop and his shipmates, watering the seeds of American exceptionalism that will, in the twenty-first century, blossom into preemptive war in the name of spreading democracy in the Middle East that temporarily unites even some factions of the aforementioned Sunni and Shia Mus lims, who hate each other’s guts but agree they hate the bully America more?
Answer: Because Henry VIII had a crush on a woman who was not his wife.
In order to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn, Henry had to divorce England from Rome.
When the pope, for some reason, refused to annul the marriage vows Henry made to Catherine more than two decades earlier, Henry rebelled and established himself as the head of the Church of England in 1534.
This was seventeen years after Martin Luther nailed Rome’s abuses by nailing his “95 theses” to a church door in Germany, thereby welcoming in the Protestant Reformation.
In case you didn’t know,
the Church of England was founded because Henry VIII wanted a divorce from his wife.
Which is, perhaps, not the best reason to start a new denomination.
But, hey, it helped lead to the founding of America.
The rest of the book is a great look at how Christians in the USA before the USA was the USA came to this country for religious freedom, and then promptly started persecuting other Christians who did not live up to their standards and follow their understanding of Christianity.
So when people want to say that this country was founded on “Christian principals” I want to say to them “Do you actually know anything about the early years of this country? Because even if you call all of the Founding Fathers ‘Christian’ then you should consider the fact that they decided very purposefully not to establish any version of Christianity as the official religion of the country.
Because they saw that even Christians who came to a new world seeking religious freedom were quick to deny that religious freedom to other Christians because they were a different ‘flavor’ of Christian.
That seems like a lesson that more modern-day Christians should pay attention to. Maybe.